Universities must do more to prevent sexual assault

Here we go again. At the rate these campus sexual abuse sagas are making news, it's reasonable to ask what college administrators can possibly be thinking about. Here's the latest Washington Post headline from the University of Virginia, an institution for which I have enormous respect and affection: "He said it was consensual. She said she blacked out. U-Va. had to decide: Was it assault?"

A disclaimer: walking across Thomas Jefferson's serenely beautiful campus, an architectural monument to its founder's ideals of order and reason, remains an emotional experience. Plus, I met my wife there, an Arkansas girl who never suspected there could be such a thing as a single-sex undergraduate public university until the day she arrived as a graduate student.

We were introduced by the dean of the graduate school, who asked if I'd ever heard of Hendrix College. I said no, that they must not play football.

A coach's daughter, she laughed, partly because they didn't. Her voice was like a mockingbird's call. I've tried to keep her laughing ever since.

Of course, U-Va.'s fully coeducational today. However, the school has always had a culture of gentlemanly dissipation I disliked even in my rugby-playing days. Judging by the Post's account of the bacchanalian "block party" that resulted in another "he-said, she-said" dispute of the kind roiling campuses nationwide, things have only gotten worse on the drunk front.

The Post's T. Reese Shapiro summarizes events as follows: "To him, in that moment, it was a thrilling hookup at a party. To her - as she now sees it - it was a terrifying assault. To U-Va., it was another drunken mess with no good answers."

Partly because 19-year-old sophomore volleyball player Haley Lind was brave (or foolhardy) enough to go public with her anger at U-Va., authorities who failed to expel the freshman athlete with whom she ended up naked in a bathroom despite having no memory of the event, reporter Shapiro was able to piece together a persuasive account.

To give you some idea, Lind's evening began with a Smirnoff Ice, two shots of tequila and two more of vodka. For the record, that's five drinks for the "alluring, petite blonde." Then she and her girlfriends headed for the party, where - among other things - guys were circulating with backpack sprayers filled with liquor, randomly topping up people's drinks. Lind remembers nothing after her first hit from the sprayer.

No court in America, of course, would credit the testimony of somebody so drunk. Lind's "assailant" also drank heavily, but not enough to become incapacitated. His story was that she was aggressively flirtatious. Witnesses saw them making out, and overheard her invite him back to her apartment. Instead, the couple adjourned to an upstairs bathroom, where the alleged indignities transpired. A friend found her there in a stupor, wearing nothing but shoes, barely able to speak or stand.

She awoke in her own apartment with no memory of how she got there.

After friends arranged a meeting, he apologized that she was upset, but insisted she'd been eager. But hadn't she been too drunk to consent, she asked? "The freshman athlete responded: 'I mean, I was so drunk myself.'"

After months of investigation and a 96-page report, U-Va. authorities concluded he'd violated no school rules.

As one Virginia graduate married to another, this seemingly endless succession of tragedies and scandals involving the university's party culture can't help but be disheartening, even if you exclude the 2014 Rolling Stone hoax about a frat house gang rape that never happened. People who'd attended U-Va. block parties thought it could have.

However, the Post's account also allows me to clarify something many readers misunderstood in a recent column concerning a Stanford University rape case. Sarah Hepola's terrific memoir "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget," makes a crucial point. "In a blackout, a person is anything but silent and immobile," she writes. "You can talk and laugh and charm people at the bar with funny stories of your past."

Or seduce total strangers. Hepola woke up with a lot of them. Blackout drinkers who steadfastly deny that their actions could possibly be as witnesses describe them may have no idea how they acted. Nor is it obvious to fellow drinkers that somebody's about to enter the zombie stage of unconsciousness.

If they really want to protect young women, why do administrators pretend they're helpless to control binge drinking? Public intoxication is a Class 4 misdemeanor in Virginia. Why not suspend offenders from college? Any bar or liquor store that served booze to underage drunks would lose its license or worse.

People can party without getting paralyzed.

Email Gene Lyons at

© 2016, Universal

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