Wake-up Call to Alumnae: Vandy Got Recent Assault Case Right

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Recently, a group of alumna from Vanderbilt University conducted an informal survey using Survey Monkey to gauge student and alumni opinion about sexual assault on campus. They made the results of this survey into an infographic which generated many hits on Buzzfeed over the past few days. As an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, I know the campus is highly aware of an assault that took place over the summer, and accusation of rape culture and a faulty justice system are not new in collegiate communities, including Vanderbilt.

One great thing about the infographic is that it identifies the campus resources that are available (yet in some cases not beneficial) for those affected by sexual assault. Equally importantly, the graphic led to important conversations about rape and consent on campus, and I am glad that my school is now having those conversations. I don’t think anyone can fault the intentions of the alumnae who put this project together; bringing attention to the problem of sexual assault on campus is a worthy goal.

Ultimately, though, the project has some major problems.

The data collection for the survey immediately raised red flags for me. As a student of political science, accurate polling has been beaten into my brain. The survey was sent out through Facebook groups and student organizations, and the data collected only reflected the individuals who chose to respond. This distribution method caused serious self-selection bias in the data. Additionally, the survey did not include a finite definition of sexual assault; survey respondents were left to define sexual assault themselves causing a variation in responses.

The anger and efforts of the alumnae who conducted this survey are also misguided. Vanderbilt is an educational institution, not a justice organization. When Vanderbilt officials learned about the assault, they did not cover it up as many other universities have done, though they had ample opportunity, since the university uncovered the assault from a security tape. Vandy administrators could have easily let the tape sit, unacknowledged, indefinitely. Instead, they reported it to the Nashville Police Department, an entity that has the power of law and is a part of the justice process.

Vanderbilt’s power over the lives of the accused perpetrators of this horrific crime extends only to their involvement with the university; the accused athletes have been suspended and forbidden from campus. What more can Vanderbilt do to satisfy these alumnae in uproar? The school cannot comment on an open case; it cannot presume guilt until it is proven. After removing the offenders from campus, there is nothing more that Vandy could do.

Again, I think the intentions and efforts of the alumnae who led this project were admirable. Getting people talking about sexual assault is absolutely worthwhile. That said, the methods were faulty and the implications misguided.  The infographic would have had more positive impact targeting the culture of rape and victim blaming occurring on college campuses across the country rather than pointing fingers at educational institutions.

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Maddie Gootman

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Madeline Gootman finds her love for life through irony and humor. Life as a southern feminist inspires her daily, and she finds that it makes introductions interesting because it confuses everyone. Nashville provides the perfect backdrop to her life as she pursues a bachelor’s degree at Vanderbilt University while still finding time to eat her way through the city that has the best mix of restaurants. When she isn’t pursuing her dual loves of political science and women’s and gender studies inside of the classroom, she can be found working in her beloved women’s center, spending time in her sorority, or practicing her Español. The high points of Maddie’s week are watching cat videos on YouTube, meeting with her Peer Sex Educator group, and having random dance parties wherever they strike her be they at home, at work, or in the middle of the night in a study lounge.

  • Andrea Castillo

    Good article, Maddie. I think you’ve hit on a worrying trend: Universities are being pressured more and more towards the expectation of knee-jerk intervention and regulation of students’ personal lives. The surveys that purport to justify this worrying assumption of power, as you pointed out, often embody that terrible combination of methodological sloppiness and forgone conclusions.

    The recent DOJ letter to the University of Montana may interest you, it indicates a willingness on the federal level to dramatically increase and cement this new role of “University as Sexual Nanny:” http://thefire.org/article/15763.html

    I think you’re right to point out that real problems do not justify poor solutions.

    • Maddie Gootman

      Andrea thanks for your thoughts.

