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After rape investigation, University of Oregon needs to show courage, not crisis management

UO's response to rape case seems to expose the school's weaknesses
The uninspired leadership at UO is enough to make even the proudest alum want to mothball his Ducks gear

These are dark days for Ducks everywhere.

It’s been more than a week since University of Oregon officials announced that three basketball players at the center of a rape investigation this spring had been dismissed from the team. If you want the details of what allegedly happened in the early hours of March 9, read the police report, a graphic, disturbing account made all the more infuriating by the university’s disjointed response to the allegations.

Although no criminal charges were ultimately filed against the players, that night and its aftermath have rattled faith in the team’s basketball head coach Dana Altman, Athletic Director Rob Mullens and UO President Michael Gottfredson.

The university has stated and revised its timeline, trying to justify how two of the athletes continued to play in Pac-12 tournament and March Madness games while the alleged victim was working with law enforcement to build her case. We don’t know for certain whether the players should have been dismissed sooner, in part because student privacy laws prevent the university from being more transparent about its investigation — although at times that privacy seems to border on secrecy.

What we do know is that one of the accused was a transfer who had been suspended from Providence College in Rhode Island in November after another sexual assault allegation, unbeknown to Altman. Asked about his vetting process of the transfer, Altman offered this understatement: “He did not give specifics, so my line of questioning probably didn’t go deep enough there in retrospect.”

Probably? Give me a break. Although Providence officials were unable to give Altman the details surrounding the player’s indefinite suspension — again because of student privacy laws — Oregon’s head coach knew that the punishment was for “failing to meet the standards expected of student-athletes.” He should have asked Austin as many questions as legally permissible to assess the severity of the incident rather than relying on the judgment of the Providence coaching staff.

Worse yet, this debacle unfolded as a federal task force announced an inquiry into mishandling of sexual assault cases at 55 universities. University of Oregon professor Jennifer Freyd, a national authority on sexual abuse, even visited the White House on April 29 to take part in the announcement of new efforts to address sexual assaults on campuses.

Now she has filed a federal complaint alleging that the university violated the Clery Act when it failed to notify the campus community that an incident had been reported or to include any report of the alleged assaults in the university police department’s crime log.

As an Oregon alum, I’m hoping for officials to be held accountable for the bungled response, which fuels concerns about the outsized power of the university’s athletic programs and, more critically, exposes serious weaknesses in the institution’s response to reports of rape. Right now, the uninspired leadership on display in Eugene is enough to make even the proudest alum want to mothball his Ducks gear.

Gottfredson, the school president, seems to believe that he can put these concerns to rest by dismissing the athletes and delivering ambitious rhetoric about this case being an opportunity “to become leaders in the nation in creating a campus that is safe from sexual violence.”

But that’s going to take courage, not crisis management.

Chris Feliciano Arnold is a recipient of a 2014 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. He has written essays and journalism for the Atlantic, Salon, the Millions, the Rumpus and Los Angeles Review of Books. Follow him on Twitter @chrisarnold.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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