University Presidents Respond to Sexual Assault Charges

University presidents are under pressure to respond to charges that they aren't doing enough about sexual assault. Following are two examples: University of Virginia and Lincoln University of Pennsylvania.

University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan wrote a letter after a Rolling Stone article criticized the university's response to a rape in a fraternity. The letter has since become one of many posted on the U.VA's website attempting to address anger and disappointment at Sullivan's response:

"UVA president Teresa Sullivan responded quickly, explaining, rather underwhelmingly, that her administration was 'marshaling all available resources to assist our students who confront issues related to sexual misconduct.' On Wednesday, Sullivan requested an investigation of a campus fraternity specifically mentioned in the original piece. But for many in the UVA community, this isn't enough."  (Slate)

Anger was fueled partly because the university appointed an investigator who is an alumnus of the fraternity.

A Chronicle article examined how Sullivan's second letter differed from her first. In a side-by-side comparison, the author compares Sullivan's defensiveness in the first letter to her acceptance in the second. In the first letter, she uses more "we" language; in the second, she seems to take more personal responsibility by using "I" more often. In the second letter, she identifies new steps the university is taking immediately. And in the second letter, she uses the term "rape," rather than "sexual assualt," "sexual misconduct," and "sexual violence." In later messages, she refers to "gang rape."

In related news, Lincoln University of Pennsylvania President Robert R. Jennings recently resigned when critics couldn't be appeased. During a convocation for female students, Jennings said, among other comments:

"Why am I saying all this, ladies? I'm saying this because, first and foremost, don't put yourself in a situation that would cause you to be trying to explain something that really needs no explanation had you not put yourself in that situation."

Discussion Starters: 

  • What can crisis communicators learn from the U.Va. experience? 
  • Read all of the communications on U.Va.'s web page about sexual assault. What else do you notice about tone and messaging?  
  • What are your thoughts about the former Lincoln University president's comments? Did those who encouraged his resignation do the right thing?