8:36 a.m. April 9, 2013

Shut Up and Pay

BOONE, NC: In early March, 2012, Appalachian State University sociology professor Jammie Price told her class she thought student athletes received special privileges on campus. That same afternoon Price intended to participate in a rally in order to protest the way the university treated victims of sex crimes on campus. One female student left the room in protest.

Soon afterwards, the same student laid a formal complaint, adding that Price had also created "an unsafe environment" by showing a documentary about the porn industry without sufficient warning that the content might offend. The university administration abruptly suspended Price, bypassing formal grievance procedures.

The administration’s unusually heavy-handed approach attracted attention and criticism from the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, among others. A faculty oversight committee soon found that Price had done nothing wrong, and that her actions were covered by academic freedom.

Rather than apologizing to Price, university Chancellor Kenneth Peacock doubled down and rejected the committee’s finding.

Last November, Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote about the incident in a post entitled “Appalachian State University Students Are Precious Flowers Who Must Be Protected from Porn and Unkind Words.” Gawker’s blogger wagged that Peacock’s reaction was about what you’d expect from a clueless hick:

“You may be unsurprised to learn that the pornography-challenged school's chancellor decided to ignore the report and punish her anyhow, probably because [sleazy joke impugning Appalachian heritage], and because the chancellor's name is ‘Kenneth Peacock.’”

Gawker’s dismissal of Peacock’s reaction as stereotypical might raise a smirk, but it’s misleading. In fact, Peacock’s response to criticism was not personal but institutional, symptomatic of something by no means confined to Appalachian State: tolerance for and denial of sexual abuse, especially when that abuse is committed by revenue-generating athletes.

* *

Appalachian State University, located in the mile-high mountain town of Boone, NC, is my alma mater: In 2001, the year I arrived, Time magazine named it one of its “Colleges of the Year.”

The chancellor during my time was Francis Borkowski, a man with a pretty consistent attitude when it came to rape. In 1993, Borkowski lost his job as president of the University of South Florida after a rape controversy involving an athlete and his girlfriend. According to Charlotte Observer coverage from the time, Borkowski referred to the incident as a “lover's quarrel” and the athlete involved was allowed to continue to play even as five more allegations of assault and harassment by him emerged.

After Borkowski was ousted from South Florida, Appalachian snapped him up.

Then, in 1997, ASU faced its own rape scandals: the rape of a student by three men at a frat party, followed by the rape of another woman by an out-of-town acquaintance. After these attacks, big state newspapers started paying attention. The administration, however, remained silent until 500 people marched through the streets of Boone in protest. Borkowski's response, when it finally came, didn't calm things down.

“If you are not in control of your life through indulgence in alcohol and drugs,” Borkowski said to students, according to the News & Observer, “then you are setting yourself up [for rape].”

There was another march, this time demanding a women's center as a safe space for female students. The procession headed for the administration building. Eva Hyatt, a marketing professor who has taught at Appalachian State for 23 years and was at the forefront of the protests, recalls what happened next: “We had 3,000 signatures [on a petition] and we were met by armed guards when we tried to take it to the chancellor.”

That same year, six football players were accused of raping a heavily intoxicated student. All six were acquitted by the university's disciplinary board. Five were found guilty only of lewd conduct. One of those was suspended, and the others simply couldn't play football for a while.

There were more protests. The News & Observer ran an editorial titled “Too Cruel for School” blasting the university's secrecy in relation to the incident. After that, ASU took the kind of drastic action beloved by corporate managers.

It formed a “task force.”

In the four year period between the formation of the task force in 1997 and 2001, only two rape cases were tried by the university. Officially, Appalachian State has about three to five rapes per year, a number that has remained consistent for years, even as the university's population has exploded (13,000 in 2001 to 17,000 today). According to the federally reported statistics at the Department of Education, in 2011 there were just four rapes at ASU.

Matthew Robinson, a criminal justice professor who's taught at Appalachian for 15 years, doesn’t believe the official statistics, and has independently conducted two studies of the issue, ten years apart, in 2001 and 2010.

