Updated below. Tuesday morning. July 22, 2014.
By now most of you have probably caught up with this awful story about the criminally incompetent investigation of a rape at Hobart and William Smith Colleges that ended with no one being punished except the victim who became the target of the wrath of other students who decided she was the one guilty of a crime---the crime of accusing popular football players of being rapists during a championship season.
I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned it here, but I taught at Hobart and William Smith for four years back in the 90s. Of course it’s a different place now but I’d have expected it to be a better place. Not that it was a bad place then. In fact, compared to a lot of schools at the time it was an enlightened and progressive and aware place (although with significant qualifications), particularly when it came to feminist issues and concerns and the well-being, physical and academic, of female students. Twenty years on, you’d think they’d have only grown more that way.
Note I referred to the school as a they.
Here’s the odd thing about Hobart and William Smith. It…they…are two separate colleges. Hobart and William Smith. Hobart is for men, William Smith for women. The separation exists mainly on paper. Students of both colleges share the campus, share classrooms, share professors, and share dorms. What they didn’t share then (although they may now) were the same admissions officers. The academic standards for both were about the same but the types of student each college recruited and attracted were different. William Smith students tended to be more intellectual, more academically ambitious, more emotionally mature, more independent, and more sophisticated or, really, better at putting on a show of sophistication. Hobart students were, on the whole, less driven, less likely to be giving serious thought to their futures, more social, more into enjoying the whole college experience (which often resulted in Hobart students in my classes being more enthusiastic about the subject, so it was never the case that all my best students were William Smith students even though they were generally the more diligent, and that made for a nice mix in classroom discussions; everybody knew his or her stuff, they’d just come to know it differing ways), and much less sure of themselves. That doesn’t mean they were diffident or shy and retiring. They often over-compensated, and they would band together. I’m sure this often looked and felt to other students like they were being ganged up upon and it was something I had to police, but I could do it good-naturedly and without much effort because, for the most part, those men were good-natured and and earnestly eager to be “good guys.” And they liked me. They thought of me as a pal. They thought of everybody as a pal. They assumed friendship and camaraderie. Every one of them was everyone else’s big brother. I’m not sure what the William Smith students made of that. But these Hobart students were, by nature, fraternal.
Which might explain why so many of them belonged to fraternities.
I don’t know how many William Smith students belonged to sororities. I can’t even tell you if there were sororities. But the Greek life defined the social lives of many Hobart students and so by default of the colleges.
Here’s another difference: a much greater percentage of Hobart students were athletes.
Hobart and William Smith didn’t offer athletic scholarships. The student-athletes truly were student-athletes. And they had to have good grades to get in and to keep their places on the teams. But they’d chosen to come there because they could continue to play their chosen sport.
In short, it was a student body dominated by frat boys and jocks.
Now, here is the way the students at both colleges were alike.
They were almost all children of privilege.
Their parents weren’t necessarily rich as in rich rich. But they had money. A lot of the students at Hobart and William Smith had gone to prep schools. They’d grown up taking ski vacations, European vacations, Caribbean vacations. When they talked about their summer jobs they were often talking about unpaid internships they’d secured through their parents’ connections. A great many took it for granted (with good reason) they would be going on to top-flight law schools and MBA programs and from there into high-status, lucrative professional careers like their parents’. There were some future doctors and scientists and even a few future teachers and academics---but no future engineers that I recall---but for the most part they---the ones who were thinking ahead, and like I said, a lot of Hobart men didn’t---were a collection of future lawyers and business executives and bankers and stock brokers, and they were a little full of themselves about it.
They were on the whole somewhat spoiled, a little arrogant, unthinkingly snobbish, a bit more self-centered than your average adolescents, and cheerfully, unabashedly entitled.
Hobart students felt additionally entitled because they were men and it was a man’s world---still is, but it was more so then---and because they were athletes and because they belonged to fraternities which signified.
I liked teaching there. I loved many of my students. But I did not love them as a group the way I’d loved my students in Indiana before we moved to New York or the way I love my students at SU now. They were hard to love because they didn’t need or want to be loved. Not by me. Not by any of the adults around them. (The Hobart guys wanted to be liked, a different thing.) They didn’t think of us as adults, anyway, because they didn’t think of themselves as children. Although not as grown up as they thought they were---like I said, William Smith students were very good at imitating maturity and sophistication---in many ways they were still more grown up than their contemporaries at other, less exclusive and prestigious schools, and they were used to being on their own and left to their own devices. They thought they were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves without supervision of any kind and I think they convinced most professors and administrators they were right about that.
I was never all that plugged into things and so I never knew for sure what was going on outside of class, but it seemed to me that while the powers that be paid a lot of attention to students as a group, there wasn’t much attention given to students as individuals, and my concern was that if a cry for help went up in the night, as it were, there was no one in the administration on duty listening for it.
