Attacked for addressing sexism

May 15, 2013

Michelle Farber, a University of Connecticut alumna and Seattle Clinic Defense organizer, looks at the controversy over a UConn student who challenged sexism.

UNIVERSITY OF Connecticut senior Carolyn Luby wrote an open letter that appeared at the Feminist Wire on April 24 to the university's first female president, Susan Herbst, to address the university's recent logo change.

The letter came days after UConn announced its mascot was to be changed from a smiling husky dog to a logo, designed with Nike's influence, featuring an aggressive, almost wolf-like dog. Luby quoted women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma's comments on the design change: "It is looking right through you and saying, 'Do not mess with me.' This is a streamlined, fighting dog, and I cannot wait for it to be on our uniforms and court."

Why does the University of Connecticut, Luby asks, need a more frightening logo, when women are intimidated, attacked and harassed by UConn athletes with alarming regularity? She cites some, though certainly not all, of the attacks and violent behavior displayed by UConn athletes:

On October 6, 2012, Lyle McCombs is arrested on charges of second-degree breach of peace for a domestic violence dispute in which he was, "yelling, pushing and spitting at his girlfriend" during an argument outside a residence hall.

On February 11, 2013, Enosch Wolf is arrested on charges of third-degree burglary, first-degree criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct when he "refused to leave" a female student's apartment, "grabbed the hair of the victim and pushed her head" and "knocked the glasses off the victim's face with his hand."

On March 21, 2013, Tyler Olander is arrested for trespassing in a structure or conveyance while on spring break in Panama City, Florida."

University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst
University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst

Luby implored Herbst to start addressing the violence against women occurring on campus, rather than concentrating on the university's corporate partnership with Nike:

Instead of communicating a zero-tolerance atmosphere for this kind of behavior, increasing or vocalizing support to violence against women prevention efforts on campus in the face of such events, or increasing support to student-run programs that seek to work with athletes on issues of violence as well as academic issues, it would appear that your administration is more interested in fostering consumerism and corporatization than education and community.

FOR SIMPLY asking the question, "Does UConn really need a more aggressive mascot and sports culture when violence against women is happening on a startling basis here already?" Luby was harassed and threatened--both with rape and death. The threats came from fellow students on campus all the way to Rush Limbaugh, who is perpetually looking for another Sandra Fluke to target.

Barstool Sports, an online sports blog, printed a reader e-mail mocking Luby, calling her a bitch, and claiming that she is arguing that the new mascot is the cause of rape.

Luby reported her on-campus harassment to the UConn police, whose response, according to the student newspaper, was that Luby wear a hat and keep a low profile.

The response from the university and President Herbst? Absolute silence. According to an article in the Hartford Courant, Herbst has released a statement citing campus policy on the right of students to express their opinions without being degraded, but didn't mention Luby.

In an era of Sheryl Sandberg-esque feminism, in which we're taught to believe that the problem is there aren't enough women in the corner office or at the head of a boardroom table, this incident is a case in point. The current head of the University of Connecticut is indeed a woman, and Luby appealed to her to further the interests of women on campus, as many current students and alumnae hoped she would.

However, under Herbst's administration, students have only seen further tuition hikes and the prioritization of the athletic programs over student needs. The example at UConn speaks to the need for confronting the idea that we simply need to equalize the gender balance of the ruling class in order to effect equality for women.

AS A former student activist on the University of Connecticut campus, I spoke with a current student about the incident and the misogynist backlash. Confronting institutions in which women's reports of rape and harassment aren't taken seriously or are swept under the rug has been at the center of recent feminist organizing, following the rape of a teenage girl by Steubenville High School athletes, and Title IX cases that have been brought against Yale, Occidental, Amherst College, the University of North Carolina and a devastatingly high number of other universities charged with not adequately protecting female students from their attackers.

Kylie Angell, a student activist in UConn's Violence Against Women Prevention Program, said:

I feel that this backlash is the symptom of a greater problem, and cannot be summed up by looking at this incident in a vacuum. Rather, our students and faculty must look at the overarching issues which permeates throughout campus, including the searing sexism and misogyny stemming from those in opposition of the feminist-inspired letter."

The "overarching" issues that Angell brings to light are those of a hyper-masculine sports culture that encourages and even rewards the denigration and assault of women--a culture in which universities encourage sexual assault survivors to seek recourse through non-legal means and rarely expel or punish the assailants.

Just like Steubenville, this scenario--in which a young woman demanded accountability from the administration for encouraging aggression in an already overly violent college sports program and then faced death and rape threats, horrific misogyny from media, and complete silence from the university--could have happened on any college campus in the country.

What's happening at UConn isn't isolated. It can be demoralizing to look at the list of sexual assaults on campus, violations of Title IX and university presidents more concerned with corporate sponsorship than the safety of their student body, but as more and more students, alumni and activists come forward and demand change, it's imperative to tie all of these incidents together.

According to the New York Times, women at Occidental College sought advice and inspiration from students who have brought Title IX suits against their colleges. There's also discussion about creating a national organization for survivors of campus sexual violence to connect and share strategies in how to fight for justice in their university's administrative system.

In response to the recent campus events, UConn students organized an event on May 7: a "Silent Protest Against Violence, Sexual Assault and Hate Speech." In their press release, they stated:

The letter [written by Carolyn Luby] and, more importantly, the backlash from the letter allowed for her argument to be further proven; there is indeed violence and rape on college campuses. Most importantly, this is not an individual issue; this is an issue that affects all of us.

Although Carolyn Luby's story may seem like an isolated incident to some, it unearths issues that affect all of us: first, that universities are failing to provide safe environments for their female students, plain and simple.

Peeling back the layers on rape culture on college campuses is multi-factorial and complex, but a college's first steps must be addressing their aggressive, overfunded athletic programs and, for once, prioritizing the voices of women like Luby, instead of Nike's corporate sponsorship of a public university's athletic programs.

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