“The surveys we did found 60 to 75 sexual assaults on campus in a year,” says Robinson.

In 2001, a student group formed out of the existing Academic Integrity Board, calling itself the Committee for Integrity (CIA) at Appalachian. With the support of Al Alschuler, the dean of ASU's College of Education, they held a special class section to get a clearer idea of what wasn't getting reported.

“Many of us knew friends/acquaintances who had experienced assault/rape and/or coercion and were either at a loss as to how to proceed or ultimately felt unsupported,” says Crystal Revill, then the CIA's co-chair, remembers. “There had also been some stories of campus cover ups at other schools coming to light, so we were curious about how that happens (the covering up), as well as what we believed was under-reporting on our own campus.” In an email response to my request for more information about their story, Revill wrote that she and her CIA colleagues were proud of their school, and wanted to make it a safer place.

Then as now, the official annual tally showed three to five assaults a year. Using a federal study as their model, what the CIA found was far worse. Of the 6,703 women at the university at the time, “there have been a total of 1,679 rapes or attempted rapes of about 892 women.” That’s one in seven, and the study didn't include men who were raped or students who'd been there five years or more.

According to the CIA, those two rape cases tried by the university between 1997 and 2001 represented “1/8 of 1% of the estimated number of 1,679 rapes and attempted rapes during the same period.”

“The numbers speak for themselves,” the report declared. “We believe that the first step is to name the problem clearly, publicly. The next step is to solve it effectively, publicly.”

The student government pushed forward calls for tougher penalties from the university, and some of the CIA's recommendations were adopted: the campus crime reports were better publicized, blue light emergency boxes were installed on campus and the university police stepped up their presence. Other suggestions, however, like the provision of rape kits, were dismissed outright.

Revill recalls that Borkowski and the administrators were “meticulous” in their response, or lack thereof.

“I recognize there are a lot of politics that played into this, as well as the chancellor's prior history at [USF]. I believe he essentially chose to not respond. He did speak with us personally when we requested, but not publicly.”

The CIA didn't wave signs or shout. They tried to pursue remedies within the system, pushing for reform and writing new rules through official channels. They were rebuked all the same.

“We were essentially disbanded,” Revill notes, after the CIA tried to apply for a grant to research the issue further. Administrators informed them that this would be a conflict of interest, threatened to end their university recognition and forbade the group from meeting on campus. The members chose to end the committee on their own and pursue the issue through their work with other groups and organizations.

In 2004, Borkowski announced his resignation. Ken Peacock, his successor, seemed eager to listen to students’ thoughts on the issue. However, Peacock revealed his censorious bent early on. Appalachian, like many schools, has “free speech tunnels” where anyone can spray-paint anything. In late 2005, when some members of the rugby team painted “The Top 10 reasons why Jesus wouldn't make a good rugby player” and religious students complained, the university suspended their games for a month.

* *

All colleges are keen to keep the official number of on-campus sexual assaults low. Recently, the associate dean of students at the University of North Carolina resigned, claiming her superiors had instructed her to underreport the numbers of sexual assaults. Hyatt claims she's heard university administrators discourage students from taking the issue to the police or pressing for criminal charges.

“I don't know if it's their official philosophy, but they end up putting a lid on all this,” Hyatt says. “I've heard them say 'if you go to the cops, it's like being raped all over again.' Nothing seems to get reported.”

Over the years, student activists and concerned faculty have repeatedly tried to draw attention to the lack of victim support. But action on campus is tough, for a number of reasons. The student population naturally cycles over every year. Despite the myths of the online age, activism and organizing are a skill-set: they take time and experience to develop. The members of the CIA, for example, went their separate ways on graduation, taking their hard-won knowledge with them. In 2006, Alschuler died of pancreatic cancer: the group’s report survives only through the magic of the Wayback Machine and references in a few articles.

As college costs have risen sharply, even at relatively affordable universities like ASU, the working-class students have a harder and harder time keeping a roof over their heads. Not only that, but the student population explosion has made Boone one of the costliest places to live in the state. The struggle to make ends meet combined with the pressure of classes means there's little time left for the kind of activism needed to keep this issue in people's minds.

