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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What most faculty didn’t know was that OSAC was fracturing, too. Dirks had quietly dropped out. Some of the seniors felt that Heldman was trying to exert too much control over the group. She wanted OSAC to stage a “Scarlet Letter” protest against Veitch, where they’d all show up on campus wearing scarlet A’s. It was Veitch and his consultants for the L.A. Times, she charged, who were to blame for the public admission that a professor had been sleeping with its reporter. When the students questioned the idea, Heldman lashed out at them. “She wrote us an extremely long text message how she never trusted any of us,” recalled one of the students, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. “All of us were very upset. All of us were crying.” In April the students deleted their hero from OSAC’s Facebook page and announced that from then on, OSAC would be a student-run organization.

Things were also getting tense between professors who’d been involved in the movement. One early OSAC member said that in June 2013, Heldman kicked her out of the organization. “She didn’t like how I was handling things,” the professor recalled. “She decided I wasn’t in the inner circle anymore.”

In August 2014, Heldman e-mailed me, warning of this person’s credibility after I mentioned speaking with her. “However she may be presenting to you, she is working against the struggle as we see it on campus.” From then on Heldman didn’t respond to my e-mails, texts, or phone calls. That same month I learned that Heldman and Dirks had split. For the movement’s sake they were trying to keep it quiet to maintain a united front, but those who knew found the news unthinkable. Since late 2012, the women had seemed inseparable. The two had been writing a book on campus rape. Any time activists and students referred to them, it was in tandem: Danielle and Caroline, Caroline and Danielle. As late as January 2014, a month before they stopped talking, Heldman had even tweeted a photo of the two leaning together, with the word “wifeys.”

Dirks met me one afternoon in August at an Eagle Rock diner, where she dashed in wearing workout clothes, her hair plopped in a bun atop her head. She had a Pilates appointment across the street, part of an effort to take better care of herself. “I am really so scared,” she said as she discussed the falling-out.

Her relationship with Heldman had been strained for months, a casualty of the incessant media attention on and power struggles in the movement. After they launched the national student-faculty advocacy group End Rape on Campus, in July 2013, the pressure only intensified. That November Kirby Dick, the Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker, came to Oxy to work on his film about the college sexual assault epidemic. The crew was shooting Heldman and Dirks when the director interrupted. He wanted Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, cofounders of EROC, in the scene—not the professors. Dirks figured the students made for a more compelling story, but she said that Heldman felt snubbed. Hadn’t the professors handed this documentary to Dick? Why were the media focusing so much on Clark and Pino?

When Dirks defended the students, she said, Heldman grew furious. “She accused me of not being in the trenches with her and turning against her,” Dirks added. In February 2014, she told Heldman she was going to resign from EROC. She was stressed. “I didn’t realize the extent of how much of that stress was her,” Dirks told me. But when Dirks decided to remain in EROC, Heldman resigned instead. She cofounded the national group Faculty Against Rape, whose mission is to enlist more professors in fighting sexual assault and to protect them against retaliation from their schools.

Then came the revelation from the L.A. Times that a professor had been sleeping with Felch; some on campus assumed it was to influence the paper’s sexual assault coverage. At first Heldman pretended to many people—including me—to be the source, but several faculty members knew it was someone else, who wished to remain anonymous.

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Studies show that only 2 to 8 percent of rape and sexual assault cases involve false claims. But in the push to end sexual violence on college campuses, there’s a growing refrain coming from men found guilty of rape: that the system is now stacked against them. At Harvard this past fall, 28 law school professors deemed the school’s new sexual assault policy “overwhelmingly stacked against the accused.” And, of course, there is the Rolling Stone debacle from last fall, in which the magazine backed away from a woman’s claims of being gang raped at a fraternity house at the University of Virginia. First the magazine said its trust in the source was “misplaced.” Then, changing course, it said its reporter had failed by not contacting the alleged attackers, confirming the worst suspicions of campus rape deniers.

“I still remember when I did my first interview and outed myself as a survivor, and that was so scary,” Mee, who’s studying law now, said to me about the story. “So it’s hard to see the reactions to her, and the assumptions because there were errors in the journalism, that people are doubting her.”

