UPDATE: Why Universities Cover Up Sexual Assault

Former TU student, Abby Ross
Photo credit: The Frontier

Dozens of alleged victims filed a class-action lawsuit earlier this month claiming that Ohio State University knowingly protected Dr. Richard Strauss, a university doctor employed by the school to treat mainly athletes.

The report details the systematic abuse of 177 male athletes in at least 1500 instances over the course of Strauss’ 20-year employment. What’s worse, the University covered the abuse up and failed to act on reports dating as far back as 1979. And lawyers for the plaintiffs say the number of victims is over 300.

“The systemic sexual abuse, although preventable, was horrifically nurtured by OSU when they chose not to act, turning a blind eye to those they had a duty to protect.”

Scott E. Smith, an attorney representing victims who are suing the school

This horrific failure at Ohio State is just the latest in a long line of sexual abuse at University’s that did not get the attention or justice it deserved.

Why Would a University Fail to Act?

That is the question I explore in my novel, Ivory Tower, that depicts a sex-for-play scheme reminiscent of the 1985 SMU ‘Death Penalty’ scandal where officials allegedly paid co-eds to sleep with star recruits. But such shocking corruption has been echoed in many, many cases of sexual assault, abuse, and exploitation by athletes, coaches, athletics programs, and universities. This Mother Jones article highlights 40 years of rape cases involving athletes and sports programs in the US.

The reasons a university might want to ignore or underreport cases of sexual abuse are myriad but not that complicated.

Reason 1: Protect Reputation

Despite educational sheen of the search for knowledge, university’s are big business, and the product they are selling is not primarily the degrees it confers on graduates. Instead, their product is their reputation.

Without a good reputation, a university has nothing. No parents want to send their children to a place where they could be hurt, abused, and traumatized. And allegations of rape or sexual corruption can have a major negative impact on a school’s reputation and, thus, their bottom line.

As administrators interviewed in the documentary, The Hunting Ground, insist, a university has every incentive to cover up or deny that sexual assault is happening on its campus. Universities stand to lose millions in tuition, grants, and donations if word gets out that it’s a petri dish of sexual abuse.

Reason 2: Women Are Not as Valued as Men

There is a simple reason why in 1972 the federal government had to enact Title IX protections for women and for female athletics programs: they are not seen as valuable as the male counterparts.

Men’s sports at the NCAA level is a multi-billion dollar industry where large, successful programs (and, I would add, even small, unsuccessful programs like my university) are promoted as part of ‘school spirit’ and and ‘amateurism.’

Universities have spent, historically, much more on male athletes and men’s sports programs than on women. Title IX seeks to equalize that imbalance, and it has been successful to a large degree, but inequity and abuse still exists in college sports.

Women who file complaints of rape or sexual assault still must fight suspicion or defend their character before being believed. For example, the letter written by the Dean of Students at the University of Tulsa to complainant Abby Ross, analyzing her text messages and dress, shows how universities participate in the game of blame-the-victim. Eventually, the Tenth Circuit ruled in favor of the university, despite the known history of alleged rape by the male athlete in question. Is our justice system complicit in this phenomenon of de-valuing women?

This lack of equity is reflective of a larger cultural dynamic. Patriarchal societies, which our still is to a substantial degree, undervalue women and systematically privilege men. Universities, often considered ‘liberal’ bastions, participate in this patriarchal devaluing of their female students.

And my goal as a writer is to hold higher education accountable for its choices and to insist that universities protect students over profit.

How Do I Make Sure It Doesn’t Happen to Me or My Kids?

This Boston lawyer explains what you need to know about your school at Title IX before you enroll.

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