The Trouble with Oxy

When the news hit that Occidental, the small liberal arts college in Eagle Rock, was the subject of two federal complaints over the way it handled sexual assault cases involving students, it set the campus reeling. Three years later the school has taken steps to improve, but it has yet to salve the bitter rancor between activists, administrators, and faculty
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A few days after Mee’s hearing, she received an e-mail from the dean of students, Barbara Avery, according to a confidential copy of the federal complaint that a source provided me. Her attacker had been found responsible for two counts of rape and sexual assault; he’d be expelled. A couple of weeks later, however, Avery wrote to say she had accepted the assailant’s appeal. When the hearing panel met again, it reached the same verdict—but overturned his expulsion. Instead he’d be suspended until Mee graduated. As to why, Avery said that it was because of “extraordinary circumstances.” In January 2013, after being hit with criticism from activists about similar cases, Oxy stopped allowing victims and perpetrators to appeal sanctions.

If Mee was distraught by the news, Capranica was shattered by it. She experienced anxiety attacks, often during class. She stopped going out and hid in her room. During Capranica’s judicial process, her assailant had repeatedly harassed her—as he later did Mee, according to the complaint. At one point he allegedly told Capranica: “I like to get confident girls drunk, watch them cry, and have sex with them.” But because her case had already been decided, his ban from Occidental applied only to Mee’s time there, which meant he would be returning to campus before Capranica graduated. Rather than have to face him, she worked so she could graduate six months early. What Mee and Capranica didn’t realize then was that the man who’d raped them had raped a third woman twice. They soon would. The news that a serial rapist had been roaming Oxy shocked the campus. But it was only a hint of the uproar to come.

When Jonathan Veitch became the 15th president of Occidental College on July 1, 2009, one big goal was to steady the campus. It had gone through three leaders in four years, a remarkably short period, considering many college presidents serve a decade. Asked about his proudest accomplishments a year and a half into the job, he said, “just calming the waters a little bit, being accessible, building morale is an important part of what needed to be done.”

Fifty-six years old, with brown hair ringing his crown, Veitch grew up on the Westside, the son of a Hollywood mogul. His father, John, worked at Columbia Pictures for more than a quarter century, rising to president of worldwide film production and overseeing films like Taxi Driver, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Tootsie. A historian with degrees from Stanford and Harvard, Veitch went on to become dean of the New School’s Eugene Lang College in New York City, where he gained a reputation as a prodigious fund-raiser. At Occidental Veitch has focused on campus-building projects, raising money for the college’s endowment, and recruiting more international students.

The Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition leads a camp out in April 2013, after the lawsuit and federal complaints against the school were announced
The Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition leads a camp out in April 2013, after the lawsuit and federal complaints against the school were announced

Photograph by Patrick Fallon/Getty Images

If you were to pinpoint when faculty began to mistrust their president, it would be in late 2012. In November of that year, OSAC gave the president a list of 12 demands, describing changes it wanted made in the way Oxy handled sexual violence—from delivering a detailed annual sexual misconduct report to restoring its previous verbal consent policy, which required students to get consent before engaging in sexual activity. He promised to adopt ten of the demands. But in March 2013, when the activists complained that Veitch had done nothing, he said he had agreed only to hear the demands, not act on them. His response roiled the campus. That same month Veitch alienated students and faculty further when he criticized activists for talking to the media about Oxy’s failure to alert the campus about a rape in February—well before Allred blasted Veitch for not alerting the campus about a subsequent rape in April. “I’m dismayed that…a number of well-intentioned people have…actively sought to embarrass the College on the evening news,” he wrote in a letter in The Occidental Weekly.

By the time of Allred’s April press conference, the 127-year-old campus was a national media story, with faculty and students fighting for justice and an administration fighting to stem the bad publicity.

“He wasn’t prepared, and you know he made mistakes,” Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology, said of Veitch. “He didn’t figure out fast enough that he should listen to the people who were experts on this issue and respect them. Caroline was walking in with all this documentation, not only what was going on at Oxy, but the ways in which our policies were not in compliance with the law, let alone best practices. This was long before the protests. She had been going in there for years.”

Things got worse for Veitch in May 2013. That’s when the faculty gave votes of “no confidence” to Avery and campus counsel Carl Botterud over their poor handling of survivors and their sexual assault complaints. More than being symbolic, the move was unprecedented, with 65 out of 74 professors weighing in against the dean and even more against Botterud. While Botterud quietly resigned (for unspecified reasons), Avery remains on staff.

Veitch’s initial reaction to the crisis back in 2011 had also dismayed professors. Presented with cases of alleged rape, “he didn’t respond with ‘Oh, my God! The women on my campus are being assaulted. That’s something we need to fix in the best possible way immediately,’ ” recalled Wade. “He made promises that weren’t kept. We increasingly lost faith that he would do the right thing.”

Vowing to “make things right,” Veitch had hired Gina Smith and Leslie Gomez of the Philadelphia-based law firm Pepper Hamilton in April to review what went wrong and to draft a new sexual misconduct policy. That summer he created the Sexual Misconduct Advisory Board, a small group composed of faculty, students, and staff, to examine Oxy’s mistakes and offer recommendations based on research of campus sexual assault. He hired a survivor advocate to counsel students about their reporting options and a new Title IX coordinator to ensure the school complied with federal guidelines. He had the school’s Web pages on sexual assault revamped, launched a 24-hour hot line, and established a mandatory online course about sexual assault for students. Then, in September 2013, Occidental announced a confidential financial settlement with at least ten of Allred’s clients (several more had retained her after the press conference). That same month, in a story by Jason Felch and Jason Song in the Los Angeles Times, Veitch acknowledged the school’s problems, but he believed Occidental had some of the strongest sexual assault policies in the country.

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If Veitch thought the administration’s problems were over, he was quickly disabused of that notion. The faculty was still reeling from the revelations that dozens of their students were being sexually attacked by their classmates. Professors were seething over how Avery had kept her job. To add to that, several faculty members had been asked to surrender their phones and laptops to O’Melveny & Myers, another law firm working for the school, in response to the federal complaints and the prospect of a suit from Allred (she never filed). Although the practice is common in lawsuits, professors viewed it as a chilling intrusion into their academic rights.

When the faculty gathered in Johnson Hall for its monthly meeting in September 2013, members assumed that Veitch would answer their questions about the Allred settlement. Instead the president spoke for nearly 30 minutes, declaring his administration to be “shell-shocked” by the acrimony directed toward it. He begged for empathy, asserting that the sexual assault battle had damaged his “health and my soul.”

About a month later reporter Jason Felch detailed in the Los Angeles Times how Oxy had failed to include 19 anonymously reported incidents of sexual violence in its 2010 Clery report. They’d been discovered by another consulting firm hired by Oxy. In the L.A. Times story the college acknowledged the mistake to Felch, who followed with a second article on December 7. This one accused Occidental of underreporting another 27 cases of sexual assault in 2012—reinforcing the impression that Oxy was deliberately hiding rapes and assaults.

For almost three months after Felch’s story ran, the administration said nothing publicly about the 27 cases. Then in late January 2014, Occidental hired G.F. Bunting + Co., a PR crisis communications firm run by Glenn Bunting, a former investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Ralph Frammolino, another ex-L.A. Times reporter, works for Bunting. A few years earlier Frammolino and Felch, who were writing partners at the paper, had a bitter fight over a book they coauthored about the Getty Museum. Frammolino had been lobbying Oxy as a client since October, according to an anonymous source, boasting that he knew Felch’s methods of reporting and could turn around the negative press. After Felch’s December 7 story, Bunting’s firm was hired.

In early March Bunting met with L.A. Times editors to dispute Felch’s account in a PowerPoint presentation. Shortly after, Felch was fired and the newspaper published a letter on its Web site retracting the reporter’s December 7 story. The 27 cases of sexual assault, it said, didn’t qualify under the reporting guidelines for the Clery Act. For instance, some involved sexual harassment while others occurred off campus. Finally the paper revealed this: Felch had also been having an “inappropriate relationship” with a source for this and other stories he had written. Whether that was the reason he had been fired wasn’t explicitly clear.

So began another national media frenzy. When journalists asked Oxy for the PowerPoint material about the cases, they were told it was confidential. Why then had editors at the L.A. Times gotten to see it? “We agreed to share certain information with the Times to prove that the newspaper got it wrong when it reported that Occidental failed to disclose 27 reports of sexual assault,” Occidental spokesman James Tranquada wrote in a statement to me. As for showing the PowerPoint material to me, too, he wrote, “Consistent with our response to other media outlets, we respectfully decline to share the presentation with L.A. magazine.”

Following his termination, Felch wrote that he was “dismissed for creating the appearance of a conflict of interest” and that he had voluntarily told his editors about the affair after learning that he was being investigated. He noted that he wasn’t shown the new information, so he never got the chance to defend his reporting. He also said that he repeatedly tried to get Oxy to verify or dispute the number of cases and was stonewalled. Oxy contended that Felch never mentioned a specific figure and waited until right before the story ran to ask to interview administrators, giving them insufficient time to respond.

On March 18 Veitch addressed the scandal at a faculty meeting. Many there were outraged that they hadn’t been told about the involvement of Bunting’s firm. One professor accused Oxy of “dirty tactics.” Heldman and Veitch argued over the disputed—and endlessly confusing—assault numbers. “Why wasn’t it cleared up for us last year?” Heldman asked and went on to out herself as a source for Felch’s story. Veitch tried to appease her. “There is so much misinformation, which is why we need an opportunity to talk together,” he said.

At that point Heldman got angry. “You have brought me into your office, you have asked my opinions, then you have told me I don’t know what I am talking about,” she said. “If you think there’s a snowball’s chance that I would sit in a room with you again while you insult me, while you have lied to us, while you have promised things and not delivered—your statement today is the absolute best evidence that any of us have of what you’ve been doing behind the scenes.”

It seemed nobody was talking about Oxy’s sexual assault problems anymore.

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Like all liberal arts colleges, Occidental treasures academic freedom, the ability of faculty and students to say, argue, or publish almost whatever they like no matter how conservative or contrary. To that end, just days after the rancorous meeting with Veitch, Oxy’s faculty received a letter signed by several professors. “We write to you today out of concern for the well-being of the college,” it began. Without naming them, the letter seemed to blame Heldman and Dirks for the “polarization” of the faculty and the administration. “I signed it because I feared we had a no-end strategy,” an early OSAC member told me.

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