8:11 a.m. April 24, 2013

All Change At App State

A little over a month ago, Appalachian State University Chancellor Ken Peacock was delighted by the media coverage of his school. Speaking at an event in downtown Asheville, he jabbed the air, punctuating the words of his incantation: jobs, achievement, pride.

“When you read the newspaper, you get good articles [about App State]”, he declared. A relentless booster, Peacock never missed an opportunity to “show off the product,” as he put it. And, as he told it, the “product” had never been stronger, at least in the eyes of the outside world: the Mountaineers had made it to the Southern Conference basketball tournament and Appalachian alums and backers had been invited Asheville's wood and brick Century Room to hob-nob with administrators and athletic czars.

Peacock left the stage to cheers and applause.

Six weeks later, 10 days after “Shut Up and Pay”, my investigation into the shameful history of rape and a culture of silence at my alma mater debuted, Peacock resigned.

At 5:49 p.m., he emailed the university, declaring “this is a difficult decision for me, but I believe it is the right time for Appalachian, and more importantly, the right time to make this change for my family.”

He'll continue while the university chooses his successor, but then he's out.

My investigation showed Appalachian ignoring a widespread rape problem under both Peacock and his predecessor Francis Borkowski. Survivors described a culture of silence and strong discouragement from pursuing criminal charges or filing official reports, especially when attacks involved student athletes. Even tenured staff were pushed to stay quiet: Jammie Price, a sociology professor, was suspended for telling a class of students that she was unhappy at how athletes received special protection from investigation of sexual assault.

Finally, last year, the federal Department of Education stepped in after a student who was attacked by athletes complained that the school's repeated failure to deal with the issue created a hostile enviroment. The feds compelled a number of reforms, and Appalachian swore it was cleaning up its act.

Even academics critical of the chancellor's administration are shocked by Peacock's sudden departure, and could only speculate about the reasons.

“I am completely in the dark,” wrote Matthew Robinson, a criminal justice professor who researched the sexual assault issue and actively defended Price's right to due process. Though a planned departure, he adds, could explain Peacock's recent intransigence.

Price too, was surprised, though she notes that some faculty recently complained to the university's accrediting agency about her case. She notes that the resignation comes as several pressures, including the NSFWCORP piece, hit the administration at once.

The ivory tower's intrigues are their own bureaucratic fog of war. Did Peacock leave for entirely personal reasons? Maybe concerns about the aggressive GOP legislature in Raleigh played a role. Or perhaps pressure from faculty, some alumni, and student activists combined with increasing national attention to the problems with ASU's administration created “the right time” for his exit.

That night in March, I returned to meet the luminaries of my alma mater, not as a reporter but as an alumnus. Still, I expected that the multiple scandals would at least come up in conversation, especially as the drink flowed and the crowd warmed up.

They didn't. At all. Instead, the conversation revolved around the best stadiums, great times tailgating, and the rudeness of Georgians.

The attendees were, after all, secure in their power and privilege. This was a world where athletic slogans like “no limit” and “always attack” didn't seem as tone deaf as they do to anyone even slightly familiar with Appalachian State’s recent history. A place where a promotional video of student athletes repeating “I am a product of your investment” wasn't creepily – and corporately – inappropriate, and where implementing student fee hikes to pay for yet fancier athletic facilities made perfect sense, even as more and more of the school’s athletes were accused of the most horrifying sexual assaults.

The rah-rah atmosphere I witnessed back in March must have provided an appealing bubble for an enthusiast like Peacock. A welcome break from the stress of having to downplay the horrors that were occurring on his watch. Last week, the bubble finally burst and, for Peacock, the party ended. As both an alumnus and as a reporter, I’ll be watching carefully what happens next at Appalachian State.