      I have read about the DOJ letter a lot; I interned for FIRE this past summer. Check out my post for FIRE on that specific letter here: http://thefire.org/article/16088.html

  • Sebastian Rogers

    It seems like Gootman is misrepresenting the alumnae, especially in the title of the article. Nobody, including the “angry” alumnae, is saying that Vandy got the recent assault case wrong. The buzzfeed article’s point is that current university efforts to combat the perpetuation of rape culture are not sufficient, which I feel most people would agree with. I don’t hear the alumnae painting Vandy as a “justice organization” versus an “institution.” And it’s not like Vanderbilt or any other institution doesn’t have/need its own internal regulatory system. It would be really interesting now if Vanderbilt turned over all sexual assault (or underage drinking) cases over to Metro PD. I do
    appreciate Gootman’s support of the alumnae for their efforts and intention.

    • Maddie Gootman

      For those who are interested in the debate Mr. Rogers and I have been having please refer to this link: https://www.facebook.com/VandyYAL/posts/619851161391417?comment_id=6323653&offset=0&total_comments=14&notif_t=mentions_comment

      The last question I got from Mr. Rogers that I’ll reply to was about the experiences of students on campus from his personal experience and what the university is doing to impact rape culture.

      So I have a couple of points to reply to that:

      1. Are these students scared of repercussions from the University if they report their experiences (which some students have felt retaliated against by universities see: http://thefire.org/article/14711.html or http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/03/25/victim-sues-unc-expulsion/2018261/) or are they bothered by social repercussions? If they are fearful of social repercussions, that is extremely legitimate. However, the University cannot force them to report if they are afraid of what their friends will think and it is difficult to investigate these cases if a victim does not wish to cooperate.

      2. In regards to programs by Vanderbilt to combat rape culture. They have recently amped up publicity for Green Dots, the power based personal violence bystander awareness program housed in the Women’s Center. I would recommend this program to anyone concerned about rape culture. I have been through their training and it was empowering and comprehensive. As well, the KC Potter Center for LGBTQI Life has the Safe Zone program which covers these issues from an LGBT perspective, and the Women’s Center also has Project Safe where anyone who feels that they need help or an advocate in a crisis situation can receive assistance. As the infographic pointed out the victims/survivors who used these resources all reported being very satisfied with them.

      3. I have no problem with what the group of alumni was trying to do. I think it was awesome! But I don’t think looking at the University is the way to go. The alumni should be encouraging and demanding that the community- Vanderbilt students, alumni, friends, professors, fraternities, sororities, student organizations, Nashville affiliates- stand up and say that they won’t stand for a culture that trivializes these issues. However, as an institution, Vanderbilt only has so much power over the lives of those who attend. They cannot imprison anyone, which is what these crimes demand. They have power over student’s lives as far as they extend to their business with the university such as campus housing and campus privileges. The students accused in this instance are no longer on campus, and the individual charged with a misdemeanor of covering up the atrocities that occurred was removed from the football team because Vanderbilt did not consider it actions becoming of its student athletes (which being from the South surprised me since I am used to football reigning over all other priorities).

      4. How do you know that Vanderbilt doesn’t turn all sexual assault cases over to Metro PD (or VUPD for that matter since they do have certain powers from the state government that simple campus security does not i.e. the Allied Barton people in the dorm lobbies)? Yes it would be interesting if all of the underage drinking cases were turned over to Metro. I hardly think you can draw a parallel between underage consumption and rape though. Vanderbilt investigates underage drinking if it occurs on campus because it is a violation of state law that occurred on their property and the institution wants to consider whether those individuals are good candidates to remain residents in their property where Vanderbilt could be found liable or responsible.

      5. Many have criticized the University for not commenting on the case. Has anyone considered that they are not owed an explanation? They can ask Vanderbilt what steps they are taking in regards to ensuring campus safety, however, there were actual people involved and hurt by specific instances of sexual assault on campus. While Vanderbilt should never cover up, deny, or play down these issues, they also should not interfere with an open investigation. Prejudicial juries, mistrials, and faulty justice are not worth the satisfaction of parties not involved prior to formal proceedings.

