UVA’s Troubled Campus Culture

James Ceaser recently became the first UVA professor to publicly speak out regarding the deeply unhealthy climate on his campus, exposed by the publication of the now-discredited Rolling Stone article alleging multiple gang rapes at the school. (The sole source for each of these allegations appears to have been “Jackie.”) Ceaser lamented how few people on campus appeared to care about the truth, and instead bowed to the passions of the mob. Events on campus have suggested, Ceaser perceptively observed, that “far from being an end in itself, the truth on our college campuses is now treated as a mere instrument of combat. It is wielded with feigned righteousness when it promotes a preferred cause and then abandoned when it produces the opposite result. In the end, this is the sad message that universities now convey.”

Over the last several weeks, Ceaser has been a voice in the Charlottesville wilderness. The actions of President Teresa Sullivan’s administration—joined by an array of professors and, most disturbingly, by the student newspaper—have provided an almost textbook example ofa campus culture gone awry, with a massive rush to judgment compounded by an inability to admit error.

Close followers of higher education doubtless will recall the last time that Sullivan was in the news—in 2012, when the Virginian Board of Visitors unsuccessfully attempted to remove her as president. Based on what we’ve seen over the past month, the Board’s initial judgment regarding Sullivan was absolutely correct.

Even Duke’s Richard Brodhead (most of the time) tossed in throwaway lines about the presumption of innocence during the lacrosse case. Sullivan, on the other hand, appears to have blindly accepted Sabrina Erdely’s fantastical portrayal of UVA without as much as a second thought. Upon publication of the Rolling Stone article, Sullivan suspended not merely Erdely’s target (Phi Kappa Psi), but—absent any explanation—all fraternities at the university. Sullivan hasn’t explained why she thought that collective punishment was appropriate in this situation, especially since it does not appear as if anyone in her administration performed any fact-checking of Erdely’s work. Sullivan took this action, we now know, based largely on the claims of Jackie, a UVA student who appears to have been involved in a catfishing scheme in which she plagiarized lines from the teen drama Dawson’s Creekto her intended paramour.

Incredibly, even when the version of events presented by Erdely and Jackie collapsed, Sullivan didn’t backtrack. She maintained the suspension of all fraternities, even though there appeared to be no rationale for the draconian move. (Some students and alumni signed a petition demanding Sullivan’s dismissal for this arbitrary action, but most seemed supportive or afraid to challenge the president.) Sullivan refused to apologize for implying that some of her own university’s students were an “evil” that lurked on her campus. She stood by her apology to Jackie and the student’s parents for the “type of conduct” that Jackie experienced, even though at this stage we don’t know if Jackie received any poor treatment from a UVA student. She promised to lead—“We have a problem, and we are going to get after it”—as if a “problem” could be identified, much less solved, without knowing all (or any) of the facts. Based on her public actions and remarks, it appears as if Sullivan might still believe that Erdely’s article is accurate.

The lesson sent to students by the leader of one of the nation’s finest universities: It’s OK to accept as true a story presented by a single source, and then take significant action based on what this single source said, provided that the single source conforms to the president’s ideological preconceptions.

That message has been clearly received. In perhaps the single most shocking item (of the many shocking items) published on the UVA affair, the assistant managing editor of the UVA student newspaper defended the paper’s rather one-sided coverage of the case. Julia Horowitz said that she believed Jackie’s story because it “rang true,” and because Erdely’s article “struck a chord” in her. Horowitz admitted that Erdely seemed to have made factual errors, but apparently didn’t see her role—as a student journalist—as seeking the truth. Instead, as Jackie’s story collapsed, Horowitz worried about letting “fact checking define the narrative.”

Sabrina Erdely couldn’t have said it better herself.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

18 thoughts on “UVA’s Troubled Campus Culture

  1. To believe the Rolling Stone article means that you must believe the following: that seven 19 year-old boys at UVA were capable of gang raping an 18-year-old classmate while she’s lying naked on shards of broken class. The presumption behind the larger campus sexual assault movement is that America’s young men are capable of gang raping their classmates. This is why such a story “rings true” to Julia Horowitz, the media, and the whole feminist-academic establishment. It means assuming that these young men, and thousands more, are EVIL. Many young men in college may be stupid, but are we now really saying that they’re evil, that most of them are capable of gang raping their classmates?

