Guest Commentary

Opinion: Time To Get Real About Sexual Assault At UConn

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Despite its legions of administrators with six-figure salaries, the University of Connecticut could not have handled the recent controversy about sexual assault among students worse than it did.

First UConn President Susan Herbst responded with mere indignation to a complaint by a group of students to the federal government that the university was indifferent to accusations of sexual assault. Herbst seemed to be purporting to know that all accusations had been handled properly by the university when the university had not yet reviewed the cases at issue.

And then for days the university could not answer plainly whether all complaints of sexual assault brought to university administrators are also presented to the police for investigation.

It took a hearing last week by the General Assembly's Higher Education Committee to clear things up. Yes, university officials said at last, all sexual assault accusations brought to administrators are shared with the police but the police investigate only if the accusers want them to – and many don't. As a result some accusations are handled only as possible violations of the university's student disciplinary code.

So a few tentative conclusions now may be drawn:

• If there is a problem here, it is not one of policy and legislation but one of how specific cases were handled — administrative competence.

• No judgment on the university's performance can be made without investigating the particular cases complained about. Presumably that will be done by the U.S. Education Department, to which the students have complained, and federal court, where some of them have brought suit against UConn. The university would do well to conduct and report about its own review first.

• President Herbst should have skipped the indignation and responded to the complaints only with regret, sympathy, and a promise to review specific cases. So much for the politically correct assertion that a woman's touch in administration is always better. Without regard to gender, arrogance afflicts all government bureaucracy and academia and particularly Connecticut's imperial university, which considers itself bigger than state government.

• And realism should start trumping political correctness here.

The complainants, represented by celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred, rely on political correctness by suggesting that all accusations of sexual assault are valid and that criminal or administrative adjudication necessarily fails when there is no finding of guilt. In fact, of course, nearly all sexual assault complaints at UConn and other colleges involve acquaintances — date rape — and thus are especially difficult to prove, relying on the credibility of the parties, which is often complicated by crushed romantic hopes. Some accusers are always going to be disappointed and disbelieved even by the most conscientious investigator.

Indeed, that many accusers at UConn choose against a police investigation and in favor of a student disciplinary investigation, a process requiring less due process of law and evidence, signifies as much — signifies a preference for private rather than public justice, thus sparing accusers the embarrassment of publicity and the burden of accountability.

But Herbst couldn't be more politically correct herself. "As long as there is a single sexual assault at any of our campuses, our work is not complete," she told UConn's feckless Board of Trustees last week, as if there won't always be sexual assault when the predatory instincts of young men collide with the emotional vulnerability and credulity of young women.

No laws or university policies will ever be as effective as teaching young women how to protect themselves against predators. While this may be denounced as "blaming the victim," it is just another form of self-defense, like karate, pepper spray, and pistols — and far more effective than an overworked criminal prosecutor.•

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