      • Kathleen

        There are some major issues with your third point: Alums should try to work in the larger community rather than just the administration. There are several flaws in that argument. 1. Alums have a direct tie to Vanderbilt, the institution. They are solicited for donations from the school for one thing, and Vandy overall relies on its alumni network in a number of ways. Alums do not have the same direct connection to the Vandy community. While they may maintain individual relationships with current students or faculty, it is extremely difficult to reach out to the community as a whole. This is particularly true for alums who do not currently reside in the Nashville area. 2. Vanderbilt, the institution, establishes the standards of the community. Sure, students establish standards of taste for things like what bags or brand of beer is most popular on campus, but no matter how much we wish it was different students do not have the power to change campus policy. Should students help change campus culture? absolutely, but that change in culture will have minimal impact without the school backing it up with something concrete. Not to mention, the undergrad population is made up of 18 to 22 year olds who tend to be a little more preoccupied with their academics, club involvements, and social life than changing their school’s culture. I would love to see that change, but why is it wrong to want to hold the people whose job it is, i.e. the administration, accountable for establishing campus standards. 3. Finally, your comment that the school is limited in power is laughable. No, they can’t send individuals to jail, but as a private institution they wield a much more selective power. The school establishes policies for other issues like cheating or plagiarizing that aren’t tied to the law, so why is it so strange to ask the school to establish policies that hold students who participate in or cover up sexual violence to a higher standard than the law requires?

        And to your point that the infographic wrongly focused on numbers: Yes, the title chosen for the Buzzfeed article put an emphasis on the numbers and was a bit sensational, but it’s Buzzfeed! At least 50% of the articles on that site include some sort of numbers or statistics in the title. Why? Because that’s what that market likes and clicks on. I would hope, as a writer, you are capable of discerning context and evaluating a story for more than its headline. The bulk of the infographic focused on quotes and experiences not on percentages. Even so, the fact that they are nine individuals who reported their assault to the university and received no justice is surely nine individuals too many.

  • Brandy

    Hi Maggie,

    I may be repeating a little of what has already been said in some of the comments, so apologies for that, but I a bit busy (many many things to do!) but nevertheless wanted to raise a few questions, even if just briefly…

    1) The survey itself. I think one has to look towards the intention and aims of the survey to access it’s legitimacy. None of the alumnae involved, at least as far as I can tell, were trying to make this a statistically significant representative sample. As your post indicates, this was an *informal* survey… I mean, I am in the humanities not the sciences or social sciences, so I know very very little by way of qualitative or quantitative stuff (I tend to stick with books!), but it appeared to me that this survey functioned more as an indicator, a pulse of sorts, for the realities of sexual violence on campus and how it is handled.

    2) The institution’s role. Do I think the institution did better in this specific instance than many other places? Did I think they do something right? Absolutely. Do I think Vandy adequately and effectively deals with sexual violence on campus? Hell no. As a grad student, I am less familiar with the details of this specific case and the broader culture around athletics, Greek life, drinking, etc… It seems to me–and again, this is just me/my own perception–that the infographic was meant to highlight the broader issues in such a way that holds Vanderbilt accountable–that, at the very very least, their response to this very high-profile matter, even if it was “effectively handled” (which seems to be up for debate for many), does not mean that Vandy is a paragon of awesomeness regarding sexual violence on campus… one of the key things, which you allude to, being the effectiveness of said ‘campus resources.’

    3) The aims of an institution. Here, I just want to raise a question about what it means to be an “educational” institution–it seems pretty flat-footed to paint a dichotomy between education and justice…. Are they necessarily completely opposite? And what about support? What are the roles and responsibilities in terms of education, as a liberal arts institute? I think that, at the very least, this is far more complex and nuanced then you account for…

    I have many more thoughts, but I’ll stop there for now… Hope those questions made sense…

    • Maddie Gootman

      Brandy,

      Thanks for your questions. I think it is a sticky subject, and I want no one to think that I think rape culture shouldn’t be called out.

      I’ll address your questions in the numbered format you used.

