How to Make the Rolling Stone UVa Nightmare Even Worse

UVa President Sullivan totally missed the implications of the Post reporting and the need, now in the wake of it, to step back and refrain from drawing lessons from an episode that remains shrouded in mystery.

We don’t know yet what really happened with the University of Virginia student who has been called “Jackie” to protect her identity as she accused members of a UVa fraternity of gang-raping her on a particular night in a particular room of the fraternity while a party was going on at the fraternity. This sensational story rocked the Charlottesville campus and stirred powerful feelings around the country when it was related in great detail in Rolling Stone magazine.                  

Eventually, all the facts will be known, and then there will be plenty of opportunity to make judgments about the incident and what it says, if anything, about the problem of rape on college campuses. But, in the meantime, one would be justified in thinking that UVa president Teresa Sullivan has an obligation to take into account the implications, however preliminary, of recent revelations that called into question significant elements of the Rolling Stone story. The state chapter of the fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, says no party took place during the weekend in question, contrary to Jackie’s statements. The fraternity member who was identified by Jackie, though only obliquely in the magazine, as the ringleader of the vicious assault doesn’t seem to exist. Rolling Stone has backed away from the story, noting “discrepancies” and saying it doesn’t have “complete confidence” in its reporting. 

But, in issuing a statement Friday following those revelations, Sullivan ignored every implication of these revelations and sought instead to squeeze ongoing meaning from the original story that now seems to have been discredited.

This isn’t to dispute the view that incidence of rape is a serious problem on American campuses, including the University of Virginia. And no doubt Ms. Sullivan is well equipped to deal with it. One wishes her well in that effort.

But one must ask: Is she rendered so morally obtuse by her cultural preoccupations that she can’t see what kind of an injustice has been perpetrated against her university, against the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and, worst of all, against members of that fraternity who have been stigmatized by the initial allegations? (They weren’t named in the story, and were never contacted by its author, but their identities aren’t difficult to discern for those on campus or who wish to pursue the matter.)

This story will play out in coming weeks, and many questions will be answered that now hover over a number of people and institutions, including:

Rolling Stone magazine, which ran the story without even trying to get reactions from the people it accused (only thinly veiling their identities). These are the kinds of allegations that can destroy peoples’ lives and, if true, justifiably so. Thus, the journalistic nonfeasance here is so egregious as to defy any explanation within the bounds of traditional journalistic standards.

Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who wrote the story after traveling around looking for just the right kind of university to serve her preconceived notions about the problem of rape on U.S. campuses.

And Jackie, who needs to cooperate in all efforts, including law-enforcement efforts, to get to the bottom of this matter. 

This is a big story about journalism, and journalists will have a field day with it. Eventually, we’ll know what really happened.

But in the meantime, why doesn’t Teresa Sullivan seem to care about the defamation of members of a UVa fraternity—her students—based on allegations that may be false? Why doesn’t she care about an institution, the fraternity, that is struggling for survival even before we know the facts in the case? In light of these revelations, mostly a result of hard digging by the Washington Post, why doesn’t Ms. Sullivan caution against reaching conclusions before we know the full story? Why doesn’t she ask her students to stop throwing rocks through the windows of the Phi Psi house at least until we know what really happened? Why doesn’t she rescind her suspension of fraternity activities at least until she knows she was correct to do so in the first place? Most important, why doesn’t she seem concerned about what may be false allegations against her own institution that put it in a horrendous light? Doesn’t she care about its reputation? Doesn’t she feel responsible for what people think about Mr. Jefferson’s University?

Instead, she insists that the news stories raising questions about the Rolling Stone article “must not alter [our] focus” on the issue of sexual violence on college campuses. But she is the president of the university; she can bring whatever focus she thinks is needed to any campus problem, including the problem of sexual violence. She should do so, without relying on reports of outrageous behavior that are under question and may be false.

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