Does Univ. of Tennessee's 'model' for sexual assault reform go far enough?

The school announced a $2.48-million settlement and pledged to increase efforts to combat sexual assault on campus in response to a lawsuit alleging that the school doesn't do enough to investigate athletes accused of sexual misconduct. 

C.B. Schmelter/The Jackson Sun/AP
University of Tennessee head coach Butch Jones addresses the players gathered in June for a satellite lineman football camp at University School of Jackson's Kirkland Field, in Jackson, Tenn. The school has agreed to a $2.48-million settlement in a lawsuit alleging that it did not sufficiently investigate and punish student athletes accused of sexual assault.

The University of Tennessee announced Tuesday that it had agreed to a $2.48-million settlement in a lawsuit alleging that the university did not sufficiently investigate and punish student athletes accused of sexual assault.

Along with the settlement came an agreement by university leaders to improve the school's Title IX efforts through a series of new initiatives that advocates hope could serve as a model for other colleges. The University did not admit to wrongdoing, however, and many experts on sexual assault believe deep-seated campus cultures, particularly around athletics, must be part of any meaningful transformation.  

The lawsuit, filed by eight unidentified women in February, focused on allegations of sexual assault by members of the school's football and basketball teams in recent years but outlined cases going as far back as 1995, including an incident involving retired NFL quarterback Peyton Manning in 1996, when he played for Tennessee. 

University leaders admitted no "guilt, negligence or unlawful acts," but rather cited financial reasons for the settlement, noting in a press release that going to trial could have cost as much as $5.5 million and distracted the public from "all of our positive progress at UT."

The new initiatives include additional support and budgeting for areas related to sexual assault, student conduct, education programming, and student well being, as well as the hiring of six more people in Title IX compliance positions. 

Additionally, President Joe DiPietro said he would appoint an independent commission to review existing programs addressing sexual assault and make recommendations for improvement. 

David Randolph Smith, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said he and his clients were "satisfied" with the university's "significant progress in the way they educate and respond to sexual assault cases" and "convinced that the University's leadership is truly committed to continue its exemplary efforts to create a model as it relates to sexual misconduct." 

But some say the deeper root of the problem is cultural, not a matter of university policy – and that one lawsuit isn't enough to make a significant difference in how college athletes are treated. Activists say a culture of sexual violence often begins before players even start their freshman year, when "hostesses" try to persuade high school football recruits to commit to their college during campus visits. 

"When it comes to rape, much of the public may now side with activists who have long pointed out that not only male privilege, but white privilege, athletes’ privilege, and rich people’s privilege are keeping too many criminals from serving sentences that fit their crimes," as The Christian Science Monitor's Stacy Teicher Khadaroo reported in June, after a Stanford University freshman and star swimmer was sentenced for three counts of felony sexual assault. 

In 2016 alone, there have been multiple high-profile scandals involving alleged sexual misconduct by athletes. Earlier this year, Florida State University settled a lawsuit with a former student who claimed she was raped by quarterback Jameis Winston. In May, Baylor University President Kenneth Starr was forced out of his job and football coach Art Briles fired after the two came under fire for ignoring accusations of sexual assault by football players. 

"We have a double standard for football when it comes to academic integrity. We have a double standard for football when it comes to player safety and concussions. We have a double standard for football when it comes to sexual misconduct," Erin Buzuvis, a professor at Western New England University School of Law, told Mother Jones. "It's the pedestal upon which we've placed football that is underscoring the pattern here." 

Other experts are more optimistic that the efforts resulting from the Tennessee lawsuit could lead to positive change. 

By adding six new dedicated staff, the school "should have the necessary resources in place to catalyze change," says Brett Sokolow, president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor.

However, he continues, the true impact of the lawsuit is dependent on how the school uses those resources. In order for real change to happen, the independent commission needs to make the right recommendations, and the university has to act on them. 

"You can talk all you want about wanting to be a national model, but the proof is in the pudding," Mr. Sokolow says. "It’s going to take a lot for UT to be a national model, but nothing less than that should be acceptable to anyone."

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