Hyatt says she's seen a marked decline in students agitating for change on campus. “We didn't used to have all this trouble, students used to be raring to go. They were meeting, they were self-organized, creative, they got things done.”

For many years Hyatt advised the campus chapter of the National Organization for Women, an activist group and constant thorn in the administration's side. Over time, she noticed a pattern in the administration’s method of dealing with protests. In the '90s, for example, feminist activists started doing Eve Ensler's “Vagina Monologues,” guerrilla theater style. The university responded by starting its own official, sanctioned performance of the same show. Activists pressed for a women's center; it became an office run by the central administration. Feminists did T-shirt paintings about rape-related issues; the women's center opened an official T-shirt painting event with more generic slogans. At every turn, Hyatt observed, dissatisfaction about the university was co-opted by the university’s own bureaucracy.

“It's like what a company would do: when they're under assault, when they think they might have regulation, McDonald's puts apples with their happy meals,” she says, still particularly angry that the women's center she and others fought for seems to have become a force for discouraging complaints, rather than a rallying point.

* *

In September 2011, Liz Willette was tired of fending off unwanted advances from one of her friends, a fellow student who never seemed to take “no” for an answer.

“He would get way too close, forced kissing, touching my face and hair while talking to me,” she says. “I kept telling him no. I'd known him for about three years.”

The fifth time this happened, he cornered her in a bar, “he grabbed my arm, said I wasn't giving us a chance. It was really weird, really uncomfortable.”

But she brushed it off and forgave him. The next time she was around him, she had a single beer, which she believes was drugged, “we don't know by who.” That night, which she only remembers in flashes, he raped her.

She went to the university police three days later, and spoke with an officer and a representative of OASIS, a local abuse and violence support group.

“They were very supportive. I was going to go to the hospital, get a rape kit done, try to prosecute, go all out and try to get him,” Willette remembers. “Especially since there were previous incidents of harassment, I felt like we had a pretty strong case.”

She claims her attacker even sent her text messages admitting the attack. After going to the hospital, she talked to a Boone police investigator, “who basically didn't understand the definition of consent.”

He spoke to her attacker, and “[the detective] said he claimed I'd consented while I was intoxicated, so it wouldn't be admissible in court. I just hit a complete dead end with the police.” Willette had studied law and ethics. “I tried my hardest to reason with them, to explain to them that it wasn't consent when you were too intoxicated to think clearly, when you were drugged.”

The cop “told me [the rapist] was a nice guy and he didn't think he would do it again. He said he didn't have a record, that he was a good kid and didn't mean anything malicious by it. It was bizarre.”

In a horrific catch-22, she says the district attorney refused to process the rape kit, because he didn't feel he had enough evidence to merit prosecution. Willette worked in the student union, and says her boss, Brad Vest, one of the operations directors, was extremely supportive — “he was my biggest advocate” — and put her in touch with Suzette Patterson, who oversees the women's center, and Judy Haas, director of student conduct, to try to get her rapist expelled.

“I told them the whole story, and basically they told me that I had no evidence he was aware of my state, that technically there was no evidence because I didn't remember much of the act and my rape kit hadn't been processed,” Willette says. “They said he could say he'd made up the story in the text messages to look cool, because we'd had sex. They basically had no faith in their own system, they threw their hands up. It's completely unethical for the directors of a system to keep running it knowing full well it doesn't work.”

After doing research later, she realized she could have gotten some penalties for his earlier harassments, but Patterson and Haas neglected to tell her this was an option. “They weren't advocating for me, they weren't trying to find a solution,” she says. “I wanted to get justice...my university did nothing.” Instead, she still saw her rapist in public, repeatedly, on the way to her apartment.

This happened during her last semester at ASU. Without support from Vest and her friends, “I would have dropped out of school, because that's how terrible the police and the university reacted to my situation.” She eventually got a “no contact” order with her rapist but even that order threatened her with expulsion or suspension if she or anyone she knew contacted him.

Like hundreds of other survivors whose stories will never be known, no charges were ever filed, and the rape didn't make ASU's official crime numbers.