  2. I don’t know what’s worse, journalism students who don’t believe in reporting and fact-checking, or law students like Zerlina Maxwell who don’t believe in presumption of innocence.

  3. I’d go even further than K.C. Johnson on this. To wit:

    “The lesson sent to students by the leader of one of the nation’s finest universities: It’s OK to accept as true a story presented by a single source, take significant action based on what this single source said, AND THEN STEADFASTLY REFUSE TO ACCEPT (OR EVEN ACKNOWLEDGE) A MOUNTAIN OF EVIDENCE THAT YOUR SINGLE SOURCE WAS LYING. CONTINUE MAKING WATERTIGHT / EVIDENCE-PROOF DENIALS, NO MATTER HOW ABSURD YOUR POSITION BECOMES.”

    I hope that accused student sues UVA and literally BANKRUPTS them. The colleges are clearly running scared of the OCR and taking the “path of least resistance.”

    It’s time for the forces of truth and due process to add some “resistance” to the other side of the scale. If I was on the jury for a civil suit against UVA, I would literally award the accused student 100 billion dollars in punitive damages.

    Not a penny less.

  4. Sullivan refused to apologize for implying that some of her own university’s students were an “evil” that lurked on her campus.

    Maybe she meant the campus hysterics.

    Question: Did Richard Brodhead ever consider canceling the woman’s basketball season because of the Duke hoax? What’s the difference?

  5. The student editor perfectly exhibits the end point of 60 years of Leftist domination of academia–truth does not exist, there are many “truths,” the entire point of activity is to form a narrative which advances the multiculti, feminist party line.

  6. Stay tuned as there may be more on the way. …the 2015 Sundance Film Festival has announced the premiere of this documentary:

    “The Hunting Ground” (Director: Kirby Dick) — From the makers of “The Invisible War” comes a startling expose of rape crimes on U.S. campuses, their institutional cover-ups, and brutal social toll. Weaving together verite footage and first-person testimonies, the film follows survivors as they pursue their education and justice — despite harsh retaliation, harassment, and pushback.

    Source: http://variety.com/2014/film/news/sundance-film-festival-announces-2015-premieres-lineup-1201373535/

  7. I don’t know if Sullivan naively believes the story, or if there is something much darker regarding her involvement. What did Sullivan know and when did she know it?

  8. As a new graduate student at UVA in the early 1970’s, I was astounded to learn of and observe the inner workings of the hallmark of the university, the Honor System. It was taken seriously by students and faculty alike and fostered an academic experience like no other. Clearly, the foundation of honesty is truth. What in the world has transpired at my beloved university in the intervening 38 years? Answer: it has become just another collection of narratives and of the monolithic thinking that nourishes them. Volumes upon volumes of the alumni magazine have extolled the virtues of multiculturalism and how the university has toiled at achieving such amongst faculty and student body alike – it is good and that is the narrative. But the truth is, without taking the diverse hues of distinct cultures and weaving them into an elegant, rich tapestry, we are left with a collection of frayed ends, often at odds with one another and the antithesis of unity. But never mind – there is the narrative. And now, a collectivist thinking has Mr. Jefferson’s university plowing into a new narrative, the campus rape epidemic and the purveyors of this plague – the fraternity system. The truth is … oh well, forget the truth and forget honor, we have our narrative. It’s a shame, really.

  9. Is it possible that Sullivan is just trying to run out the clock until winter break? The activist community is not likely to support any conciliatory moves by the President to the Greek community, so might as well let everyone go home for Christmas and then quietly either lift the suspension or just let it run its course and expire.

  10. As you state, UVA’s intellectual and moral leadership is in free-fall. Where are Sullivan’s peers? We hear only the sound of crickets. They’ve taken legal advice. They are not leaders but caretakers, herding customers through the park, protecting the endowment. Why jeopardize their Federal funding or be found worthy of investigation by DoJ? Why invite a “spontaneous demonstration” by the brownshirts of campus activism?

    Not with a bang, but a whimper.

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