CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the weeks before Rolling Stone magazine published a sensational article about sexual assault at the University of Virginia in November 2014, Dean of Students Allen Groves wrote a message to high-ranking administrators questioning the magazine’s bias.
“In my opinion, Rolling Stone has not been objective in recent years,” Groves wrote, noting that it “leads me to believe this is a hatchet job.”
Groves testified this week in federal court as part of a $7.5 million defamation lawsuit filed by former U-Va. dean Nicole Eramo against Rolling Stone, claiming that the article portrayed her as callous and indifferent to sexual assaults on campus. The magazine later retracted the article after the Columbia University Journalism School wrote a report outlining its significant flaws.
Groves’ inclination that the administration should be cautious dealing with the magazine proved prescient. But Eramo, the dean responsible for overseeing the university’s sexual assault cases, had written messages separately indicating at the time that she was eager to participate in an interview with the Rolling Stone journalist who reported and wrote the story, Sabrina Rubin Erdely.
“I’m afraid it may look like we are trying to hide something for me not to speak with her,” Eramo wrote.
The U-Va. administration ultimately declined Rolling Stone’s requests to speak to Groves, Eramo and Claire Kaplan, the director of the campus Women’s Center. Rolling Stone did interview U-Va. president Teresa Sullivan, but her answer to several of Erdely’s detailed questions was: “I don’t know.”
While Rolling Stone was pursuing its later-discredited story, the U-Va. administration considered an alternative: a proposed article to be published in the university’s alumni magazine about how the school handles sex assaults on campus. The alumni association, which operates the publication independently of the university, commissioned a freelance writer to examine the administration’s sex assault prevention policies and practices.
The freelance writer interviewed Sullivan, Groves, Eramo, Kaplan and other U-Va. staffers and students. And when the alumni magazine received a draft, the publication sent a copy to Groves for review. He sent back “suggested edits,” Groves testified Wednesday.
The deeply reported alumni magazine article spanned several thousand words and explored student perspectives about sex assault prevention efforts.
“At U-Va. in particular, the following questions are echoing louder and louder across Grounds: Why is it that no student has been expelled for rape in modern University history? Why is sexual assault not part of the University’s revered Honor Code?” the article read. “And in the wake of U-Va. second-year Hannah Graham’s death in September, what are administrators doing to keep students safe?”
Along with Groves, other top U-Va. administrators also expressed deep concerns about the proposed draft.
“If this is a MUST DO it needs to be substantially revised,” wrote Susan Davis, who served at the time as associate vice president for student affairs, expressing concerns that the article made it appear as if U-Va. was shirking the federal anti-sex discrimination law. “This reads as if we are not compliant with Title IX, even though we are.”
In an email chain entered into evidence on Wednesday that also included university vice president Patricia Lampkin, Groves wrote in response to Davis that “if it is to be killed or modified” that administrators had to act fast within the alumni magazine’s deadline.
Davis wrote back: “I vote to kill it.”
The article never ran.
A U-Va. spokesman said Thursday that the university does not comment on pending litigation, even if they are not a party to it, and declined to make Davis available for an interview.
Tom Faulders, president of the U-Va. alumni association and publisher of its magazine, acknowledged in an interview that the U-Va. administrators’ concerns significantly influenced the decision to jettison the freelance article. He added that the article the magazine had commissioned did not meet the editors’ original expectations.
“The freelancer went out on her own and interviewed a lot of people and came back with a very different story,” Faulders said. “It was too much of a mess to clean up in the time frame that we had.”
Faulders said that the magazine decided to send the article to the administration for pre-publication review to examine its scope. Faulders said the magazine killed the story in part because there were “quotes we couldn’t verify and facts we couldn’t verify,” and he stands by the decision two years later.
“We probably did what Rolling Stone should have done,” Faulders said. “If you can’t validate the facts, don’t run it.”
Erdely’s account explored many of the same themes as the draft alumni magazine article, including the university’s adjudication process that allowed sex assault survivors to choose whether to pursue action against their alleged perpetrators.
In Sept. 2015, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights later ruled that U-Va. had violated Title IX for failing to properly investigate 22 allegations of sexual assault between 2008 and 2012. Sullivan told The Washington Post that all 22 of those cases involved students who chose not to file official complaints or follow up with an informal resolution option.
Testifying Wednesday, Groves said that he did not agree with the Education Department’s findings. Groves also was asked whether he agrees with his original assessment of the Rolling Stone article.
“Yes,” Groves said. “I think it was a hatchet job.”