* *

The same month as Willette's rape, two football players lured Alex Miller, a first-year student and member of the field hockey team, into a room, locked the door, turned out the lights, and raped her repeatedly until 4 a.m. After she reported this, another student, Meagan Creed, revealed that two of the same athletes had attacked her that April, taking her to a secluded apartment and assaulting her instead of giving her a ride home. Both women went public about their experiences to the Winston-Salem Journal and the Appalachian. They pressed charges, and went through an exhausting university hearing process. In an effort to bring her rapists to account, Creed would eventually spend over 50 hours in the same room as her alleged attackers.

The accused men played two football games after the local sheriff's office collected DNA samples. Both were eventually expelled for eight semesters. However, during the process, the suspended athletes appealed on a technicality and Cindy Wallace, the vice chancellor of student development, let them back on campus, neglecting to inform Creed or Miller.

“The university wasn't thinking about my right to safety,” Creed says. “The vice chancellor explicitly stated she didn't feel like she was endangering anybody by allowing them back on campus.”

Miller, disgusted, left ASU, and later told the Winston-Salem Journal that she would have stayed if her rapists hadn’t been allowed back on campus.

More students mobilized, and Willette and other survivors joined their efforts. “Without these victims coming forward and helping the school to change, they weren't going to know where to start: we were the ones who knew where the system had failed, and where it succeeded,” she says.

More stories poured out, more survivors came forward and the national media started to pay attention. One woman revealed to Ms. Magazine that despite physical evidence and police testimony, her rapist at ASU was let off because anal sex didn't fit the definition of rape, and because her attacker told the board “his foot slipped.” The records of most such cases are sealed due to federal rules protecting student records. Many times, the victims stay silent.

Instead, Creed complained to the federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights that ASU's repeated failure to deal properly with rape and sexual assault created a hostile environment. A particular concern was the practice of allowing a board composed of other students to decide whether the accused were penalized or not.

“I feel like they didn't take it seriously until I complained to the OCR,” Creed says. “After that, they started taking it very seriously.”

In the wake of its football victories, ASU had embraced “No Equal” as its slogan. After the crimes, that took on a very different connotation, and the protesters organizing the campaign called it “No Equal? No More.”

And that's where Jammie Price comes in.

* *

On March 2, 2012, Price, who has taught sociology at ASU for nine years, arrived to take her class, wearing a “No Equal” shirt with “No More” painted over it.

When asked about the shirt, she spoke briefly, according to her account, about her opinion on the controversies engulfing the school. Previously, she had also discussed issues of institutional racism and sexism using universities and their athletics programs as examples.

“I try to use examples students relate to, and they've been in education for over 12 years, so that's what I use,” she says. “Sadly, there's lots of racism in education.”

To anyone who's ever set foot on a college, none of this is particularly odd: the outspoken academic is a cliche for a reason. ASU is hardly Berkeley, but during my time there, professors made their political views known frequently. This was the time of 9/11 and the Iraq War protests, after all, and faculty participated — and even led — rallies.

But that day, one of Price's students walked out of class.

“I didn't really think much of it,” Price remembers. “Students leave class for all kind of reasons. I could tell she didn't like the content.”

The woman, she would later find out, was a student athlete dating one of Miller's accused rapists. Another of the accused was a classmate of the woman. That weekend, an administrator contacted her, and called her into a room with several other higher-ups.

“It was that student; she didn't like that I'd talked about the sexual assaults and that I participated in the protest,” she says. “Should I not cover the material in this class because one student has a problem? I left the meeting not knowing what to do.”

Suddenly afraid for her career (she's a divorced mother with children to support), Price had to consider her next move carefully. She had one class left before spring break, and decided to show a documentary while she figured out her next step. Since the class was dealing with issues of sexuality, she got “The Price of Pleasure” from the university library. It's a documentary critical of the porn industry, standard fare for a sociology course, Noam Chomsky even makes an appearance.

“I couldn't not show up, so I didn't even lecture: I showed a movie.”

During spring break, the university claims it received two complaints about Price showing the film.

