In the wake of the collapse of the Rolling Stone “gang rape” story last week, it’s time to consider what happened last month to Robert Jennings, the outgoing president of suburban Philadelphia’s Lincoln University, the nation’s first degree-granting historically black university. I note that Jennings is “outgoing” because he was just fired by his board over a four-minute YouTube excerpt of a 26-minute speech he gave to his school’s All Women’s Convocation in September.
While his attempt at fatherly advice on sex may have been inartful, it hardly justified his critics’ charge that he was blaming women for sexual assault. Nonetheless he has seen his career ruined, thanks to the highly charged atmosphere surrounding the issue of sexual assault.
Even Vice President Joe Biden cites inflated statistics that one out of five campus women has been sexually assaulted. The pitchforks that come out in such an atmosphere can chill free speech, obscure relevant aspects of the specific cases and the larger issues, and lead to politically correct reporting disasters such as those on the Duke lacrosse and Tawana Brawley cases, and now the Rolling Stone debacle on the alleged gang rape at UVA.
Jennings, who to no avail apologized for his comments before his firing, still insists that his critics are taking the YouTube video out of context. But even the truncated version casts doubt on why he has been ridden out of town on a rail. The video excerpt begins with Jennings saying he’s going to let the women in on “a little secret”: “Men treat you, treat women the way women allow us to treat them. . . . We will use you up, if you allow us to use you up,” he said. “Well, guess what? When it comes time for us to make that final decision, we’re going to go down the hall and marry that girl with the long dress on. That’s one we’re going to take home to Mama. There is something about the way you carry yourself and respect yourself that commands and demands respect from us.” At this point, the video shows the female crowd clapping in agreement.
“You know I’m right about it,” he said and then discussed what can happen with some sexual-assault accusations:
We had, on this campus last semester, three cases of young women who after having done whatever they did with the young men, and then it didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to turn out — guess what they did? They went to [the university’s Department of] Public Safety and said, “He raped me.” So then we have to do an investigation. We have to start pulling back the layers and asking all kinds of questions, and when we start trying to collect the data and ask the questions — and why do we do that? Because we know that possibly somebody’s life is getting ready to change for the rest of their life.
At this point Jennings noted that new federal guidelines can lead to jail time for any student even accused of sexual assault; the person is likely to be expelled, with the charge appearing on his transcript, which often means that other schools won’t accept him.
Then came the statement that clearly sank Jennings’s presidency (he may still have tenure as a professor): “I’m saying this because, first and foremost, don’t put yourself in a situation that would cause you to be trying to explain something that really needs no explanation, had you not put yourself in that situation.”
When the speech excerpt appeared on YouTube, it created an uproar. Marybeth Gasman, a University of Pennsylvania education professor, said it showed that “the president blames young women for being raped by saying that when they have sex with someone and regret the act, they then create a story [of rape] to explain it.” Melissa Harris-Perry of MSNBC demanded that Jennings “be held accountable for encouraging survivors to be silent, for telling them they would not be believed, that they would be subjected to your scrutiny and disrespect.”
Jennings responded with a letter to all Lincoln students in which he apologized “for my choice of words” and said he “intended to emphasize personal responsibility and mutual respect.” He told Philly.com in an interview that his message to both male and female students is the same: “I emphasize to them how serious that allegation is and that the university takes it very seriously and so does the federal government and so does the court.” He noted that he had told the male convocation of students that “no means no#….#and even if it is consensual, one should [refrain] from engaging in something that could alter their future.”
At first, the university defended Jennings, agreeing with him that three women at Lincoln had recently lied about rape, although he had gotten the time period slightly wrong. Jennings characterized the cases as women falsely reporting rape as revenge against men who had been unfaithful. But faculty members and some alumni, already upset at Jennings for what they called his autocratic style and his elimination of college programs, demanded his head. It was promptly delivered to them.
Jennings did have some defenders on the left. Boyce Watkins, a liberal African-American scholar at Syracuse University who has often clashed with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, said what Jennings told his students was an attempt to “empower women by educating them to the ways of men, and also warning them on how to protect themselves from sexual assault.” He called for “conversations where the other side of the dialogue isn’t automatically squashed into oblivion.”
If we are to have an honest discussion, we have to start with the facts that are in play. Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute and other scholars have called into question the claim that one in five female students has been the victim of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault while at college:
Such bogus statistics have been the mainstay of campus-rape-epidemic propaganda for years. They are generated by a variety of clever techniques, but the most important is this: The survey-taker, rather than the female respondent, decides whether the latter has been raped or not. When you ask the girls directly whether they view themselves as victims of rape, the answer overwhelmingly comes in: No.
Let’s stipulate that sexual assault on campus is a serious issue. That’s why it deserves serious treatment and debate. The last thing we need are articles like the one in Rolling Stone that can be used to minimize or cast doubt on the experiences of genuine victims. And we also shouldn’t fall prey to mob mentalities like the one that cost Robert Jennings his job simply for making sincere attempts to discuss legitimate, complex issues on college campuses.
— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO.