Sexual assault on college campuses has been in the news a lot over the last several months. One of the latest articles to go viral is Rolling Stone’s recent piece on rape at the University of Virginia. Though the credibility of the article has been challenged recently by The Washington Post and other media, the article’s account of the September 2014 meeting of the University of Virginia board of visitors offers insight into how a board and administration address difficult issues.

The following account is an excerpt from the Rolling Stone article in which the reporter describes the board’s discussion of sexual assault:  

Two full hours had been set aside to discuss campus sexual assault, an amount of time that, as many around the conference table pointed out, underscored the depth of UVA's commitment. Those two hours, however, were devoted entirely to upbeat explanations of UVA's new prevention and response strategies, and to self-congratulations to UVA for being a "model" among schools in this arena. Only once did the room darken with concern, when a trustee in UVA colors -- blue sport coat, orange bow tie -- interrupted to ask, "Are we under any federal investigation with regard to sexual assault?"
Dean of students Allen Groves, in a blue suit and orange necktie of his own, swooped in with a smooth answer. He affirmed that while like many of its peers UVA was under investigation, it was merely a "standard compliance review." He mentioned that a student's complaint from the 2010-11 academic year had been folded into that "routine compliance review." Having downplayed the significance of a Title IX compliance review -- which is neither routine nor standard -- he then elaborated upon the lengths to which UVA has cooperated with the Office of Civil Rights' investigation, his tone and manner so reassuring that the room relaxed.

I can so easily picture this happening: an intelligent, passionate, and well-intentioned board member questioning an intelligent, passionate, and well-intentioned administrator on a very serious topic. That administrator answers questions in a vague, hopeful way, and the board accepts the answer without pressing deeper, thereby passing up an opportunity to ask hard questions, face difficult truths, and through pain and turmoil, strengthen the institution.

How might the board and administration better navigate the discussion of difficult topics? Here are a few ideas.

Board members should ask the administration hard questions, and they should -- they must, truly -- press to get real answers. If they're on their game, board members keep up to date on current issues facing theological education, so that they can fully engage in discussions and problem solving. Boards should reassure the school's administration that they are playing on the same team, working together to strengthen the school.

In a best-case scenario, not only are boards asking hard questions, but administrators are honest about hard issues. They avoid spin. If the board is not ready to tackle challenging issues, administrators should consider how to educate them so that they are ready in the future. There are resources available to help boards understand complex issues that face institutions. 

The In Trust Center has many resources for leaders of theological schools. If you haven’t already done so, create an online account so that you can access the full archive of In Trust magazine articles. Please contact us if you have any questions.


Image credit: detail from School of Athens by Raphael Sanzio. Public domain.