On March 16, a letter from Anthony Carey, the vice chancellor for faculty affairs, laid out Price's heresies:

“You made disparaging, inaccurate remarks about student athletes and stated that they are given special privileges on campus,” the letter read. “You further made inaccurate remarks about recent sexual assault cases involving student athletes. As a result of your remarks, you created a hostile environment for the student athletes in your class.”

The list goes on, “you have repeatedly criticized the university administration, accused the administration of racism, and failed to properly warn the students that they documentary they were about to see might offend them.”

Students, Carey asserted, didn't feel safe in Price's class, “due to the increasing hostility that you expressed toward the university and the administration.” He suspended her immediately, and forbade her from even talking about the investigation or returning to the Sociology Department building.

The letter, when it surfaced, shocked faculty, says Stella Anderson, a marketing professor who's helped Price and represented her at university grievance hearings.

The complaints, like the transcripts of her hearings and the Equity Office's investigation, are sealed. But according to both Price and Anderson, at the hearing the administrators revealed that the first complaint went to the athletic director, who sought out another student athlete from her class to bolster the complaint. Then they went to the Equity Office, which had ostensibly been set up to combat issues like homophobia, misogyny and racism. Instead, the Office went after Price, for supposedly creating a hostile environment for student athletes, well-known as a historically marginalized and powerless group.

Anderson examined the complaints about the porn documentary, and says that if they'd been class assignments, they corresponded so closely “they would get an 'F' for plagiarism.”

I managed to obtain part of the sealed investigation, and it reveals that the second student athlete in Price's class to complain about Price's remarks didn't even really have a complaint.

“One student athlete told me that he was not offended by the comments that Dr. Price made about student athletes and university athletics,” the report reads. “He told me he could understand why another student in the class, a varsity athlete, was upset because one of the accusers in the sexual assault cases was a teammate.”

To say this is strange is an understatement. Usually faculty grievances follow a very specific process. There's encouragement for the student to resolve the issue directly with the professor, a requirement for written student complaints and an opportunity for the accused to defend himself or herself. This isn't just ASU's process: parts of it are mandated by national accrediting agencies, the UNC system, and even the federal government. Generally the Athletic Department doesn't operate its own separate investigative arm.

At the time, Meagan Creed's complaint to the feds at the OCR wasn't common knowledge — the university would announce an agreement to reform in June — but administrators and athletes knew about it, and Price believes that placed her firmly in their sights: they didn't want more bad press.

“Nobody knew this at the time except the higher-ups and the Athletic Department, but that was the context, I think that definitely put anything that a professor said in a room with athletes up for special consideration.”

But Price refused to stay quiet. She put up some of the documents about her case online, and spoke out to media and other students. On May 15, the dean of her college, Anthony Calamai, wrote her a letter threatening consequences, if “any of your statements about faculty or others are defamatory, or disrupt university operations.”

On May 25 a faculty due-process committee found Price's rights were violated, and that her actions clearly fell under academic freedom. Peacock rejected that, though five days later he would announce a deal with the DoE to overhaul the way the university deals with sexual assault and harassment. Naturally, there was a task force.

Price went to a grievance committee, which ruled in her favor again on Oct. 23. The chancellor rejected that too. “In this case she wasn't allowed to talk about it, she wasn't allowed to be on campus, she wasn't allowed to assist in her defense,” Robinson, who's also active in Price's defense, says. “There are some major due process issues here.”

Provost Lori Gonzalez, in the administration's defense, wrote that because it held some type of investigation, albeit an unusual one, Price's rights were respected.

“I think what's different about this case is it became public,” Robinson adds. “The letters say this is standard procedure. This has happened before, we just never found out about it.”

* *

Perhaps the university's attempt to silence Price will end up backfiring. This latest controversy has lasted longer than others at ASU. Over eighty professors signed a petition of no-confidence in the provost and, on March 25, the Faculty Senate narrowly passed it. The “No Equal? No More” group continues to organize though several of its founders have graduated.

