What do contemporary American universities have in common with the Roman Catholic Church? Massive collusions and coverups of systematic sexual assaults and abuse of girls and boys, women and men. We have seen the accumulating evidence, what with high profile cases such as the one of former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University sports physician Larry Nassar who sexually assaulted at least 300 girls and young women. As Sophie Gilbert states in her recent article in The Atlantic, Nassar “did benefit from a culture that closed ranks around him and defended him long after he’d been exposed”—including by officials at Michigan State University. (Sophie Gilbert, “A New Film Reveals How Larry Nassar Benefited From a Culture of Silence,” The Atlantic, May 2, 2019)
But it is not only high profile cases that should outrage us and call for systematic reforms. There is a steady, almost weekly, string of news stories about sexual assaults on our college campuses and the egregious university culture of silence—silence and silencing (and further abuse) of survivors. Such silencing is not, as is often cited as an excuse, to protect the safety and reputations of the survivors and the perpetrators of abuse. Such silencing is first and foremost to protect the reputations of the universities in order to keep those private and corporate donations pouring in. More people need to understand this. More journalists need to call it out.
A recent and close to home sexual assault (and university silencing) was exposed this week by Seattle Times reporter Asia Fields. In her June 12th article, “UW finds star athlete’s sexual assault allegation credible, but athletic executive quietly moved on,” Fields tells of the 2017 sexual assault of Cassandra Strickland, a female University of Washington undergraduate student and volleyball player by UW senior associate athletic director Roy Shick and the university’s handling of the assault investigation. When Shick discovered the university investigation, he resigned and subsequently was hired by Grand Canyon University as vice president of advancement (he has now been fired). The UW internal investigation of the assault found “sufficient evidence to support the finding that Mr. Shick’s behavior amounted to sexual harassment.” But those findings were shared only with “those with the need to know,” which included UW president Ana Marie Cauce, the athletic director, and people in the university’s legal department.
The University of Washington legal department and investigators entered into a quiet settlement with Cassandra Strickland, giving her $20,000 for mental health treatment, but with the stipulation that she “sign a release allowing the university access to her counseling records to check on her participation and progress in treatment.” They also had her sign a waiver of any future claims against the university.
Seattle attorney Rebecca Roe, who has represented clients who were sexual assault survivors at the University of Washington, is quoted as saying, “I find that totally and completely offensive. The Catholic Church used to try to do that.”
The Seattle Times broke this story, resorting to using our Washington State public records laws to obtain the redacted University of Washington internal documents relating to this case. But also, Cassandra Strickland, the strong survivor, was willing to go on record with these powerful words: “My story is not unique. There are hundreds, if not thousands of other girls at other universities, whose stories are being buried to protect the reputation of the schools they attend. It’s a problem, it’s been a problem for far too long and we need to change that.”
Being a University of Washington professor, I am devastated and enraged by what happened to her. I also know it has happened—and likely will continue to happen—to many more of our students. For decades, I worked beside a faculty member widely known to sexually harass and intimidate our female students. Nothing was done except require him to keep his office door open when meeting with female students. I tried to discreetly steer young female students away from working with him—but otherwise, I felt powerless. And I was complicit in a university system that allowed the abuse to continue. No more.
“Know Your Rights: Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault Under Title IX” by the American Association of University Women.
And, from the Seattle Times article: “If you have experienced sexual assault and need support, you can call the 24-hour National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (800-656-4673). There is also an online chat option.
Survivors in King County can call the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center’s 24-hour Resource Line at 888-99-VOICE (888-998-6423) or visit www.kcsarc.org/gethelp.”