The University of Vermont is one of the most highly regarded institutions of higher learning (right after the Ivy League) in the US. It is situated in the small picturesque city of Burlington and has some 10,000 students in attendance. UVM goes far to tell its students that it is a place that promotes diversity and equality, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, religion or ethnicity.
There are indisputably many things that are done right to further these valuable ideas. The dorms are mixed and (surprisingly to many somewhat conservative parents) young men and women share suites and bathrooms without much problems or embarrassment. The student center has gender neutral bathrooms and UVM has been ranked among the most gay-friendly universities in the States. A reporter writes in the water tower (Jan 24, 2012) that when she as a freshman commented on something by saying “that’s so gay”, her tutor immediately retorted: “No. We don’t say that here. This is UVM. You’ll learn.”
Promoting diversity and equality is not just about attitudes of individual students either. The university also works as an institution to ensure the equality of people from diverse backgrounds. There is a LGBTQ Club, a Diversity and Equity Unit and Women’s Studies as well as Sexuality and Gender Identity classes. For the “that’s so gay” freshman these opened her eyes to a more accepting and open world.
But hey, no paradise without trouble, right?
In December, a questionnaire circulated among members of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity somehow leaked to the public. One question asked: “If you could rape anyone, who would that be?”
The fraternity quickly denied that the question reflected values or shared views, saying that it was the product of a single individual. The university responded by starting an official investigation and the Sigma Phi Epsilon national association shut down the UVM chapter for an indefinite period.
The event sparked demonstrations against rape culture and shocked the whole UVM campus. It was also widely publicized, remaining among CNN’s top news for days. Local and university papers, like the water tower and The Vermont Cynic, have luckily not let the thing go either, demanding swift responses from the university. So far formal disciplinary action or criminal charges have not been put in place.
This Friday (Jan. 27th), Wanda Heading-Grant, Chief Diversity Officer and Special Assistant to the President for Multicultural Affairs sent an email to the student body, saying that the investigation still went on and disciplinary procedures would be brought upon individuals or the fraternity as a whole, depending on the conclusions. Further, the university’s Gender-based and Sexual Violence Task Force has been instructed to keep building on its initiatives, such as a new Sexual Misconduct and Assault policy and the upcoming Dismantling Rape Conference. In a nutshell “[t]he task force will continue to recommend long-term strategies for creating a campus culture that is respectful of all genders and is free from sexual harassment and violence.”
Things are being done, no doubt. What remains open is, however, the prevalence of misogyny and rape culture among fraternities, university students and, on a even larger scale, the nation. According to a recent government study, nearly one in five women in the United States have experienced rape or an attempt at rape. The study pushes estimates of annual rapes up to 1,3 million, when previous figures ranged around 190,000.
Even if it turns out that the repulsive questionnaire was the handiwork of a single individual, it is clear that he operated in an environment that does not categorically condemn such ideas and modes of action. Further, what we will not know even after a comprehensive study to this incident is how much and in what ways fraternities and students in general take part in a culture of rape and sexual violence. And this is where resources, words and action must be directed. It seems too optimistic to think that the revealed bastion of misogyny is the only one of its kind.