UI President Mason addresses sexual assault concerns in listening post


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University of Iowa President Sally Mason began a campus-wide conversation about sexual assault with a story.

In 1970, Mason was an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky. As she walked to class one afternoon, an individual in a trench coat approached Mason and grabbed her breast — a story she had not shared before.

The story opened a listening post with a panel of UI officials on Thursday where Mason gave roughly 200 students, faculty, staff, and community members the opportunity to voice their concerns about sexual assault on campus and the university’s policies on the subject.

The event followed protests on the UI campus and an uptick in the number of reported sexual assaults. Mason said her assault encompassed a problem she hopes to address at the UI.

“And the truly sad thing is in 1970, I had no clue what to do. None,” she said, teary-eyed. “And today, I think this is an optimistic one, because I never want a young woman on this campus ever in her life not to know where to go if something like this happens to them.”

But despite Mason’s optimism on the visibility of the university’s resources — such as the Rape Victim Advocacy Program — many students said they were disappointed.

“I tried to take a step in the victims’ shoes to see if I could find online the steps I should take if assaulted, but it was a mess,” one speaker said.

Members of the audience repeatedly requested the university adopt a zero-tolerance policy for those accused of sexual assault. A zero-tolerance policy would call for university officials to expel those accused of sexual assault.

UI Dean of Students David Grady said no students have been expelled in recent years for sexual assault, but last year, of the 22 suspensions issued by the university, 12 were for sexual misconduct.

Other students aired a variety of grievances with the panel. They said the informational videos freshmen and transfer students watch as they begin at the university were “inadequate” and “laughable” as preventative measures.

Several victims had their statements read on their behalf by friends or professors. They included accusations the university failed to act appropriately after their assaults.

University officials did not respond to those accusations directly during the panel.

Other students and local residents stepped forward to praise Mason on her progressive stance on the subject.

“I thank you for coming out today, and inviting these really important comments from which we can really all learn,” said Nancy Quellhorst, the president and CEO of the Iowa City Chamber of Commerce.

Local legislators, including Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, Rep. Sally Stutsman, D-Riverside, and Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City, returned from Des Moines to attend the session. Mascher encouraged university officials to post answers to the frequent questions to better inform the community.

“We need to keep on this; it’s not something that’s going to go away, and we need to continue to be vigilant about trying to solve this problem — it is an enormous problem,” she said.

Mason said the university would “absolutely” follow up on the post and maintained the university’s intent to push the issue forward.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve failed,” she said. “I’d say we have a lot of work to do.”

But some in attendance weren’t satisfied with discussion of policies, timely warnings, or preventative information.

“Our culture perpetuates this — our beer culture, our sports-centeredness,” said Charisse Levchak, a UI visiting scholar. “There’s something going on in this culture, and we can’t turn a blind eye to this."

Levchak remained ambivalent about the panel, noting conversations like this could be a pacification technique.

“Now, we wait,” she said. “It’s about action; it’s not about appeasing.”

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