Students Hold LSU President’s Feet to the Fire
By Jim Walters, May 10, 2016: Adventist Today reported last week about a petition, a demonstration and at least one public letter from an alumna raising concerns about the handling of sexual misconduct and at La Sierra University (LSU). the Adventist institution in Riverside, California. A reporter was sent to cover a “Town Hall” meeting on Thursday (May 5) where this was the topic.
The stage had two stools up front, one for Dr. Randal Wisbey, university president, and one for Pastor Sam Leonor, the campus chaplain. Behind them were seated four administrators with assignments related to “Title IX,” a national law about gender equality in education. In front of the president were some 500 students, crowded into one of the university’s larger auditoriums.
Highlights of the meeting that went way beyond its intended two hours include:
1) Leonor was the moderator and announced that truthfulness is primary, only students are allowed to speak at the microphones, and students who referred to having sex outside of marriage or use of alcohol during their remarks will not be disciplined, with Wisbey nodding consent.
2) Wisbey and associates made repeated reference to the www.unsilenced.us website, set up by concerned students and alumni for the anonymous sharing of incidents related to Title IX. Administrators found the tragic stories emotionally compelling.
3) Students repeatedly thanked Wisbey for having the meeting and a willingness to hear students. The president said at one point that he would welcome any student who had been assaulted to meet with him in his office.
4) The administration was seemingly forced to admit that a student’s failure to formerly file a police report does not constitute lack of evidence that a sexual assault had occurred.
5) Wisbey responded to a student’s question asking if the university will pay serious attention to a petition, signed by hundreds. The president said, “Absolutely we will pay attention.”
6) Applause erupted twice as one female student explained that a person can be raped even in a relationship, and how “scary” it is to even talk about it, to say nothing about reporting it, indicating the importance of user-friendly processes on campus and how lacking these are.
7) One student who indicated that she had been sexually assaulted told the audience that she initially didn’t say anything to university officials about what happened to her, but after parental pressure did report it, only to find what was to be a two-month process dragged on “to no resolution up to tonight.” An administrator on stage said resolution had been reached, and Wisbey urged: meet right here after tonight’s meeting to hear the outcome.
8) Considerable concern focused on the lack of administrative attention to Title IX issues: only a part-time director (Wisbey said a full-time position is being considered), faculty-investigators addressing cases (Wisbey said that study is being given to bringing in off-campus investigators to assure greater professionalism and less bias or conflict-of-interest), lack of historical records on sexual assaults at the university security office (only within the last year have protocols and processes been given serious attention).
9) Complicated assault cases at LSU have dragged on for as long as 10 months, and although interim measures can be taken—such as banning any campus contact between the “reporting party” and the “responding party”—one student reported having to attend class with her assailant, causing such revulsion that she had to rush into a bathroom to vomit.
10) Several students questioned a lack of importance attached to sex crimes at LSU, with one student saying that the discipline given to a sex offender is the same as that given to one who skips chapel; two letters of censure. And when one administrator on stage ticked off possible punishments, such as probation and censure, Wisbey reminded that expulsion is also possible.
Two aspects of the sometimes intense and open discussion of sexual misconduct on campus struck me. First, Wisbey’s lack of defensiveness and his openness to listen and vow to make changes. Second, the acknowledged inadequacy of current processes to effectively deal with issues of sexual misconduct on campus.
Why the disconnect? If Wisbey is truly concerned with making LSU safe, particularly for female students, why have processes not been instituted earlier? Title IX was enacted in 1972 to address gender inequality in higher education, and at least since 2011 the United States Department of Education (DOE) has applied it to campus sexual assault, so why is LSU now playing catch up?
There are at least two plausible, complementary explanations for what hundreds of students, faculty and alumni witnessed Thursday night. The first deals with America’s general cultural and legal views on sexual violence and the second concerns issues specific to the Adventist denomination.
Sexual mores in the Western world have significantly loosened over the last twenty to thirty years, as personified by the so-called “hookup culture” in which casual sexual encounters are common among young adults. Regardless, sexual activity remains a very personal and intimate interaction between two persons, and its open and frequent occurrence in largely coed dormitories on many campuses provided a new territory for possibly exploitative, even violent, behavior.
