Rape Happens Here

For 150 years, leafy, progressive Swarthmore College tried to resolve student conflicts in the best Quaker tradition — peacefully and constructively. Then came 91 complaints of sexual misconduct. In a single year.

Late on April 30, 2011, according to the suit, “Jane Doe” sent John Doe a text asking him to come study with her in her room. He did, and after some brief chitchat, the two engaged in consensual oral sex. The next day, Jane confessed the encounter to her boyfriend, who didn’t attend Swarthmore. He proceeded to send a threatening email to John. (The boyfriend said he had a gun.) Later that day, Jane came to John’s room and apologized for the email, after which the two had consensual sex. Nothing ever happened between them again, according to the suit. Nineteen months later, while studying abroad in Scotland with the same boyfriend, Jane told a dean at Swarthmore that the second encounter hadn’t been consensual and that she wanted to press charges through the campus judiciary system.

By early June, John Doe had been found responsible for sexual assault and immediately expelled. John Doe claims he was made a sacrificial lamb after Brinn and Ferguson had brought their claims against the school. So he sued, making him one of more than a half dozen “Reverse Title IX” complainants in the country. (Swarthmore, in a court filing, released an email in which the plaintiff told Jane Doe’s boyfriend “I agree with you” after being accused of actions “tantamount to rape.” The college also claims that Jane Doe resisted John Doe during the second encounter, which it says included digital penetration and caused her to bleed.)

The irony of Swarthmore’s position is that months earlier, it was beating back a separate lawsuit filed by women claiming the school hadn’t done enough to address sexual assault. (That case was ultimately dropped.) Where Ferguson, Brinn and others felt betrayed by the school’s complacency, John Doe felt betrayed when Swarthmore tried to stop being so complacent. As he claimed in the suit, “Associate Dean [Myrt] Westphal assured John that no student had been expelled for sexual misconduct in her 25 years at Swarthmore.”

Swarthmore has become something of a higher-education Rorschach test. Victims of sexual assault see a school that willfully ignored a pervasive rape problem. Campus conservatives, free-speech groups and, now, at least one alleged assailant see extreme political correctness infringing on students’ rights to free speech and due process.

“Consciously or not,” says a former administrator, “they’re so invested in protecting this bucolic campus, this elite liberal arts college that is Quaker and consensus-driven and radical and progressive.” Anything that bursts that fantasy, the former administrator says, “they just can’t deal with.” That sentiment refers to deans and professors, but in truth, it applies to most everyone on campus. What makes Swarthmore unique isn’t that it had a sexual-assault problem. What makes it unique is that its administration was hard-wired to address that problem in a way the student body was hard-wired to reject. Sooner or later, in other words, the Swarthmore bubble was going to burst.

THE COGNITIVE DISSONANCE between the two sides — and between the old way of doing things and the new legal realities of campus compliance — became stark one afternoon in mid-January, when I met Bob Gross, the former dean of students, at a coffee shop. Gross, wearing the muted-wool-and-tweed uniform of retired academics everywhere, for many years presided over the disciplinary hearing processes at Swarthmore.

“One day I was reading the paper about asteroids hitting the Earth, you know, a certain chance that the Earth could be struck by an asteroid and civilization would be wiped out,” he said. “And we used to say, ‘Do we want to spend our last days on Earth in a fucking CJC hearing? You know, let’s put it off.’” He chuckled. “The thing about deaning is, you’re always at the mercy of a drunken 19-year-old. Like it can just knock your weekend to hell.”

“Or more,” I reminded him.

He looked at me: “Or more.”

Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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