Remarks to the University Senate, May 14, 2014

05/14/14 •

The following is the text of the president's prepared remarks to the University Senate at its regular monthly meeting.

Thank you, Margie. And thank you for your service to the Senate this past year. I know this is the last meeting of your presidency, and I want to take a moment to thank you for the skill and diplomacy with which you’ve handled any number of important issues that have come before the Senate. You’ve accomplished a lot during a time of great change, and we appreciate it very much.

I had intended to talk this afternoon about several significant matters we have before us as a university, such as the strengthening of our academic freedom policy, and the transfer of all OUS administrative rules to UO policy as part of our transition to an independent board of trustees. The academic freedom policy is one review away from being finalized, and I have every intention of concluding that process on time. The policy transfer is going smoothly, and as we have indicated, the Senate will play a central role in the review of at least 50 to 70 academic policies that will be coming your way. The process of transferring the OUS rules to UO policies will provide us the time to do that thoughtfully and deliberately, and I look forward to working together on that process.

These matters are certainly important—critical, in fact, to the integrity of our mission and the smooth functioning of our organization.

But there is another issue, as you know, of more immediate urgency to our campus community. And that is the issue of sexual assault, harassment, and intimidation on our campus.

No one, ever, should have to experience sexual violence, or harassment, or intimidation of any kind. Not one student, not one member of our staff or faculty, not a single member of our community. This is without question. Yet too many do.

President Obama has identified sexual assault at colleges and universities as a significant threat to our campuses, our communities, and our country. The White House Task Force reports that nationally, one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college. One in five. This is shocking to many people. It is appalling. But I promise you, this figure does not shock the good people on our campus, and others across the nation, who work in student health centers, campus counseling centers, and Dean of Students offices. Those who work every day to protect students and to provide them with support services, advocacy, and education regarding sexual violence are all too familiar with this statistic.

And right now our campus is grappling with this issue. An incident occurred that is incredibly complex and profoundly disturbing. It has angered many people, including me. And rightfully so—it violates our very sense of who we are as a community of caring people.

How we, as a university, go forward from this incident—what we choose to learn from it and how we decide to act upon what we learn—will be a clear representation of who we are and what we stand for.

We as a campus have an opportunity to take our anger, to take our energy around this issue, and direct it toward a solution. We have an opportunity—I would say a responsibility—to become a leader in the nation in creating a campus that is safe from sexual violence and harassment. Today, I am going to address why I am confident that we are handling the current incident appropriately, and outline some of the steps we have already taken and will take in the immediate future to create a safer campus and community.

Because we cannot, by law, share many details of this case, some have speculated that we are not acting in the best interest of the university and that student safety has been compromised. Or that we turn a blind eye toward misconduct, or that we would tolerate, for one moment, sexual violence and intimidation on our campus.

These assumptions are patently false, and such speculations are very, very inappropriate. We are dealing with highly sensitive and incredibly complex issues concerning people’s lives—our students’ lives. Throughout our response to this incident, as in all such cases, protecting the safety, security, and rights of the individuals involved, and of all our students, was and is our top priority.

I do understand the frustration of not being able to say more. I feel it myself. But we will follow federal law in protecting the privacy of our students.

When we receive a report of sexual misconduct, an established process of support and investigation goes into effect immediately. And by “immediately,” I mean within minutes. In every case, we must act swiftly and appropriately with the information we have. We do this within the context of various laws and policies that are designed to provide the highest level of support and protection for the rights and safety of all students.

These considerations include support services for those who have experienced sexual violence; the rights of all students under our Title IX obligations; the application of our Code of Conduct; and full cooperation with law enforcement. We have clear and distinct obligations in each of these four areas, which we must balance carefully and weigh against one another continually, in real time. They are incredibly complex, nuanced, and often contradictory.

The moment we receive a report, parallel processes in each of these areas begin. It is important to remember that many of the actions the university takes in situations such as this are not disclosable to protect privacy. In general, however, actions we might take include issuing no-contact orders, imposing restrictions on time and place on campus of the accused student, and providing requested accommodations to the survivor.

In this case, processes remain ongoing. It would be wrong, therefore, for us to speak directly to the specifics of this or any other case. To do so could violate the privacy of the individuals involved. And it could risk having a chilling effect on the reporting of sexual misconduct in the future.

In recent days, we have seen the very unfortunate consequence of judgment in the absence of understanding. These are complex and nuanced matters.

As president, I am responsible for this campus. I am responsible for the integrity of the institution and the security of our students. And I take that responsibility very seriously.

My own academic background is in criminology. Studying, researching, and publishing about crime, violence, and prevention has been my life’s work. I have worked with law enforcement, district attorneys, and the prevention community throughout my career.

It was entirely appropriate that we work closely with the Eugene Police Department as they pursued their investigation, and we abided by their request that we not take actions that might interfere with that investigation. The university had ongoing contact with the EPD to follow their investigation. Our communications team posted a timeline yesterday detailing the steps in this process that we are able to make public. Importantly, just before the basketball team left for the NCAA tournament, we specifically asked the EPD whether the players should be allowed to travel. We were advised not to do anything to alert the players to the investigation. Clearly, keeping the players off that plane would have done so. In my opinion, at that time, the balance of our interest favored protection of the integrity of the criminal process, and not interfering with a criminal investigation.

Interfering with due process, individuals’ right to privacy, or an ongoing criminal investigation in a way that could jeopardize an outcome of prosecution is something I will never do, and would never allow any member of my administration to do. This is something I take very seriously for the survivors, for the accused, for our campus, and for society. This is where we seek to balance our obligations under Title IX and our other obligations. Title IX explicitly permits campus investigations to defer to serious criminal investigations. It does not allow that forever. It does not mean through full adjudication of the case. But it is consistent with Title IX to act precisely in the way the university has acted.

Some have also questioned whether we fulfilled our obligations under the Clery Act. We did.

I have shared with you everything that I can about what occurred.

Now it is time to turn our attention to the future. This is a time when it is important for us to come together as a campus, as a community, to make our university stronger. Safer. To ensure that we—the faculty, staff, and administration of this university—are fostering a culture of safety, dignity, and respect for all students. We share responsibility for creating a culture free from sexual harassment, violence, and intimidation.

We have already taken some very significant steps, and I have the utmost respect and appreciation for Vice President for Student Affairs Robin Holmes and her outstanding staff for the work they’ve done. These steps address prevention, support, response, and education.

Last fall, Vice President Holmes commissioned an independent review of our student sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault policies and procedures. An external reviewer examined our policies, practices, and protocols; our staff procedures; and our prevention and response outreach materials to ensure they align with federal civil rights and peer institution best practices. This review, the Groves Report, found many things to commend. It also found some room for improvement, including the need to add staff, improve access to information, and improve student education. Most of the recommendations have been implemented, and the remaining ones are in progress, including redefining the jurisdiction boundaries for the Conduct Code. This requires the Senate’s action to change, and I understand that is among this body’s top priorities.

We have already added three staff members, and are hiring one more as recommended by this external review, and I am authorizing now the creation of two additional staff positions, aligned with the recommendations of the White House Task Force and of our VP for Student Affairs, to augment our support for survivors.

The first is a Sexual Violence Response and Support Services Director that will provide confidential support and advocacy to survivors. Providing survivors with a choice of reporting to either an advocate who has reporting obligations, or to an advocate who can maintain confidentiality, is an important component in providing a comprehensive slate of services.

We will also hire an Equal Opportunity Specialist and Title IX Investigator in Affirmative Action to help with an increase in reporting of sexual misconduct we’ve seen recently.

These hires will improve our prevention and support efforts, and support our goal for the actions of this campus to go beyond those called for by the White House—to lead the way in this charge nationally.

Another element of the White House plan is the undertaking of campus climate surveys. This will be one of the charges for the panel we will convene to undertake an independent, external review of our practices for preventing and responding to sexual violence, as I announced last Friday. This panel will be composed of representative experts on sexual violence, higher education, law, athletics, and equity. This group’s charge will be to examine our campus climate, our recruiting and student education practices in athletics, and our efforts to prevent and respond to sexual violence and intimidation. The overriding goal will be to come away with concrete action to move us forward as a campus in protecting all students. Vice President for Student Affairs Robin Holmes, Athletic Director Rob Mullens, and I are taking recommendations for people who would bring appropriate, independent perspective and expertise to this group. I’ve already received some, and I thank you for those. This review is important to ensure our institutional policies and individual practices fully support the values of personal respect and privacy, and that student safety and academic integrity remain at the core of our mission.

We will solicit input and expertise from within our community as well. Because although this is clearly an issue of national concern, the solution has to begin here on our campus. This is our moment, this is our time to come together as a community and as a university to change the culture of sexual violence, harassment, and intimidation that devastates far too many lives. It is our duty and responsibility to our university and to one another. I know we have the will, we have the leadership, and we have the commitment to change the culture and make this campus safe for all.