The DOE, on April 4 2011, issued its definitive “Dear Colleague” letter instructing institutions of higher learning “to take immediate and effective steps to end sexual harassment and sexual violence,” giving examples: rape, and sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual coercion. Further, DOE stated that institutions that fail in their responsibilities to protect students could lose access to Federally funded student loan and student aid programs. Later the Obama administration issued a guideline on determination of sexual violence, changing the evidentiary standard from that of beyond a reasonable doubt to a preponderance of evidence. The April 2011 issue of Campus Safety Magazine included an article entitled, “How to Comply with the Dept. of Ed’s Title IX Sexual Violence Guidance.”
The DOE, in May 2014, named 55 colleges and universities that were under investigation for mishandling sexual assault cases, including Harvard University, Princeton University, and Dartmouth College. Later an additional 40 institutions of higher learning were added to the list. In keeping with its focus on ending sexual discrimination on campus, the DOE addressed the issue of discrimination against transgender students.
The DOE’s increasing focus on sexual violence and discrimination on college campuses over the last five years is highly relevant to LSU’s slowness to adopt adequate policies in this regard. As Wisbey pointed out at the meeting, LSU is a “small” school, implying that its need in regard to sexual violence doesn’t match that of larger universities. Too, a largely non-endowed school such as LSU doesn’t have the resources to readily set up a new bureaucracy to thoroughly deal with sexual violence, despite the claim at the meeting that lack of funds was not the issue. Regardless of some of these considerations, my basic point is that the cultural and legal focus is relatively new and now sexual violence is squarely positioned on LSU’s radar. The current pressing question is whether the good intentions of the university president can be translated into promised actions.
Two aspects of the Adventist religion help explain why LSU lags in the development of needed Title IX policies and practices: An elevated self-image, and an inadequate view of rules.
LSU, like so many Adventist colleges, was founded in an originally rural area, far from supposedly sinful city life and secular influences. Life in the country made us feel good about ourselves, in part because problems of densely populated humanity are far more evident than human ills spread across hill and vale. The traditional self-image of Adventists is one of superiority; physically (Blue Zone members), spiritually (possessors of the Truth), and sexually (purer than average). There is some validity to that self-image: Adventists do live longer than average, but unfortunately evidence shows that divorce rates among Adventists are about average.
Regardless, there is something about the Adventist faith and the rest of conservative Christianity that makes us feel morally superior, and this is reflected in some Christian colleges attempting to avoid Title IX’s jurisdiction. While Wisbey embraced Title IX and promised action, not everyone on his administrative team seemed so enthusiastic, and this is understandable given the traditional self-image of many Christians. Although the self-image of perfectionism isn’t prevalent at LSU, it exists in the sponsoring denomination; the Seventh-day Adventist Church. These considerations are reason enough to explain why LSU might lag in implementing Title IX provisions.
Another religious reason that elements at LSU may resist implementing robust Title IX policies is the traditionally “flat” view of rules among Adventists; the intuition that all rules are created equal. Growing up in a fine, conservative Adventist home I recall hearing early on that if I would break one of the Ten Commandments I would be guilty of breaking them all (a misreading of James 2.10). Jesus contradicted a flat view of rules by speaking of lesser and “weightier matters of the law” such as justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matt. 23). One student at the Town Hall meeting spoke in this vein by indicating that LSU’s punishment for drinking alcohol (that possibly harms only one’s own person) is greater than that for sexual assault (that tragically harms another person).
Considerable behind-the-scenes work led to the Town Hall meeting Thursday night; intense discussion among Wisbey and active alumni and student leaders. There is widespread speculation about how high in the Wisbey administration culpability goes for supposed mishandling of significant cases of sexual assault, and some administrators are suspected of deliberate wrongdoing. Individual culpability may exist (and the facts of certain cases may never be known), but regardless the most adequate explanation for lagging Title IX compliance lies more in historical, sociological and theological factors. And one final point: the lagging Title IX compliance wouldn’t now have everyone’s attention were not even good, progressive administrators forced to publicly reason about vital moral issues.
Dr. Jim Walters is a contributing editor for Adventist Today.