On sexual assault, the University of Iowa is failing its students

Sexual Assault at the U of Iowa
Is the University of Iowa doing enough to combat sexual assault on campus? — photo by Scott Fiddelke

In a general media briefing on Tuesday, Aug. 26 at Jessup Hall, University of Iowa President Sally Mason responded to the most recent report of sexual assault to hit the UI campus, noting that, “When you have 30-plus thousand students on campus, things do happen. These are not the kinds of things that we want to have happen, obviously, but they do happen.”

The incident Mason is referring to reportedly occurred on Friday, Aug. 22 in the UI’s Slater Residence Hall, days before the fall semester had begun. Earlier that night, the UI had gathered most of its incoming freshman at Kinnick Stadium, three blocks away, as part of its core On Iowa! program — a three-day “immersion event” where participation is expected of all first-year students (right down to their matching gold t-shirts). The program ends with a “Presidential Block Party” at Mason’s residence, serving as both a pep rally for incoming students and a massive public relations tool for the UI and its billion dollar endowment.

Mason’s comments on Tuesday, meanwhile, are remarkably similar to those made earlier this year, when she told the Daily Iowan that preventing all incidents of sexual assault is “probably not a realistic goal, just given human nature, and that’s unfortunate…” The comments drew heavy criticism, eliciting an apology from the UI president the following week and the launch of by frustrated community members.

In the wake of these remarks, the complaints levied against Mason have little to do with whether or not her statements are actually sensible. Few expect Mason to declare an end to all sexual assaults as we know it. Rather, the complaints decry a president who operates more akin to a CEO than an academic leader, whose tone-deaf approach to sexual assault foregoes compassion for the sake of PR-trained pragmatism, and whose ongoing Six Point Plan to Combat Sexual Assault amounts to little more than token rhetoric and vague bullet points that lack tangible procedure: “Improve information on key web pages,” “Expand long-term support services” and “Develop more, and more effective, sanctions,” to name a few.

More importantly, these complaints stem from a president who is more concerned with a university’s public image than the well-being of a sexual assault victim. Mason’s remarks on Tuesday provided ample opportunity for calls to action, declarative statements about unacceptable behavior and the consequences therein, or reassurance that the UI will do everything in its power to protect its student body. Instead, Mason’s comments — which were as much directed toward the victim and the victim’s parents as they were anyone else — were tantamount to, ‘Sorry, but them’s the breaks.’

There are times where pragmatism is essential — critical even. This past Tuesday was not one of those times. Few of us expect law enforcement to prevent “all” heinous crime without exception. But for law enforcement to iterate this point in response to a heinous crime? We would find this absurd. Mason should be held to a similar standard. What students need is an ally, advocate and leader. What they most certainly don’t need are qualifying statements from President Mason, days after an attack, about how rape is bound to happen with a student body of this size. That’s not pragmatism. That’s posturing.

The University of Iowa’s coverage of Tuesday’s media briefing is available here, provided by the Office of Strategic Communications. It does not reference last weekend’s reported sexual assault, nor does it include Mason’s comments on the matter. Unsurprisingly, however, there is a nice section on the Presidential Block Party.

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