      1. I recognize the role that the survey had, and I think it was a great intent. But the emphasis on numbers that infographic produced was drastic and led to conclusions from the infographic that I thought were unrepresentative. Saying that there were 45 assaults, 10 reports, and only 1 punishment leads to the assumption that the University is mishandling sexual assault cases, or that is at least what I took away as a major implication from the infographic. The matters of self-selection, potential for oversampling errors, and question wording can be applied to survey conducted, and when the buzzfeed piece asserts these numbers to say that the university isn’t doing enough the authors open themselves up to criticism for their methods. I was taught to not accept numbers or statistics without asking how they got those numbers because they can be misread easily.

      2. How does a college adequately deal with sexual assault and rape? Vanderbilt offers resources, and I commend the infographic for suggesting where one of those resources might have failed from feedback from those who have used it (that is valuable data that can be obtained from informal surveys, I am by no means doubting the anecdotal data that the survey produced). Also I would push back on your criticism that it was not “effectively handled”. What would you like to have seen done differently? What more could Vanderbilt have done? What are they doing that isn’t public because victims have right to anonymity if they chose it? I wholeheartedly agree with your characterization of the problems on campus, but there is a limit to what Vanderbilt as an institution can do. How are they supposed to combat binge drinking? The students will just go binge drink off campus. How should they handle student athletics better? They removed the accused players from the team and from campus. The young man charged with a misdemeanor for attempting to cover the incident up was removed from the team. The marching band, part of the athletics culture, all wore green dots to the game on Saturday to show support for a safe campus.

      3. I’m not sure what you mean by this question. The responsibility of a liberal arts education is to give students an education in liberal arts. Other groups of alumni wanted a reaffirmation of the Vanderbilt Community Creed, great Vanderbilt could do that. Some alumni and other community members staged an “I Stand With Woman” protest on campus this past week, great that is starting conversations. But Vanderbilt does provide resources for its students when they face issues such as these, however, they cannot force them to use said resources. Grassroots efforts, such as taking personal responsibility as a student, community member, or citizen, are the ways to combat the barriers to survivors and victims seeking help. Asking the University to reexamine their practices is fair, however, there first has to be a conversation about the root of the problem and whose responsibility it is to fix it. My opinion is that the root of the problem is a lack of conversation around consent and a sense of shame and embarrassment that accompanies sexual assault. I think that the responsibility to fix this issue lies not with the institution of Vanderbilt, but with the Vanderbilt community; mainly its students. The ways to fix this are to have people stand up and say I will not tolerate this and I’m going to be proactive about it. Great ideas to implement this: A fraternity on campus could invite the Women’s Center to their chapter meeting to have a conversation about have to navigate consent with sexual partners or have a green dots training and then have a small banner in the corner of their house so that those who attend their events can feel safe and respected. Another idea would be for student groups to have a media campaign on campus about sexual assault and resources, both on and off campus, for those affected. What I think is the best way to combat this issue is for the young people at Vanderbilt to talk to each other. They should talk about consent, and they should talk about how to support their friends when these issues happen.

      -MaDDie

  • Adie

    I think what may be misleading about your article is that while you focus on the most recent case of assault and in the data-collecting methods of the alums, they seem to have shifted their focus to a much broader issue, given the survey’s questions. You’re right, from an academic standpoint, the survey doesn’t cut it. But was it meant to be academic? Vanderbilt, with it many researchers, could have devised a study, taken data and steps to improve their resources. They could implement more of a response than a green dot sticker. On a national level (think: those watching on TV), those dots mean nothing. This seems like minimalist effort to me.

    Vanderbilt may have done their part of the legal process, but the support of the survivors of sexual assault requires much more than compliance with the police. It requires adequate counseling, administrative/faculty support, etc. To think that rape is simply a LEGAL issue is too narrow a view, I think.

    Why not do more than required? Why not be a leading voice in this issue, as Vanderbilt is in so many other arenas?

    • Maddie Gootman

      Adie,

      Thanks for your questions.

      I think that if the survey wanted to call out Vanderbilt using numbers, then they should have at least attempted to collect those numbers appropriately. When you send out a survey via the Vanderbilt Feminists facebook group you’re going to get a lot different response than if you get a variety of campus students to respond. Who knows, they could have vastly underrepresented the data.

