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What is the Role of the University in Changing Rape Culture?

by Kathryn R. Falvo

On Friday last week, I participated in a student protest at Penn State regarding the recent actions of Kappa Delta Rho. I believe in their cause. I believe that the students in this fraternity should be immediately suspended while the courts do their work.

There are many people who share this opinion. Many come from Greek life – and students all over this campus have taken the time to speak up against the actions of KDR. In the midst of this growing conversation, I want to contribute yet another open letter to President Barron. But I want to do so from my particular position as a graduate student. I am not involved in Penn State’s Greek Life. Nor am I an undergraduate. But I am a graduate student, a teacher, and a counselor. I am a member of this community. I am a woman on this campus. And like all women here, I like to believe that I have the ability to learn, teach, and grow in ways not bound by my female body. Lately that seems to have taken a lot of effort. As both a learner and a teacher on this campus, I see how this event has affected our University community. And I see the imminent need to fix it.

Tomorrow President Barron will gather with President’s Council in Old Main to discuss the University’s response to this issue. I have attempted to have faith in his administration – I appreciate his thoughtful response. And I want to believe that he will do the right thing for this community. But it strikes me that his decision will be about more than how to treat the individual members of this fraternity. The question here is not the moral character of KDR. I think we can certainly attest to the atrocity of their actions, and, given the comical posts by KDR members, they aren’t doing much themselves to make us sympathetic.

The larger question that President Barron might be able to ask is this. What can the University do to end rape culture?

The University cannot put these men in jail. And although we can cooperate with the legal system, we also cannot ensure a guilty verdict. We cannot make sure the victims seek counseling. We might not be able to destroy fraternity culture, even if we put harsher restrictions on them.

But the University is fully within its right – more to the point, it is within the realm of responsibility – to protect its female students. To send a message of zero tolerance. And I hope President Barron takes us seriously when we say that this is what we want and expect from him.

With this in mind, I submit the following open letter for consideration.


Dear President Barron,

The following letter is adapted from a speech made on the steps of Old Main on Friday, March 20th.

I have recently read your message to the Penn State community in reaction to the actions of Kappa Delta Rho. I want to begin by thanking you for your timely response. The actions of this fraternity are abhorrent, and I approach you with the utmost respect for the position you have taken. I look forward to seeing real action on the part of the University in addressing these issues.

But you also stressed something else in your comments. You warned that there would be people clamoring for the expulsion of these fraternity members. And you suggested that these people would be unreasonable. Disrespectful of the rights of male students. You stressed the need for “due process” in both criminal and disciplinary investigations.

I am not writing to tell you that we should abandon due process. I’m not even here to argue that these men should be expelled. I think our leaders have made our case very clear – we are requesting temporary suspension while we try to have faith in the courts to judge these men fairly.

But I am here to make the point that the University and the law are not the same body, and they do not have to respond the same way. Of course we will cooperate with any legal investigation. But you as a University do not need to wait for the courts to reach a verdict before you remove these men from campus – not to expel them, but to suspend them while the courts do their work.

Let me explain why you should deviate from the legal system on this point. This is not the first time issues of sexual violence have torn apart a University campus. This is not the first time there has been incontrovertible evidence that rape culture is pervasive, and that it is intimately tied to fraternity life. Due process is a noble goal. And it is the responsibility of our legal system to assume these men innocent until they are proven guilty. But the University is not the law, and the evidence we do have is sufficient enough to know that each and every member of that fraternity was complicit in creating and maintaining a culture of sexual violence that makes women afraid to be members of this community.

You say in your remarks, President Barron, that you are “shocked” by the actions of these men. Are you? Because we aren’t. Those of us who are women – who live on this campus, who teach, befriend, counsel, and love other women – we are not shocked. We know it from personal experience. By the experiences of people that we love. But we also know it from the thousands of other schools that are struggling with these issues, and with the women who have sacrificed so much to make their experiences public. When you tell me that you are shocked, what I hear is that you aren’t listening.

You have no excuse not to be familiar with these issues. Can you really live on this campus and tell me that you don’t know what rape culture is? Shock is a privilege that women do not have. Shock is an emotion that people hide behind in order to absolve themselves from the responsibility of addressing a culture we are all implicated in.

These actions do not take us by surprise. Perhaps you are merely shocked at the stupidity of men who got caught.

Your priority as administrators and educators should be to create an environment where all students feel safe to learn. Where women feel safe being in class and walking on campus. Can we really assume that the best way to do that is to allow these men to remain on campus? In our classrooms? Are we really more worried about these men’s reputations than we are about the safety of our women? And what does that say about our priorities as a school? About who can thrive on this campus?

It strikes me that “innocent until proven guilty” seems to offer the benefit of the doubt to those already in power. What about the innocence of the women in those pictures? Why do we work from the assumption that these men have no responsibility instead of the assumption that these women have been harmed – and are continually harmed – when they are forced to face their aggressors in class? Suspend these men while the courts do their work. They have the right to due process of the law – but in the meantime you have the power to make this campus a safer place for women.

As I stand before you and speak of this event, I do not feel shock. No – what I feel is exhaustion. We are tired of having to prove that rape is real. We are tired of providing evidence of rape culture. We are tired of worrying about the rights of the people who create that culture. Before you clamor for the rights of these men, think, for one moment, about the right that these women have to be safe. Please suspend all members of this fraternity. They are complicit in this crime. Please show Penn State and the country that we will not stand for sexual violence.

You have a rare opportunity to send a clear and incontrovertible message to all the fraternities on this campus. It is a message this University needs right now. Are you really going to lose the opportunity to do take concrete action against sexual violence on our campus? To tell female students that you will make a stand for their safety? I was impressed by your words. I am impressed by your intent. Because of that, we are standing here today with faith in you to do the right thing. Please don’t let us down.

Kathryn R. Falvo

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