Documents recently obtained by The Washington Post reveal a push by administrators at the University of Virginia — as well as Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe — to sway the Department of Education as it investigated the university’s handling of campus sexual assaults.
The documents, including correspondence between officials in the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, UVA President Teresa Sullivan and McAuliffe, illustrate a cordial but contentious exchange in which McAuliffe calls the investigation into four years of the university’s sexual assault record an “adversarial process.”
In an August letter, McAuliffe asked the department to show UVA its findings before they are made public and to pinpoint specific cases that are being investigated. He accused the department of denying UVA due process rights, such as the right to be heard by an impartial tribunal and to be given adequate notice.
“While I tend to believe that constructive and cooperative approaches to reform are preferable — especially in working with public institutions that provide a vital function for our society at taxpayer expense — I understand that [the Office of Civil Rights] has fundamentally shifted course and has pursued a far more adversarial and punitive approach to resolving Title IX complaints,” McAuliffe wrote.
He also emphasized that UVA should be treated fairly “after it was so unfairly attacked” by a now-discredited November 2014 Rolling Stone article that depicted an incident of horrific sexual violence and a culture and administration that tacitly supported it.
Sullivan, in turn, reamed the department for an investigation she wrote is “replete with factual errors,” which she said the university could have corrected promptly if it had been allowed to review the probe’s findings. The department withdrew that version of the findings shortly afterward, then released a revised report of UVA’s Title IX violations on Sept. 21.
The report showed “a basis for a hostile environment existed for affected students at the university and that the university failed to eliminate a hostile environment and take steps to prevent its recurrence during academic years 2008-2009 through 2011-2012.”
Letters from U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Timothy Kaine, both Democrats, urged the department to take the governor’s comments seriously, citing “serious procedural questions that could affect the accuracy of the investigation.”
The university has repeatedly denied the media access to correspondence and documents surrounding the probe, citing exemptions in the state’s Freedom of Information Act that shield “correspondence and working papers” of college presidents from public access.
Although the department revised its findings — it’s unclear exactly how, the Post wrote — officials maintain that it did not soften them.
“The university was enormously displeased with what our findings were and very much hoped we would change them,” assistant secretary for civil rights Catherine Lhamon told the Post. “We did not.”