Category Archives: Education

So, let’s talk about Phi Kappa Psi’s statement on Jackie, the Rolling Stone article, and rape at UVA

Photo credit: WVIR-TV/NBC 29

Photo credit: WVIR-TV/NBC 29

A lot has been made about the Rolling Stone article chronicling the rape of Jackie, who during her freshman year, alleges she was gang raped by a group of men at a University of Virginia fraternity house. Rolling Stone has since distanced itself from the story, which has kicked up a firestorm of controversy, slut-shaming, and victim-blaming on social media, as well as fuelled rape denialism and apologism.

What prompted the Rolling Stone apology? Apparently, some factual inaccuracies found by the fraternity in question, Phi Kappa Psi, as well as the fact that they never reached out to her alleged rapists, in particular the one she accuses of orchestrating the attack. We can debate whether Rolling Stone should’ve reached out to Jackie’s unnamed alleged attacker, but what I find more pernicious is that Phi Kappa Psi’s assertions have gone unchecked and unscrutinised. They’re taken as fact.

What most of you don’t know is that, for the past several weeks, I’ve been working on a piece about my own experiences with Greek life. I hope to see it published nationally here in the USA soon. But the fact is, I am somewhat of an expert, by virtue of my own lived experiences, on the fraternity system and fraternity life in particular. I wasn’t Greek-that’s part of the point of my article-but I was an outsider firmly on the inside. As such, let’s talk about Virginia Alpha chapter’s rebuttal of Jackie, the woman allegedly raped at their UVA chapter house:

First, the 2012 roster of employees at the Aquatic and Fitness Center does not list a Phi Kappa Psi as a lifeguard. As far as we have determined, no member of our fraternity worked there in any capacity during this time period.

So this is pretty damning, obviously, and something that was easily verifiable by Rolling Stone. At least, that’s how it seems on the surface. But what we now know is that Drew, the alias by which Rolling Stone identifies the man Jackie alleges raped her, may not have been a Phi Kappa Psi at all. It is unusual, but not unheard of, for members of other fraternities to attend a party at another fraternity house. It is less unusual for GDI-goddamn independent, or non-affiliated students-to wind up at these parties; I was one of them. So Drew might not have been a Phi Psi, yet the assault could still have taken place at the Phi Psi house. This means Phi Kappa Psi would have some liability. Could Jackie have mistaken Drew for a Phi Psi? If he talked a lot about it and hung out with a lot of them, yes. I was regularly mistaken for an active member of the fraternity I hung out with by people unfamiliar with the chapter or Greek life. Jackie was a first-semester freshman who clearly knew little about college life, let alone fraternities and sororities. It’s possible.

Second, the Chapter did not have a date function or a social event during the weekend of September 28th, 2012.

This one actually made me laugh out loud. On my campus, and so many of the campuses I visited, wet events were banned at fraternity houses by the national organisation and by the university, for obvious legal liability reasons. That Phi Psi’s nationals would know about every party that happened at that house is ludicrous. In fact, the active chapter would probably be at great pains to make sure nationals didn’t find out. A date function or social event, such as a mixer (a party featuring them and a sorority), a formal (which almost certainly would have been a destination dance, not something held at the house), or other registered party would be tame by comparison, because Phi Kappa Psi doesn’t want to get sued. Any party like the one Jackie described is extremely likely to be an unofficial function not appearing in the official records of the fraternity. That means, even two years later, the local chapter could say there was no date function or social event during that weekend, without having to admit that yes, actually, there was a party. These terms have specific meanings.

Third, our Chapter’s pledging and initiation periods, as required by the University and Inter-Fraternity Council, take place solely in the spring semester and not in the fall semester. We document the initiation of new members at the end of each spring.

This is interesting, but not necessarily a defence. Formal pledging happens in very structured and specific time frames, but informal recruitment (even if the men rushing have to go through the formal process) happens year-round, particularly with freshmen who may have missed the pledging process the year before. I’ve seen it happen, men who somehow befriended one or two active members and then decided to join their sophomore or even junior year. The time frame of when rush, pledging, and initiation happens at UVA is neither here nor there, because much like the party, year-round recruitment may well have been something not on the official records, but that is nonetheless a part of the routine and everyday life of this and many, many fraternities.

Moreover, no ritualized sexual assault is part of our pledging or initiation process. This notion is vile, and we vehemently refute this claim.

I 100% believe this. Ritualized sexual assault, I can say with total confidence, is not a part of Pi Kappa Psi’s pledging or initiation process, nor is it a part of any other North-American Interfraternity Council member organization’s ritual. If it were, we’d have heard about it by now, full stop.

But here’s where things become less clear. It is not unusual for individual chapters to have their own traditions and rituals. It could be as innocent as adopting a penguin as your mascot, or it could be something more odious, like the “hell night” I once saw a freshman pledging a fraternity notorious for hazing come back from. The bruises on his back and abdomen terrified me as an RA. I can guarantee you that’s not part of any national initiation ritual too, yet I witnessed the results. Reading back through the Rolling Stone article, it could be that these men were simply egging one another on by saying they all had to do it, even if they didn’t. It could be that Jackie doesn’t remember the details of what was said, which studies have proven victims of trauma such as sexual assault find difficult to piece together. Or it could be that this local chapter has a very dark ritual unto itself, one, again, that nationals would know nothing about. Until it did.

The fact is that the national Greek organizations, the headquarters, can only be so responsible and know so much about what’s happening at their individual campus chapters, run by 18-22 year olds with limited adult oversight. This means, invariably, that a lot of what actually happens doesn’t make it onto the official record, and doesn’t become part of the historic narrative. The chapter may have no record of the party Jackie attended, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a party that night.

