Op-Ed, Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 28, 2014

Professor Robert F. Turner has taught at the University of Virginia for more than 25 years. His son, Thomas E. Turner, is a third-year student in U-VA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.


One of us has taught at the University of Virginia for more than 25 years; the other, his son, is a third-year (junior) U-VA student. We both love the university dearly, and when we heard that a member of our community of trust had been savagely gang-raped by other members (associated with a fraternity), we were shocked and angered.

Our first response was to seek to learn the facts. We independently read the Rolling Stone article (“A Rape on Campus,” Nov. 19), which we both concluded was filled with details that, to say the least, were implausible. U-VA does not admit idiots, and only a fraternity filled with idiots would establish an initiation ritual requiring pledges to gang-rape fellow students. The crime of rape quite properly can be punished by imprisonment for life in Virginia.

Would anyone be so stupid as to assume that no fraternity brother or pledge had a functioning conscience (or a sister or girlfriend), that no victim of such abuse would complain or mention it to others who might report it, and thus authorities could never learn of their crimes?

Would several fellow students respond to learning of this brutal assault by seven men upon their bruised and bloodied friend by cautioning that, if it were reported to authorities, they might “never be allowed into any frat party again” – presumably to be subjected to similar abuse? The story just didn’t pass the “straight-face test,” and we were confident that – whatever might have actually happened on Sept. 28, 2012 – an investigation would show the story was so filled with errors as to lack credibility absent corroboration.

Lest we be misunderstood, it was not our conclusion that “Jackie” was not horribly abused sexually on the date in question. We had no way of knowing the truth. Our only conclusion was that the Rolling Stone story by itself was likely highly flawed.

Three days later, however, U-VA President Teresa Sullivan sent an email to the university community declaring “We can demand that incidents like those described in Rolling Stone never happen” and announced she was immediately “suspending all fraternal organizations and associated social activities until January…” We were, once again, shocked.

Did U-VA learn nothing from the 2006 Duke lacrosse team scandal, where – reportedly under strong pressure from prejudiced faculty members anxious to make an example of “privileged” athletes – on the sole basis of an allegation of rape, the lacrosse coach was fired and the team’s schedule for the rest of the season canceled? When the accuser admitted she fabricated the allegation, Duke reportedly paid close to $100 million dollars for legal and PR expenses and to settle various lawsuits.

More fundamentally, what message did Sullivan send about basic fairness and the due process of law? Neither of us has any connection with the Greek system, and we understand that they are not popular with some faculty members and administrators. But it is precisely when the alleged crime is so heinous, and the accused unpopular with those in authority, that we must guard against emotion-driven efforts to bypass fundamental due process. Books like “The Ox Bow Incident” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” are so highly acclaimed because they remind us of that important principle.

Neither of us has ever spoken personally with Sullivan, but we have observed her – and, until this incident, we were tremendously impressed with her talents, leadership and obvious devotion to our university. We share her view that even one act of sexual abuse is too many, and we understand that her decision to punish all fraternities was made under pressure from outraged faculty and other community members. But that’s no excuse.

For Rolling Stone to publish such horrendous allegations without even attempting to contact the accused or other students libeled in the article is outrageous.

To deter future journalistic misconduct, we hope the victims of their libels (including the university) will speak with their lawyers about seeking justice from Rolling Stone and its author.

This tragic matter obviously should not affect the university’s desire to prevent sexual abuse. But, hopefully, it will remind us that even disfavored organizations and individuals are entitled to fundamental due process of law.

Whatever the victims of this injustice decide, we believe the university owes those wrongfully punished a public apology.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: