Mary Sheehy Moe Commentary: “Not Looking Away”

In an interesting feature a few weeks ago, Sally Mauk interviewed sociologist Michael Kimmel on the issue of sexual assault. Dr. Kimmel pointed out that while rape actually occurs between one individual and another, it’s made possible by a culture, a culture that looks the other way.
Given the bright light shown on the incidence of sexual assault at the University of Montana in recent months, Dr. Kimmel’s comment troubled me. I recalled a conversation I had with three university students some time ago on the subject of being “roofied.” I had never heard the expression before, so these young women educated me. Getting “roofied” is when someone puts a drug in your drink that leaves you unable to know, resist, or remember what happens hours after that. These three all claimed to know someone who knew someone who had been roofied – someone who had woken up half-clad and totally dazed in a parking lot, a field, or the apartment of some guy she kinda knew.
I took these claims with more than a grain of salt. What was harder to shake, though, was the fact that these girls had all had adopted practices to protect against getting “roofied.” They started to tell me some, and as they did, more young women joined our group and added their own tried-but-true anti-roofie methods: They always went to parties with friends and they left with friends. They brought their own cups and drank only out of their own cups. They never shared their drink with anyone. “Not even someone using a straw,” one girl said. “Especially not someone with a straw,” another insisted, and they all nodded their heads knowingly.
I left that conversation thinking, Wow. Getting roofied? And it’s now so de rigeur on campuses that young women educate one another about the protection protocols? But I never reported this conversation to anyone at the University of Montana. It didn’t seem like my business. It wasn’t until I heard Dr. Kimmel explain that rape is supported by a culture that looks away from abherrant behavior, that accepts it in a way, that I reflected, wow. Those young women live in that culture. They invited me in. And I looked the other way.
It wasn’t the first time. When one of my daughters attended UM almost a decade ago, she worked at a popular watering hole there. It was especially popular among football players, and my daughter would routinely complain to me about the harassment they continually subjected her to, sometimes in the presence of assistant coaches. I worked in the university system at that time and at one point considered taking it right to the top. But my daughter said she would take care of it, and she did. On the larger issue, though, the sort of boys-will-be-boys tolerance for crude and predatory treatment of women by and among some athletes, I guess we both looked the other way.
There’s been a great deal of comment on the sexual assault controversies at the University of Montana for the past six months. The Missoulian reporters who have diligently dogged this story have been vilified by some of the more lathered-up citizens of Griz Nation. Incensed alumni have demanded to know the particulars of the non-renewal of the contracts of Robin Pflugrad and Jim O’Day. Enraged bloggers insist that the University is protecting athletes, rather than young women. And in the eye of this storm, criticized by all these groups, is University of Montana President Royce Engstrom.
I’ve followed President Engstrom’s actions on this matter since the allegations of sexual assaults first came to light. And whatever else you say about President Engstrom’s handling of this difficult, difficult issue, you must concede this: he hasn’t looked the other way.
As Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian told the Regents last month, Engstrom called him in mid-December, before the assault issue had become public, and told him, This situation is far-reaching and deeply disturbing. It’s going to be a rocky road, but we must pursue it.
Engstrom has stayed that course ever since. While some on his staff fretted about PR, he went ahead and had the community forums. When he reached the conclusion that he needed new leadership in the athletic department to effect a change in campus culture, he made the change, knowing it wouldn’t be popular in some quarters and that he wouldn’t be able to elaborate. While the County Attorney fumed at the intrusion of the Department of Justice into Missoula matters, Engstrom accepted the DOJ’s presence, saying we think we’ve put good procedures in place, but if there is something to be learned from the DOJ investigation, we want to learn it. He has navigated a complex landscape, consistently mindful of the competing rights, reputations, and expectations of victims, accused, personnel, and public. And from start to finish, in an environment where it seems everybody has something critical to say about someone else, he has consistently avoided name-calling, second-guessing, and buck-passing.
Has he made mistakes? Yes, and he’s admitted them. Does he have regrets? Sure. But as he has said since last December, the University of Montana is going to do what’s right, regardless of fall-out. In the short run, that may damage the reputation of the university. But in the long run, the university will be stronger and better for it – and, most importantly, so will its students.
As President Engstrom told Sally Mauk recently, he is now keenly aware that sexual assault shatters young women’s dreams. They come to college full of optimism, anticipating a creative, productive, and happy time, and sexual assault steals that from them. I would add that it just doesn’t steal their dreams. It steals their reality – their world and their worldview is immediately and permanently changed. Royce Engstrom can’t get those things back for them. But he – and you and I and the entire university community – can do better by tomorrow’s young women. The culture of predation and entitlement that led to these assaults was a long time in the making and, like it or not, it happened to some extent because too many of us looked the other way. It’s time for all of us to join President Engstrom on the long, hard road to a healthier campus culture.

One thought on “Mary Sheehy Moe Commentary: “Not Looking Away”

  1. Mary, your eloquent commentary, so beautifully written and spoken, brought tears to my eyes. I join you in support of President Engstrom.

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