Student demonstrations complaining of lax responses to sexual violence at fraternity parties are shaking the Jesuit serenity of Santa Clara University. Attempts by acting University President Lisa Kloppenberg to assuage the complaints last week stirred student protests.
The student newspaper, The Santa Clara, reported that at a campus demonstration Oct. 1, SCU junior Clare MacMillin said, “Today is really about us all coming together as a collective and committing to supporting survivors and doing the work that it takes to actually change the culture on our campus.”
Flyers posted throughout the Santa Clara campus last week in support of survivors of sexual assault were removed by the university, the student newspaper reported. The flyers and demonstrations followed an email sent to the university community Sept. 23 by Student Body President Abigail Alvarez addressing over 30 incidents of alleged sexual assault that had been reported to fraternity and sorority leaders during the first three days of school.
The incidents and resulting furor over the Alvarez email dampened the optimism of a new school year in which the 8,500-student university reported a record number of first-year students.
The new issue of campus safety came after a spring of turmoil, which saw the resignation of its new president, Fr. Kevin O’Brien, over alleged misconduct in meetings with Jesuit graduate students, and allegations by a financial administrator of financial misconduct at the prestigious private university. Santa Clara, where undergraduate tuition approaches $54,000 a year, has a $1 billion endowment.
Kloppenberg, a former SCU Law School dean, wrote an email to the Santa Clara community in response to the student president. According to the student newspaper, Kloppenberg wrote: “Although the email from Associated Student Government President Abigail Alvarez noted estimates by Greek life leaders of as many as 30 drugging or assault incidents, thus far Santa Clara University has received only two third-party (i.e., not firsthand) reports about incidents of possible drugging since Sept. 19; and one report of possible drugging and sexual assault, which the person declined to report formally.”
“Even if it wasn’t Kloppenberg’s intention, this phrasing comes off as minimizing the issue and downplays its severity,” MacMillan responded at the Oct. 1 rally at the SCU campus.
MacMillin argued that the discrepancy in the number of reported incidents could have been phrased better with the acknowledgment that sexual assault is statistically underreported compared to other violent crimes.
A crowd of students, many of them adorned in blue to represent Sexual Assault Awareness, congregated beneath the Bronco Statue outside of Graham Hall at the rally, according to the student report.
The student newspaper said the protest was organized by a small group of students,led by MacMillin which was publicized via social media in the days leading up to the Oct. 1 demonstration.
The student leaders of the event, sitting atop the Bronco Statue’s platform, spoke about a series of subjects relating to sexual assault at Santa Clara, including consent, resources and accountability at the university, according to The Santa Clara account.
This event featured a reading of a written experience of sexual assault and its aftermath from a Santa Clara student who is currently studying abroad, read aloud by junior Charlotte O’Dell.
The letter emphasized the mischaracterization of perpetrators as violent strangers, as well as the harmful culture of victim-blaming.
“No jacket, no buddy rule, no long skirt, no leaving early, staying sober or even saying ‘no’ will save you from sexual assault or rape,” O’Dell read aloud from the letter. “It isn’t an issue of what we victims need to do to protect ourselves. It is an issue of what men need to do to end rape culture.”
In an interview with the student newspaper after the demonstration, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Jeanne Rosenberger agreed with the speakers’ emphasis on the language used in Kloppenberg’s statement.
“I definitely understand how powerful the words are and how [powerful] the word selection is, and that is something I would take to heart on my own emails as well,” Rosenberger said. “I am happy to pass that along to the president’s office. That’s a really important point, and that’s something we can definitely do better.”
Demonstration leaders said they also were approached by several fraternity executives seeking to speak about further steps towards addressing a “rape culture” within the Santa Clara community. O’Dell and senior Sophie Corbett expressed optimism about Santa Clara’s future efforts to address sexual assault prevention.
“There is no doubt in my mind that some of it is performative, obviously, but we had several [fraternity members] come up afterwards and ask us to present in their chapters and further the work that they’ve been doing,” she told The Santa Clara newspaper.