      A point I would like to make clear is that I think the intent behind the survey and the anecdotal data that it provided was great. The stories of experiences on campus were incredibly important. And the evaluations of resources by people who used them were also important.

      Also, I would ask you this, who was the intended audience for the message of the green dots. I think that the Vanderbilt community sending a message to Nashville, to each other, to the young men and women who live on its campus, was much more important than sending a national message. Though if you would like I can show you coverage of the Green Dots campaign, a national campaign that Vanderbilt adapted for it campus, from the stickers that students wore and that the athletes had on their helmets. Was it perfect? Probably not. Is there ever a perfect response in this situation, no. Also the green dot stickers were meant to remind students that the program was there, and to unite a communal sense of supporting safe spaces for students on campus. So it was a whole hell of a lot more than just a sticker for some.

      I would also never argue that rape is simply a legal issue. If that is what you understood from my article, I apologize because it is not. Vanderbilt does provide counseling and support.

      Project safe: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/WomensCenter/programs/projectsafe

      Project safe is a hotline and advocacy project housed in the womens center to help those affected by personal violence.

      Green Dots: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/greendots/

      A training program and awareness campaign to promote bystander responsibility and awareness so that community members can proactively create safe spaces and know how to react when power based personal violence occurs.

      VU Petsa: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/personalempowerment/

      The new required online tutorial for all incoming students that focuses on consent, power based personal violence, and personal safety and well being in PBPV situations.

      Safe Zone: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/lgbtqi/programs/safe-zone

      An awareness program aimed at informing Vanderbilt communities on how to handle LGBT issues with an enlightened focus. Also encompasses violence against LGBT individuals.

      Finally the PCC: https://medschool.vanderbilt.edu/pcc/

      Students can join group therapy, individual therapy, and receive psychiatric medicine confidentially and free of charge. I recognize that this was identified as a less-than-useful resource by the infographic, but its a resource Vanderbilt has for those who wish to use it.

      Also as for your leading voice question. As unfortunate as some might find Vanderbilt’s response, this is a leading voice. Vanderbilt did not cover it up. Also, I would remind everyone who asks why they don’t do more than required that they do not know what happens behind closed doors. I’m not sure what would satisfy some critics right now? A detailed list of everything said or done with some degree of privacy surrounding sexual assault on campus? Some victims do not want to report their assault. Some do not want to cooperate with the investigation; they just want someone to talk to. And sometimes, there is unfortunately not enough evidence to satisfy action even for an internal investigation.

  • Brittany

    As one of the Alumnae who participated in creating both the survey and the infographic, I feel the need to address this article.

    First of all, our point was never to present the survey as any sort of scientific collection of data. If we had, we would have posted it to the NYT, not Buzzfeed. The survey was initially created out of curiosity in response to Dean McCarty saying that he felt that Vanderbilt’s efforts to combat sexual violence on campus had been “effective.” As Vanderbilt alumnae, we all knew survivors of assault at Vandy, and this statistic – even within our relatively small group – didn’t seem “effective” to us. So we created a survey to see if our thoughts were correct.

    Guess what… they were. Sure, there’s some selection bias. This survey was created by eighteen women who all know each other. We all shared to our own facebook walls, but we also shared with various Greek life facebook groups. And concert choir. And the Vanderbilt Alumni page. And the Vanderbilt Athletics page. And local alumni chapters. And even Overheard at Vanderbilt (which currently holds a collection of over 8,000 of Vanderbilt’s finest current students and alumni). We tweeted it. We pinned it. We made every possible effort to get this survey out and to get it further than our own personal bubbles. Were our efforts flawless? Absolutely not. Did they achieve a powerful response? You bet.

    We didn’t really decide to go forward with the infographic until we started reading responses and seeing how people were treated by the University. These responses, some of which were shared in the infographic, demonstrated that there IS a problem with the way that Vanderbilt handles sexual violence. Survivors were told by members of the University not to pursue their cases. Some were pressured not to report their attacks. Others were required to seek counselling, but were berated by those who were supposed to be helping them. This is unacceptable.

