«Wesleyan University supports efforts to draw attention to the problem of sexual violence on college campuses. Brutal assaults like the one described in The Atlantic’s article can be traumatic for those directly involved and painful for any community. We consider it an institutional priority to care for survivors, vigorously adjudicate offenses, and create a campus climate that affirms the right of everyone to learn free from the threat of sexual violence. To make it clear: We believe it’s always wrong to blame survivors for their assaults, and we reject the implications to the contrary in the article.»
A second e-mail regarding Beta was sent out, this one attesting to reports (plural) of sexual assaults at the fraternity house “during recent parties”; noting that these reports “renewed our concern” expressed in the e?mail sent before Jane Doe’s enrollment; and strongly encouraging students to stay away from the house. Next, Michael Roth issued an edict that he would come to regret: no Wesleyan student could so much as visit any private society lacking recognition by the university. His declaration was obviously intended to shut down Beta or bring it into the fold-but it did so in the same roundabout manner in which the university had been dealing with Beta all along. Its implications were unintentionally far-reaching, and Wesleyan students immediately protested it, holding “Free Beta” rallies; in one instance, a car full of young men shouted the slogan as pus after visiting the police station. That student sympathies would array themselves so strongly on the side of a fraternity in whose chapter house a sexual assault had occurred, and so negligibly on the side of the young victim of that assault, was the kind of eccentric Wesleyan reaction that no one could have predicted.
Meanwhile, a nonprofit organization called FIRE , the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, got involved, sending an open letter to President Roth informing him that his action posed a grave threat to Wesleyan students’ right to the freedom of association, violated the university’s own “Joint Statement on the Rights and Freedoms of Students,” and might have consequences extending even to the local Elks Lodge and the Middletown Italian Society-hardly hives of Wesleyan undergraduate activity, but the organization had made its point.
The embattled president retrenched: he published a statement titled “Housing Policy and Threats to Student Freedom,” in which he deemed his previous policy “just too broad,” retracted most of it, and-in what has become a hallmark of his tenure-lavishly praised the student activism that it had engendered. “I want to thank the vocal Wesleyan undergraduates for reminding their president to be more careful in his use of language, and to be more attentive to student culture. Of course, I should have known this already, but hey, I try to keep learning.”
Strictly speaking, the newest policy should not have ended the Free Beta protests, nor should it have assuaged activists’ concern about threats to student freedom-because Roth also asserted in his statement that nothing had changed in regards to Beta: if the fraternity did not join Program Housing by the start of the next semester, the fraternity would be “off limits” to all students. Anyone who violated this rule would face “significant disciplinary action.” It was high-handed treatment, it trampled on students’ freedom of association, and it was entirely within Roth’s rights. Wesleyan is a private university, and as such can establish requirements about students’ private behavior essentially at the whim of the administration-the “Joint Statement on the Rights and Freedoms of Students” be damned. And it worked.