Sexual Assault Issues Linger As UO Year Begins

University of Oregon professor emeritus Cheyney Ryan was a consultant in settling a 2011 federal case against Yale that led to changes in how that school addresses sexual violence. But last week the UO sent out an email to alumni in the Portland area appearing to criticize Ryan’s competence, saying that TV station KATU had misrepresented “the expertise of a retired UO faculty member” in a series on sexual assaults and the university.

Ryan is quoted in the KATU story as saying the school might be “legally vulnerable” thanks to its handling of an alleged sexual assault by three basketball players on a fellow student last March.

Victims of sexual assault often fear retaliation for speaking up about what happened, and now those who attempt to stand up for victims and survivors say they are being retaliated against as well. Retaliating against someone who has brought a concern or reported a possible violation of a federal civil right is illegal under the same Title IX law that prohibits sex discrimination in education.

Ryan isn’t the only UO professor who has been perhaps too outspoken for the university’s tastes on the issue of sexual assault on campus. Psychology professor Jennifer Freyd, who just published an article in American Psychologist, the leading journal of the American Psychological Association, was denied UO funding for a proposed campus climate survey on sexual assault in June.

Vice President for Student Affairs Robin Holmes told The Register-Guard that there might be “confirmation bias” in her survey with questions slanted to prove Freyd’s beliefs about the school’s failures in dealing with sexual violence. The survey in question had already been written when allegations of a sexual assault by the basketball players came to light in May.

Freyd, who was flown to Washington, D.C., last year to consult on the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, said at the time that she heard from national colleagues asking her why her university would resort to an ad hominem attack against her — and on what grounds?

Ryan says that the school similarly questioned his expertise in the KATU story: “They basically said I didn’t know what I was talking about.”

Ryan is an emeritus professor — a rank not all retired professors are given. He retired early to work with the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict in England, where he spends part of the year. He directs a UO program that takes students to Oxford to study human rights.

Carol Stabile, director of UO’s Center for the Study of Women in Society, says she has not experienced any pushback from the school for being vocal about the issue of sexual assault,  “But with two high-profile attacks on very senior faculty members, I know for a fact that that’s having a chilling effect on campus.” She says, “The junior people are clear that they don’t feel safe taking a stand.”

Ryan says he has asked the school for the source of the comments about his expertise but has not received an answer. EW asked UO spokesperson Julie Brown if the comments in the email came from Interim President Scott Coltrane or UO public relations. Brown says that the reference to Ryan “was to demonstrate the news outlet’s lack of understanding of his background,” adding, “It was not intended to question his expertise on any topic nor was any comment about professor Freyd in the context of how to best conduct a campus climate survey on sexual violence.”

Brown continues, “Employees at the UO have some of the strongest academic freedom rights in the country. Faculty are able to question decisions by the university, and we hope there is opportunity for exchange of facts to inform viewpoints.”

Ryan says he intends to bring the issue up with one of his former students, journalist and UO Board of Trustees member Ann Curry. “As recently as three weeks ago the UO administration itself asked me for information on how to train people on Title IX,” he says.

According to Stabile, a full report by the Senate Task Force to Address Sexual Violence and Survivor Support will be out in mid-October. However, the task force has sent Coltrane a list of recommendations that the members say should be implemented before school starts Sept. 29. The list includes requiring a syllabus statement addressing sexual violence and telling the UO Police Department to stop tracking IP addresses on its online “anonymous” reporting form. — Camilla Mortensen