And it also remains that what Phi Kappa Psi has said in their statement is only half the story. Yes, what they said may all be technically true, but it doesn’t mean that things didn’t transpire exactly, or close to, as Jackie described to Rolling Stone. Anyone who knows Greek Life will know this, even if they’re loathed to admit it.

We can talk about journalistic integrity and whether it was a dereliction of duty and due diligence for Rolling Stone not to contact Jackie’s accused rapists or look into some of these details themselves. But what we’re not going to do is cast the veil of doubt over Jackie’s account while letting the rebuttal by Phi Kappa Psi and others go unscrutinised.

The fact is, there’s a lot of wiggle room Phi Kappa Psi has given itself. They’ve done a good job of bringing Jackie’s account into question, but they have done it with the hope and the knowledge that most journalists don’t know the realities of how Greek life works on a grassroots, day-to-day level, and with the hope that no one would question this because, well, facts. But their facts give way to reality, and the reality is that what Phi Kappa Psi said in its statement is only the official truth. The actual truth is much more convoluted, and likely much, much closer to Jackie’s story than they’d ever care to admit.

Update, 5 April 2015: Today, the Columbia School of Journalism published its report on the journalistic lapses of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s “A Rape on Campus,” and I wanted to make sure those were included here. Back when this blog was initially published, Rubin Erdeley’s reporting was just being called into question and the story only starting to unravel. What the CSJ report has found is a complete dereliction of duty. Make no mistakes: this report is damning. Rubin Erdely, her editors, and Rolling Stone should have and could have done better.

As a blogger, essayist, and especially as a journalist, accuracy matters. While I stand by my overall analysis of and commentary on Phi Kappa Psi’s statement from December 2014–the gist being that things on Greek Row are not always what they seem–it has become very clear and unequivocal that things likely did transpire closer to what Phi Kappa Psi claims than to what Jackie told Rubin Erdely. 

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Ofqual overhauls GCSEs, but to what effect?

Ofqual has overhauled the GCSEs with a new scoring system. I am obviously not a product of the British educational system, so I don’t have any anecdotes as to its effectiveness. And while I think it’s important to occasionally revisit curriculum and britishclassroomtesting, I think that we in the West often gloss over-or ignore entirely-the underlying issues with underperforming schools

I went to high school in southeastern Kentucky, and at the end of my senior year, I had plans to become an English teacher. My own teachers, however, talked me out of pursuing this dream. All of them sang a chorus of three complaints, all of which are rarely (if ever) addressed:

  1. Lack of resources. We can’t expect schools to succeed unless they’re provided the tools they need to do so. Cuts to local government are  indirect cuts to local schools, and the government commitment to building 180 new free schools redistributes desperately needed funding away from schools already in existence and which, with the proper support, could well succeed. I saw firsthand what a lack of funding can do in my own Appalachian high school, where arts programmes were non-existent, resources were exhausted early in the year, and for many young people, sport was the only thing keeping them in school and off the streets. Even that’s gone, now. Students can’t study and teachers can’t teach unless the schools are properly funded, and it’s simply not happening.
  2. Teachers aren’t teaching. My physical science teacher would sit at his computer looking alternatively at internet sport sites or my female classmates’ breasts, doling out assignments from the book but never actually teaching. I learnt more from Iain Stewart than I did from him. And he wasn’t the only one. It’s blasphemy amongst teachers’ unions to suggest that teachers are lazy, incompetent or both. And it’s true that teachers are some of the most unfairly vilified professionals, and the last thing I want to do is paint with a broad brush here. But the fact remains that many teachers simply aren’t teaching, or they aren’t teaching effectively. The answer to this problem, much like Santa Claus, is found in Finland. Oft cited as the epitome of Western education, the Fins have done a few things right. For one, they have some of the most rigorous teacher training in the world. They also treat their teachers as the professionals they are, affording the field a high level of respect and dignity which isn’t seen in the UK or the US. Part of that respect is  paying teachers equitably, as the professionals they are. Teaching is an economically equitable professional in Finland, unlike in the US or the UK. Because of this, Finnish schools are able to recruit the best and brightest graduates, who then become the best and brightest teachers, which can produce the best and brightest students. And Britain deserves the best and brightest.
  3. Cultural attitudes towards education must change. Folks can blame the government for the cuts or the teachers for their failings, but nobody ever wants to look in the mirror. I remember one of my high school teachers, almost on the verge of tears, explaining to me her exasperation. People didn’t care, she said. Students didn’t care. Parents didn’t care. The adolescent refrain of “when am I going to use this?” grated on their nerves, sure, but more so they were concerned about the cultural attitudes towards education. We have to make school cool. Parents have to get over their own insecurities and push their kids to do better than they themselves did. Too often parents, often subtly and inadvertently, discourage educational pursuits because they themselves cannot relate. “You’ll grow up to be just like your dad” needs to be replaced with “you’ll grow up to strive for more than we’ve got.” Parents need to actively engage in their children’s education, taking an interest in schoolwork and realising that, at the end of the day, the onus of their children’s success falls on their shoulders. Likewise, we need to take a long, hard look at the systemic issues disempowering the lower classes, including ensuring that poor kids aren’t going hungry, that they’re not having to drop out to help support their families, or that they’re not worried about crime, neglect and abuse. After all, it’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you’ve got no boots to start with.

I appreciate that the changes to the GCSE come with good intentions, and I certainly don’t have all of the answers. Throwing out three talking points is much easier than coming up with substantive policy alternatives. But until we start funding schools properly, attracting quality teachers, and empowering and encouraging students, we’re never going to fix our schools-int he US or the UK.