    I agree with you that Vanderbilt student culture needs to change. But this cannot and will not happen until the University takes a stand and makes it clear that attacks will not be tolerated.

    This brings me to my next point. Your article conflates two different efforts made by the same group of alumnae. Although we created the infographic regarding sexual assault at Vanderbilt in general, our initial efforts did involve the University’s response to the assault this summer. But, unlike your article implies, we have no issues with Vanderbilt’s punishment of the alleged rapists. Rather, our concern revolves around Carta-Samuels, van der Wal, and Boyd – all of whom allegedly helped to cover up the rape and/or move the victim’s body. We simply requested that the University address these accusations and justify their decision to let all three of these men continue to play on the football team (our initial letter was written prior to Boyd’s dismissal, but our second letter still expressed dissatisfaction with his retaining a full scholarship despite pleading guilty to accessory to rape.) We made no unabashed demands for dismissal of these men without evidence, we simply requested that the University reassure us – along with other students and alumni – that success in football was not taking priority over accountability of our players.

    Overall, I applaud Vanderbilt for how it handled the alleged rapists in this case. However, I remain sorely disappointed in its failure to address many more low-profile cases on a consistent basis as well as the failure to adequately address the situation with Carta-Samuels, van der Wal, and Boyd. The survey and infographic were not created to demonstrate proof to the level of scientific certainty, but rather to draw attention to the need for cultural and administrative change at the university.

  • robmc2049

    Regardless of the soundness of the statistical methods used and how well recent events have or have not been handled, the fact that the number of people on campus who have been victims of sexual assault is greater than zero is a problem. The fact that the resources in place to help those people are not enough as reported by the victims themselves is a problem. The point of all of this and of the struggles of the former Women’s Center leadership is that Vanderbilt can and should be a safe and healthy environment for everyone on campus. Similar to how the tradition of honor at Vanderbilt (not to mention the honor council and the very real internal “justice system” at Vanderbilt) holds students to a level of academic integrity that is above and beyond any sort of legislation on the matter, it is not unreasonable to expect that Vanderbilt should also hold the student body to a higher standard of moral social behavior than whether or not anyone ended up in jail or prison.

    I don’t claim to know you, anything about you, or anything about your friends and experience at Vanderbilt, but I find it hard to think that anyone who knows a survivor or is themselves a survivor could honestly believe that Vanderbilt regularly does enough to address the issue of sexual violence on campus and to support survivors. If you do fall into that category, I’m proud of your strength and that my alma mater was able to provide for you. If not, I sincerely hope that it is not something someone you care about ever experiences.

    • vandystudent2013

      as a survivor, whose comment was deleted I would just like to state that I think it is hilarious that she hasn’t responded to anyone who has proven the point that her article did not even have an argument. one case does not prove that vanderbilt does a just job at taking care of sexual assault.

  • Blake Allen Green

    Firslty:
    What finite definition of sexual assault would you have had them use?
    How can one “misguide implications”?

    Linguistics aside, it seems that you’ve been buying into the University press releases too heavily if you think that it “uncovered” a sexual assault (that happened in a dorm room) via a dorm security camera.

    Most importantly, however, saying there is nothing else that Vanderbilt could do misses the mark dramatically. Vanderbilt currently has no requirements for any of its students or student organizations, including Greek life or atheletics, to attend any sort of sexual assault education. Furthermore, I know of MULTIPLE cases of VUPD and or the administration failing to properly report or manage cases of sexual assault or rape; in these cases the University also failed to provide proper support resources for victims. Vanderbilt makes no concerted effort to reach out to victims, to create safe spaces, or to create open dialogue about this issue on campus.

    The fact that we have a women’s center means almost nothing when you consider how it is practically a silent voice on campus; the Green Dot program can barely be taken seriously because of its soft platform and total preponderance for avoiding real words like rape or sexual assault.

    Lastly, you laud the University for apparently doing a good job, and deride these alumni for their unsatisfactory “methods,” yet take a moment and recognize which of the two has actually done more to create healthy conversation on campus.

  • Tyler Davis

    Since when do we separate justice from education? They are one in the same.