Letters obtained by the Washington Post reveal that Virginia’s governor and two U.S. senators attempted to influence a federal investigation into the University of Virginia’s handling of sexual violence complaints.
What effect this lobbying had on the investigation’s outcome remains unknown.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in recent years has opened dozens of investigations into universities that have received complaints for allegedly ignoring or mishandling reports of sexual assault or sexual harassment on campus. The OCR began investigating the University of Virginia in June 2011. But over the summer, as the investigation wound to a close, university officials and their powerful political allies began leaning on the federal agency to soften and possibly work with the school to alter its conclusions, the Post reports.
In mid-August, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) sent U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan a sharply worded letter, saying he suspected that the OCR’s investigation had turned adversarial toward the university. He accused the office of denying the university due process. McAuliffe suggested in his letter that the Rolling Stone’s infamously retracted article on rape at the University of Virginia—which quoted an OCR official criticizing the university’s handling of sexual assault—might have unfairly influenced the investigation.
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He called the Rolling Stone piece a “false article.”
The governor suggested that the Department of Education should allow the university an opportunity to correct any issues identified in the investigation before publishing any of its findings.
A few days later, U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Virginia Democrats, wrote Duncan asking the education department to consider the governor’s requests.
University of Virginia officials similarly pushed back on the federal agency’s investigation and initial findings, submitted to the school for review on August 31.
The OCR insists these outside efforts did not influence its investigation, or its final letter of findings, published on September 21.
However, as the Post notes, there is a discrepancy between the first report that was submitted to the university in late August and the final report submitted to the public a month later.
Upon receiving the initial letter of findings from the OCR, the university’s president, Teresa Sullivan, said the report was “replete with errors” and that the investigators had made incorrect assumptions about some of the sexual assault cases they studied as part of the investigation. Investigators in a subsequent letter agreed to withdraw the initial report and requested additional documentation from the university.
Catherine Lhamon, the OCR’s assistant secretary, told the Post that she met with university officials in the following weeks, and they all reached a resolution. She told the newspaper the university remained “enormously displeased” with the final report, which concluded that between 2008 and 2012, the university had violated Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program. The law requires that federally funded colleges must try to combat gender-based violence and harassment on campus and must respond to survivors’ needs to ensure they have equal access to education.
Among a slew of findings, the report noted that the school failed to take “prompt and equitable action” in 22 out of 50 reports of sexual harassment made between 2008 and 2009, and 2011 to 2012.
“The University’s failure to provide prompt and equitable responses to reports of sexual misconduct therefore contributed to the existence of a hostile environment for affected students,” the report reads.
The OCR determined that these issues have been resolved and that the school is complying with federal law.
The university denied the Post’s request for a copy of that August 31 letter of findings, stating that it was exempt from the state’s open records laws. Thus it is yet unknown how significant this discrepancy might be. The newspaper quoted an anonymous source who said the final report discussed fewer examples in a smaller time frame.