What's Wrong With Our University Presidents?

Teresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia, said all the right things when fraternity members at her school were accused of gang rape: she followed the PC playbook and nobody could fault her for missing her lines. She automatically assumed guilt, and was fast off the mark to let everyone know that the university opposed rape and stood with rape survivors (as if that was ever in doubt).

She didn't wait for the facts, she dropped the presumption of innocence, and ran with the hounds.

The wrongs described in Rolling Stone are appalling and have caused all of us to reexamine our responsibility to this community. Rape is an abhorrent crime that has no place in the world...

When the accusations turned out to be false, she didn't explain ("never apologize, never explain"), and as of this writing she hasn't apologized. She simply blithely continued with the appropriate narrative:

Over the past two weeks, our community has been more focused than ever on one of the most difficult and critical issues facing higher education today: sexual violence on college campuses. Today's news must not alter this.

This was the same course taken by Duke University President Richard Brodhead in 2006, when members of Duke's lacrosse team were falsely accused of gang-rape. The similarities are so striking one has to wonder if there isn't a template for this sort of thing in a Guidebook for University Presidents:

Step one: condemn the alleged crime before the facts are in:

Sullivan :

I write you today in solidarity. I write you in great sorrow, great rage...


We can't be surprised at the outpouring of outrage. Rape is the substitution of raw power for love, brutality for tenderness, and dehumanization for intimacy. It is also the crudest assertion of inequality...

Step two: assume the guilt of the accused:


There are individuals in our community who know what happened that night, and I am calling on them to come forward to the police to report the facts.


I once again urge anyone with information pertinent to the events of March 13 to cooperate with the authorities.

(Yep, they're guilty, those frat boys/team members are just covering for each other -- as though more than 40 young men are all capable of keeping such a hideous secret and not one of them is sweating for a plea deal.)

Step three -- the penultimate in bureaucratic responses: form a committee:


We will assemble groups of students, faculty, alumni, and other concerned parties to discuss our next steps in preventing sexual assault and sexual violence.


I will convene a presidential council to give advice and offer guidance to me and the Board of Trustees. This group will be made up of wise figures from within the university community, from the larger Duke family, from the national higher education community, and from the city of Durham.

Hofstra University President Stuart Rabinowitz after rape claims at Hofstra were proven false:

I will be appointing a Presidential Task Force under the direction of the Vice President for Student Affairs and the Vice President for Facilities and Operations and consisting of representatives from students, faculty and administrators, to undertake a review of all aspects of security...

University presidents love to form study committees -- they embrace them almost with the same glee exhibited by Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland rushing into the barn to form a band: "Let's form a (band) committee". Bureaucracy at its best. But nowhere is there a word about addressing the pertinent issue here: false rape accusations. (Nor, to sharpen the point, a syllable about protecting the actual victims -- the falsely accused. That isn't part of the PC agenda.)

Of course, one presumes that no university president speaks on his own initiative; he has the overseers or trustees to think about; and input from the lawyers and PR flacks. Richard Edelman, head of the Edelman PR firm (later hired to help Duke wade through the swamps of its own making) earlier proffered this advice on how to handle the looming lacrosse scandal:

There had to be a separation of the interests of the accused and those of the university.

Right -- a separation between the alma mater and its students, whom the school is supposed to be nurturing. What if the accused students were innocent?

In an email to senior administrators, Brodhead wrote:

Friends: a difficult question is, how can we support our lacrosse players at a devastatingly hard time without seeming to lend aid and comfort to their version of the story? We can’t do anything to side with them, or even, if they are exonerated, to imply that they behaved with honor. The central admin can't, nor can Athletics.

Not even if they are exonerated? Where was the compass pointing here? Towards truth, justice and the American Way? Or towards fear of a lawsuit, fear of backlash from the local community, and fear of bad PR? (Pontius Pilate had no monopoly on fear of a local backlash.) When Robert K. Steel tried to explain Duke's refusal to defend its students, the then-Duke Board Chair philosophized, "Sometimes individuals have to suffer for the good of the organization."

The only university president who to my knowledge came near to fulfilling the moral responsibilities of her office, was Donna Shalala, responding to public criticism after members of the University of Miami football team got into a fight:

I believe that the young men we have recruited for our football team are young men of great character, but they did a very bad thing...

But we will not throw any student under the bus for instant restoration of our image or our reputation. I will not hang them in a public square. I will not eliminate their participation at the university...

It's time for the feeding frenzy to stop. These young men made a stupid, terrible, horrible mistake and they are being punished. They are students, and we are an educational institution and we will act like an educational institution, not like a PR machine trying to spin and restore an image that we worked so hard to put in place...

I just want everyone to remember what kind of institution we are and that we have standards and goals and that we are in the business of fulfilling young people's dreams. We are not going to run away from that or from that responsibility.

Will we hear Teresa Sullivan say that she believes in the young men her university recruited and admitted; that they were innocent; that they have been treated very badly by both the press and the university, and that she apologizes? And that she will not throw them under the bus to appease the gods of PC?

Can we expect Brodhead -- who has never apologized either for the stance his university took nor for his own remarks -- do the same for his students? Will we ever hear from him (but why should we hear it? Will the victims of the lacrosse case -- the falsely accused and the wrongly-fired coach and the rest of the team)  ever hear from him the words Ryan O'Neal managed to croak out to Ali McGraw?

I won't be holding my breath.

Being a university president apparently means never having to say you're sorry.