Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act E-Mails

FOIA requests from several reporters prompted the release of numerous e-mails between various UVA officials and Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Erdely and fact-checker Elizabeth Garber-Paul. A few items that we learned:

Erdely and UVA Employees

The e-mails show that UVA wanted to control its message by not allowing Erdely to interview lower-level administrators. As a result, she appears to have had on-the-record discussions with only three University of Virginia employees: President Teresa Sullivan, a public relations official, and victims’ rights advocate Emily Renda, who works as a “project coordinator” for the UVA’s vice president for student affairs.

In the e-mails, Erdely describes Renda as a “survivor, activist, and mentor/support for Jackie,” and confirms Renda’s role in facilitating publication of the article. The questions, as a result, are obvious: why was Renda, apparently alone among Sullivan’s subordinates, allowed to speak on the record with Erdely? At Sullivan’s UVA, do self-styled victims’ rights advocates operate under special rules? Why is someone who helped bring about what the chairman of the UVA’s board of visitors recently termed “drive-by journalism” against the school still drawing a paycheck from UVA?

Erdely’s Ideological Biases

Erdely told a UVA dean that she was “writing an article about rape/rape culture on college campuses”—suggesting that she came into her work accepting the absurd premise that a “rape culture” exists at universities. As Robby Soave has pointed out, the fact-checking process (overseen by a Rolling Stone employee who cited her work at The Nation as providing her training in fact-checking) provided zero evidence that anyone at Rolling Stone ever attempted to confirm that “Drew” (the alleged ringleader of the alleged gang rape that Jackie allegedly experienced) was even a student at UVA.

Moreover, UVA officials told both Erdely and Garber-Paul that Erdely’s claim that a student had raped three separate UVA female students was “objectively false.” But, as Erik Wemple noted in the Washington Post, the claim nonetheless seems to have made it into Erdely’s article.

Due Process

A final Intriguing point: in e-mails to Erdely, UVA’s public relations spokesperson confirmed that the university’s definition of rape “may not rise to a criminal standard.” Virginia is the rule rather than the exception in this regard; most colleges (Yale is another prominent example) broaden the definition, reflecting a campus ideological environment that’s extreme on issues relating to gender.

Yet the vast majority of people (both on campus and off) doubtless understand the phrase “rape or sexual assault” as the concept is defined in criminal law. So a student convicted through UVA procedures can be deemed a “rapist” for offenses that do not rise to the “criminal standard” of rape.

How a university that finds a way to define the offense of rape excessively broadly, to appease campus “activists,” can simultaneously be suffering from a “rape culture” is a conundrum that didn’t interest Erdely.


  • 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.

3 thoughts on “Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act E-Mails

  1. KC,
    It’s appalling-but not surprising-thatthe desire to ‘protect the narrative’ is more important than facts.Still,the complicity if the allies is disturbing. I think I’ve mentioned the similarity of John Curtis during the Lindberg baby kidnapping. Like Jackie,he lied for some psychological imperative ,was exposed and carried a stigma because of it.
    I think people have been extraordinarily kind to jackie. She is kind of regarded as a “Silent but Deadly’ fart which people of good breeding aren’t acknowledging.I think this will end as the legal proceedings begin.
    One of the puzzles to me-perhaps the main one is Pres Sullivan’s response.Certainly,there have been worse examples of inspired stupidity. (Recall gen Mac Arthur kept planes grounded at Clark Field the day after Pearl Harbor.)
    Still,if Sullivan planned on destroying U VA and helping a potential law suit,she couldn’t have done better.
    A point I’d like you to address.I feel Sullivan feels a loyalty and a need to cater to her political base;any attempt that runs counter to this makes her job unstable. I remember your quote of a female prof at Duke,who became aware of the ludicrusness of CM.s charges ,responding(sic) ,”Given the state of the university and my friends/communiy, I really can’t challenge this.” IS this an isolated opinion,or is the Emperor’s
    nakedness sacrosanct
    Good luck on your exams

  2. I think we are seeing the planning stages for what essentially was a Reichstag Fire at UVA, except the Reichstag actually did burn. As I see it, this whole affair raises serious questions about the intentions of Teresa Sullivan.

    She apparently was willing to have a journalist portray her university in a false light (as promoting “rape culture”) and also kept her from having to talk to sources that would set the record straight and actually provide factual material. Furthermore, as you pointed out, no one at the university seemed curious as to whether or not some of these people actually existed.

    So, why would a college president do this? I don’t think that Sullivan was blindsided or even upset that Erdely pretty much lied. Instead, she seemed miffed that the possibility that her agenda could be sidelined because the story that led her to establish an agenda turned out to be fiction.

    Why does she even have a job? Is this what the trustees at UVA really want? Do they want a president who clearly acts in a manner that is HARMFUL to her employer? Do they want a president who essentially is claiming that the atmosphere for female students at her university is similar to the atmosphere for women in the war-torn Congo, where soldiers and rebels rape women for the sake of creating sheer terror?

    These are not irrelevant questions. If the trustees at UVA are willing to keep someone this destructive in the top spot at UVA, then maybe they just need to close shop and turn the place into a museum.

  3. In reading through the emails linked in your post, KC, I noticed that only a handful, relatively late in the process (October 27, 2014), were to or from Emily Renda. Yet it was clear from the content and tone of those emails that Sabrina Erdeley and Emily Renda had had meaningful prior communications.

    I wonder if FOIA requests have been scoped specifically on Ms. Renda’s emails and, in light of Ms. Renda’s testimony to the McCaskill Committee earlier this year, if FOIA requests have been scoped to include communications between Ms. Renda and US Senate staff as well as communications between Ms. Renda and anyone in the press.

    Finally, I note that after the Rolling Stone retraction, Rachel Martin of NPR interviewed Ms. Renda for broadcast. This is further evidence that the rules regarding press access to employees of UVA seem to have been relaxed for Ms. Renda.

    Under the circumstances of Ms. Renda’s involvement in presenting Jackie’s story both to the US Senate Committee via testimony and to the press, the Rector’s attempt to lay the blame entirely at the feet of “drive-by journalism” would seem to miss a clear basis for self-examination by UVA.

    Great work.

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