I tried to contact Patterson and other ASU officials to get their responses to these issues. I even ran into Chancellor Peacock at an alumni event. He tagged the matter as a personnel issue, and wouldn't talk about it, even privately. Hank Foreman, the university's spokesperson, also refused to talk further about the issue: "the university is generally required to treat personnel matters with the strictest of confidentiality,” he wrote.

The administrator who did respond was J.J. Brown, the dean of students. He says ASU is serious about reform. “We are trying to learn from some challenges in the past, but we're also trying to move forward.”

Now the university will have a trained investigator look into assault cases, and a committee of faculty, administrators, and staff — not other students — will handle it. Brown claims, unlike some of the survivors I spoke with, that the university is there to support students, and doesn't discourage them from pressing charges.

“We want to give the victim/survivor options about how they wish to proceed,” he says, whether they want to report it to the police or “just want help processing it... it's about how you empower this victim/survivor to make choices.”

He's adamant that “we encourage them to report; we want to know what's going on,” and that better education will encourage students to report what they see. “Ultimately, our goal is to increase reporting. We know the national statistics are mind-boggling. You apply those to any campus in America and you know this is going on. Nationally, it's underreported.”

While Brown couldn't comment on the controversy about Price, or on fears that it would encourage faculty and students to stay silent about the issue of on-campus sexual assault, he said he hopes that change will happen.

“Can we do some things differently? Absolutely. Our theme this year is 'It's up to Me': each and every one of us plays a role in our campus community. I hope students will share their stories.” But the issue is a cultural one, he maintains, larger than ASU. “It's a challenge: every August you start out with 3,000 new freshmen. This isn't just one campus, it's a societal challenge.”

Creed and Willette, despite their criticisms of many in the administration, both said Brown has been far more responsive to their concerns than the chancellor and other administrators. Creed now sits on the Interpersonal Violence Task Force that ASU formed after her complaint, and feels “there's definitely progress being made, people are taking it seriously.”

But she still sees a culture of silence.

“After I publicly went out, people that knew about it just looked at me differently, some were really negative towards me,” she says. And there's still a stigma against reporting crimes committed by athletes because “they know they have people that will go to any length to make sure they get what they want.”

“We weren't out there to bash our university,” Willette says. “That was the most upsetting thing: we all loved Appalachian State.”

She's happy about the reforms that have taken place, especially the removal of students “who didn't know what they were doing” from the disciplinary process and an end to the requirement that the rapist and the victim be in the same room.

Willette believes that training and education for staff and administration will improve. But she remains troubled by what hasn't happened: no public apology and, most importantly, no punishment for anyone in a position of power.

“They didn't get rid of people they should have gotten rid of and they didn't correct people they should have corrected,” she says. “So far it hasn't really changed very much.”

“They got all this feedback, and they just formed a task force. The same people are still meeting with sexual assault victims.”

* *

Talking to faculty and students about this controversy, I noticed that terms like “corporate PR,” “corporate management,” and “protecting a brand” kept coming up. Administrators, in their own documents about the Price case, defend their actions in terms of managerial authority. In a recent athletics fundraising video for alumni, student athletes even repeat “I am a product of your investment.”

ASU has announced plans to move to the top tier of college football by moving to the Sun Belt Conference, and is undergoing reaccreditation. The controversy has already held up the latter process, a Dec. 10 email to faculty noted ASU's vague way of logging student complaints among the issues the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools wants resolved.

When I returned to ASU to research this story, the first thing I noticed was the size of the expanded stadium, a monstrosity constructed on the back of a controversial student fee hike in 2002. I and every other student who's gone to ASU since then is still paying for it every time we write a check to pay off our loans. Meanwhile, periodic freezes on new faculty positions (except for low-paid adjuncts) are now the status quo.

When the stadium's lights turn on, you can see it on the other side of town. If ASU moves up to “big-boy football,” as some dub it, it may mean more fee hikes and an athletics program even more immune to criticism.

“Not all these cases are like Jammie Price, but this isn't a singular incident,” Anderson, who's taught at ASU for 20 years, says. “The attitude is: let's prevent any fall-out, no matter what. It's just repeating itself, over and over again.”

Back channel chatter

There is a scribble about this dispatch in the backroom, with two contributors.