By Helena Chen Carlson
The Conservative Student Union (CSU) at UCI held an event called “Campus Rape Hysteria: False Stats and the Assault on Due Process,” last Thursday evening, inviting Andrew Cavarno, a recently-graduated history major from UCSB. At the event, Cavarno argued against methodology used to arrive at the statistic that one in five women are raped or sexually assaulted during their college careers, a figure considered standard across the nation. The allegedly inaccurate figure, according to Cavarno, infringes upon basic due process rights, emboldens sexual assailants and trivializes the severity of rape by classifying it together with “lesser forms of sexual misconduct” such as unwelcome kissing, grabbing but not penetration.
Cavarno gave a two-hour presentation detailing the processes of collecting figures, claiming that they lead to the “poor” ideology perpetuated by most college campuses on sexual assault, which then lead to poor policies that hurt both victims of assault and the accused.
The discussion was opened by Nick Gallo, Vice President of CSU. Students from UCI, and from around Irvine came to view the event, many having heard of the event through the controversy it stirred among students on campus and the opposition prior to the event, including the tearing down of event posters.
Gallo said he discovered Cavarno online, after a large event in Santa Barbara that prompted debate on Facebook. He thought Cavarno seemed knowledgeable and was writing intelligent comments. He then received an email from Cavarno over the summer, asking to present his perspective on this topic across the UC schools.
As the event began, Gallo introduced Cavarno, and talked about the efforts to silence discussion regarding the topic of sexual assault.
“We originally wanted to have this talk be either a debate or a discussion panel, with people representing different views,” said Gallo. “We reached out to several student activist groups and organizations on campus, university offices that explicitly deal with sexual assault, but none would participate.”
Rape is “obviously a big deal,” Cavarno asserted before he began his discussion. He said his presentation did not intend to diminish the severity of sexual assault, saying that the lasting effects on survivors are indisputable and that all allegations must be taken extremely seriously.
Cavarno went on to stress that false allegations of sexual assault should also be taken seriously, referring to stories such as the 2014 Rolling Stone article that detailed the experiences of a college girl who was gang-raped by fraternity members that was later discovered to be fabricated. He also referred to the story of Jay Cheshire, a 17-year-old boy who hung himself in 2015 after being falsely accused of rape.
Cavarno emphasized that due process was something he considered sacred, and that he especially wanted to clarify the idea that due process is a two-way street, one intended to protect both victims and the accused.
“To be pro-due process is not pro-rape, pro-due process is not anti-woman,” he said
When prompted why he thought universities were oftentimes inclined to side with victims in addressing sexual assault cases, Cavarno cited the “Dear Colleague Letter” published in 2011 by the US Department of Education, which reinforced the revised Title IX Education of Amendments act that states “as a condition of receiving funds from the Department, a school is required to comply with Title IX and the Department’s Title IX regulations.”
Cavarno said that, with the fear of funding withdrawals looming over their heads, he did not believe universities could impartially judge cases of sexual assault. Additionally, he argued that such cases should be handled by police departments, and assessed with a “healthy skepticism” given the possibility of an allegation being false.
Cavarno noted that this phenomenon was once reversed; prior to the publication of “Dear Colleague Letter,” schools would try to cover up incidents of assault in order to maintain their reputation. However after Title IX reinforcements and the threats of losing funding, there became a “reassignment of who was denied due process.”
Connor Strobel, a third-year PhD student in sociology and Vice President Internal for the UCI Associated Graduate Students, did not agree. He argued that at UCI, the process ensures ample protection for those who might be accused. When asked to comment on the issue, Strobel was keen to provide his perspective. He had previously been a student advocate at the University of New Hampshire where he helped victims, survivors and the accused through the student conduct process. Strobel said he heard about the “Campus Rape Hysteria” event through some of the organizers who had come to his office to discuss the due process rights of students going through a Title IX violation investigation.
According to Strobel, UCI’s standard due process exceeds the minimum requirement, which was established in the 1975 Supreme Court case Goss v. Lopez. “The accused, known as the respondent, meets with the investigator and with the individuals in the Office of Student Conduct,” said Strobel. “They give their side of the story and can challenge other accounts.”
Strobel also very firmly stated that he had no reason to believe the “one in five” statistic was an exaggeration, for studies across different universities yielded results within the deviation. He thought that the organizers had legitimate concerns about due process procedures on college campus, but saw the event as a red herring designed to challenge one statistic as an intentional distraction while avoiding the actual issue of sexual assault.
“The organizations and offices that they reached out to were right to decline,” said Strobel. “The title of the event suggests that it was not a neutral site for an honest dialogue or debate.”
Strobel argued that if CSU had wanted to have everyone’s voices heard on the issue, it would have been wiser to change the title of the event. He saw the use of the term “hysteria” as unfit and intentionally inflammatory.
“Hysteria means that the concern of a group of people is overblown,” Strobel said, “but in this case we see across the group that people surveyed underestimate the problem. These horrors happen at rates that are continually reaffirmed.”
However, Strobel echoed the thoughts of the CSU as he agreed that they have the rights to speech and assembly, and should be treated with dignity.
“It was an authorized event and the signs were, to the best of my knowledge, posted according to school policy,” said Strobel regarding their event posters that were torn down.
Despite apparent polarized opinions and political tensions across the student body at UCI, around 40 people sat in the audience — some members of the CSU, others curious students, drawn by the subject of conversation.
“This is a Conservative Student Union,” says Kevin Brum, a new member of the CSU, “but one thing that you’ll find here is people who call themselves egalitarians, classical liberals, people who are on the left side of things that don’t identify as conservative.” He didn’t think that members have to agree on every issue to be a part of the community at CSU.
Like Brum, Melisa Safady, an undergraduate student studying psychology and social behavior commented that she thought people were inclined to avoid “as much information as possible.” She felt as though even if one’s views didn’t entirely align with others at the event, it was worth temporarily setting aside prejudices and attending the discussion.
The CSU said they would gladly host another event with Cavarno if activist groups on campus are willing to hold a debate in the future.