It’s been a long time and I have almost no connections left. Just about everyone I worked with has retired or moved on. Administrations have changed hands several times over. I’ve heard that the colleges, Hobart and William Smith together, have done much to improve their academic reputation. My students were no slouches, but the students who have passed through there over the last decade or so have been even higher achievers, Hobart’s men as well as William Smith’s women. But I’ve also heard that they’re even more privileged---there are more preppies among them---and their higher achievements are due to their parents having been able to buy them advantages middle class and working class and poor parents can’t buy for their college-bound kids. They aren’t necessarily smarter, just better schooled in the art of going to school. This condition does not tend to inspire humility, and, consequently, I suspect they’re more likely to mistake their good fortune for the rewards of intelligence and hard work. And the more full of themselves they are, the more entitled, the more privileged and coddled, the more likely they are to think they are immune to the consequences of mistakes or out and out bad behavior.
What I’ve heard hasn’t changed is that the majority of Hobart men are frat boys and jocks.
Whatever the benefits of belonging to a fraternity are---and no one has ever been able to explain them to me persuasively; as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, all they do for members is increase the social and economic rewards of unearned privilege---what fraternities mainly contribute to campus life are opportunities for minors to drink. Basically, their function is to put oversized plastic cups of cheap beer in the hands of kids under twenty-one and bring young men and women together over brown and green bottles, punch bowls, shot glasses, growlers, pitchers, and kegs.
The administrations at colleges where fraternities thrive know this.
For the most part, they look the other way.
What happened at Hobart and William Smith can and does happen without fraternities having any involvement. It can and does happen where the student body is less privileged, less entitled, less too sophisticated for their own good.
But students at every kind of college have a right to expect that the administration is doing all it can to prevent it from happening and that when it does there’ll be someone in charge ready to come to their aid.
An important part of prevention is making sure everyone knows investigations of misconduct will be fair and thorough and punishment, if warranted, will be sure and swift. Another important part is making sure everyone knows victims will be taken care of and taken seriously and not be treated as problems the administration would like to make go away in a hurry.
This is not the way it went at Hobart and William Smith.
A cry for help went up in the night. No one in the administration was listening or at least not with both ears. When they were made to listen, they all but shrugged. They went through the motions of investigating. They did nothing to protect the student afterwards. When they were called on it, when their neglect and incompetence were revealed to the world, instead of admitting their failure, apologizing, and trying to make amends, the colleges went on the defensive. The president and the Board of Trustees made excuses! They came just this close to blaming the victim and calling her a liar! They put the school’s reputation, which is to say their own reputations, ahead of not just this student’s but all students’ safety and well-being.
This is why my friend, colleague, sometime teaching partner, and boss Steve Kuusisto says Hobart and William Smith failed a second time and on a wider scale. Steve has a longer and more personal connection with the colleges than I do. He earned his bachelor degree from Hobart. His father was the president from 1970-1982. He taught there for seven years himself. In short, he feels like he’s still a member of the colleges’ community and in that second failure he sees the president and the colleges failing that entire community of students, faculty, alumni, and parents and guardians who have sent their children there in the expectation they will not ever be treated as problems to be made go away.
While I don’t know all the facts about Anna’s story at HWS, I know this: there’s a thing called citizenship. Underage drinking, sexual impropriety, hate speech, any one of these justifies taking action against students. Let’s forget the rape allegations for just a minute. Let’s forget about whether or not the staff of the Colleges review committee was competent to hear a rape case. The men in this story were and are guilty of profound misconduct. By pretending the New York Times story is about the “provability” of Anna’s contention trivializes the very notion of community that President Gearan and the Board of Trustees now say they care so much about.
By their collective failure of will and sense of responsibility, the administration has announced to the community that Hobart and William Smith is a place where it’s safe for minors to drink themselves stupid, a place where it’s safe for men to treat women as targets of alcohol-facilitated “seduction,” a place where it’s safe to harass and humiliate and bully and threaten a victim of rape and drive her out of school, a place where it’s safe to be a rapist because your victim won’t get a real hearing or any justice from the powers that be, (The accused men don’t have to have been guilty of rape for this message to have been sent. If they didn’t do it, somebody did, and that somebody and any other somebodies who did it to someone else now know they’re safe to do it again. And yet another somebody who will be in a situation where he will ask himself Can I get away with this? will be able to answer, Yes, I can!), a place where it’s safe to be or do any number of things except a victim reporting a rape.
Read all of Steve’s post, The Real Scandal at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, at Planet of the Blind.
And be sure to read the whole New York Times story Reporting Rape, And Wishing She Hadn’t.
Update: The New York Times reports this morning that, under pressure from the college community, the administration at Hobart and William Smith is rethinking its defensiveness and considering actually doing something about what happened: Support for a College Student Grows After a Rape Complaint Is Dismissed.