Corbett told the student newspaper that she is optimistic but acknowledges that fraternities are part of a larger system that cannot be dismantled with one demonstration.
“I’m curious to see if [the attendance of fraternity members] will translate into their policies and will translate into them getting more involved,” O’Dell said.
The reports of sexual assaults in the first few days of classes, some of which referenced the use of date-rape drugs, prompted Santa Clara’s sorority and fraternity leaders to hold an emergency meeting on Sept. 23, according to the student report. The organizations instituted a number of rules for fraternities hosting parties, including checking for access cards at the door, exclusively serving cans of sealed alcohol and requiring that bartenders be sober.
“To be clear, not all assaults involve members of Greek life, but leaders have decided to step up anyway and do what they can to prevent violence,” Alvarez wrote. “This list alone will not eliminate sexual assault at SCU, nor will it single-handedly uproot a deeply embedded and systemic rape culture, but it is one way that these groups want to take responsibility and promote community-level care.”
Following Alvarez’s message, Vice Provost for Student Life Jeanne Rosenberger and Title IX Director Belinda Guthrie sent an email to the student body on Sept. 24, urging students to report incidents of sexual assault to the university.
According to Rosenberger and Guthrie’s email, Santa Clara “has received several third-party reports about three possible incidents of drugging and a sexual assault this past weekend.”
The email also links a list of resources and encourages students to contact Assistant Director for Student Survivor Advocacy and Campus Support Services Bree Van Ness for confidential support.
The alleged incidents prompted a group of student activists, sexual assault survivors and faculty members to post hundreds of flyers on campus with phrases like, “Trust Women” and “Intoxication is not consent.”
The group arrived on campus before 7am on Sept. 28 to post the flyers on residence hall elevators, corridors, benches and lecture hall bulletin boards, according to the student newspaper report.
Within 45 minutes, the flyers were removed from Benson Memorial Center, according to the report. While the majority was removed from other spaces as well, some remained posted at a few locations.
Assistant Vice Provost for Student Life Matt Cameron told The Santa Clara that university policy requires flyers to be approved and stamped before being posted and that the content of the flyers was not a factor in the building staff’s decision to remove them.
“[Sexual assault] is an undeniably important topic that needs to be addressed,” Cameron said. “We were just caught off guard this morning and did what we thought was appropriate given the information we had at the time.”
The swift removal prompted criticism from many students on social media.
MacMillin posted an Instagram story of an SCU employee removing the flyers from an exterior Benson door with the caption, “Barely 8am and SCU is already taking down signs we put up in support of [sexual assault] survivors.”
The story was reposted by several students, as well as @metoo.scu, the official Instagram page of the #MeTooSCU movement.
MacMillin’s post continued with the caption, “@santaclarauniversity this is what y’all are JUMPING to tear down? We got a faster response from the school taking down these posters than we have about any labor policy or justice initiative.”
Alvarez, who organized the project and helped distribute the posters, told The Santa Clara that the goal was not for these flyers to become a permanent fixture. Rather, it was a form of disruptive activism.
“We knew [the flyers] were going to get taken down,” she said. “Obviously, we would have wanted them to stay up for longer, but the bad press that the people who took them down are getting is effective.”
The student president also told the student newspaper: “That guy was just doing his job, and it’s his job to maintain the building. It was just the sentiment of how quickly the university responded when it came to fixing their image, versus how slow they are to respond to actual, concrete demands, concerns and issues.”
In May, O’Brien, two months after being placed on leave, notified the university's board of trustees of his resignation. In accepting the Jesuit priest’s resignation, SCU board chair John Sobrato said in a statement that O’Brien had allegedly "engaged in behaviors, consisting primarily of conversations, during a series of informal dinners with Jesuit graduate students that were inconsistent with established Jesuit protocols and boundaries."
O’Brien is a longtime friend of President Joe Biden and had presided at an inauguration mass in January.
Also last spring, copies of an email by a university administrator alleged misdeeds by the SCU budget office. This kicked off an investigation into the allegations and rare public comments about the private university’s financial condition.