Students accused of sexual assault at schools including Brown, the University of Michigan, and Swarthmore College have filed charges of their own, some of them citing Title IX violations themselves. At Oxy there’s been one such suit: In December 2013, a freshman identified as John Doe was expelled after he was found responsible for raping a 17-year-old female student, and he ranted about the case on social media. That same month a post on Reddit and 4chan about an online form enabling Oxy students to anonymously report sexual assault led to men’s rights activists swamping the Web site with more than 550 fake complaints.

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Photograph by Patrick Fallon/GettyImages

In February 2014, after losing his appeal, John Doe sued Occidental, alleging sex discrimination. Under Oxy’s sexual consent policy, his lawyers argued Jane Doe had actually assaulted him. Both were drunk, and she’d given him oral sex while he was “intoxicated” and therefore couldn’t consent. She also texted a friend that she was going to have sex. Oxy, which had long been criticized for not punishing rapists enough, was suddenly being accused of going too far.

Making things worse, John Doe’s lawyers released about 200 pages of confidential documents. The young woman had never wanted to go public, and now the excruciating details of her experience were splashed online. When Oxy later went to court to have the material sealed or redacted, the judge declined. Then a civil liberties group called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education rallied in defense of John Doe, unleashing a torrent of online harassment from trolls aimed at female witnesses.

Dirks was one of them. On June 6 she received an e-mail from a man in Missouri: “What kind of a radical fucking man hating dyke are you?” it read. “Please, slice your goddamn wrists, nail your pussy shut and go wait tables before you harm someone else.”

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I’m making sure we’re dotting our I  ’s and crossing our T  ’s,” said Veronika Barsegyan from behind her desk at the Campus Safety office. It was early September, and Barsegyan was a month into her job as Oxy’s Clery coordinator, managing the daily crime log and recording every incident. The 28-year-old was scrambling to pull together the annual Clery report. Due October 1, it was supposed to contain Occidental’s crime numbers for the previous three calendar years, 2011 through 2013. “I’m auditing and auditing and auditing to make sure we are completely compliant,” said Barsegyan.

She was being helped by Victor Clay, the new campus safety chief, who came on the job three days before. A burly 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Clay replaced Holly Nieto, who retired in August. For years it was Nieto’s job to ensure that Oxy’s rape and sexual assault numbers were correct. Although she relied on departments to pass along sex crime statistics to her, sometimes the reports fell into a black hole. Other times key information was missing. When Oxy’s Clery Report came out on October 1, it revealed that the number of reported sex offenses surged from 12 incidents in 2011 to 64 incidents in 2013. Although 34 of those occurred in previous years and even more had been reported anonymously, this meant that students were finally coming out of the shadows to report.

Another person who’ll strongly influence Oxy’s ability to improve the way it handles sexual assaults is Ruth Jones, Occidental’s new Title IX coordinator. In September California became the first state in the country to adopt what’s regarded as the best policy to help students navigate sex. Part of Jones’s job is to make sure everyone understands the state’s affirmative sexual consent policy for colleges and universities—commonly known as “yes means yes.” (Unless someone says yes to having sex, there should be no assumption that it’s consensual.) A lawyer in her sixties, Jones has a patchwork of recent federal laws—the White House “Not Alone” report, the Senator Claire McCaskill legislation to reduce the prevalence of college sexual assault—to consider. People want to get this right,” she said, “and there’s not a common view of how to do that.”

While colleges like Dartmouth have moved to mandatory expulsion for students who commit certain kinds of sexual assault, Occidental has yet to adopt such a stiff or uniform approach. At Oxy a student found responsible for rape or sexual assault does face suspension or possible expulsion; however, the policy still doesn’t make clear how punishments are decided. Is one form of sexual assault worse than another? What does it take to warrant expulsion? But Jones’s hardest job may be restoring confidence in the reporting process. She’s already made mistakes. At the faculty meeting last May, she announced that from now on, professors would have to tell the college if a student privately came to them about a rape or sexual assault. The room erupted in anger and disbelief. Just minutes before, SMAB, the faculty-student committee, had advised that because of trust issues at Oxy, faculty should not be mandatory reporters. If students knew their information wouldn’t be confidential, they wouldn’t come to their professors. In fact, a month later a student I’ll call Mary contacted me. Mary claimed she knew two students—one male, one female—who’d been sexually assaulted by the same male student but hadn’t reported because they were leery of the process.

In late October, after repeated delays for more than a year, the Pepper Hamilton report finally landed. It was supposed to illuminate how Occidental had found itself in this mess. Instead the 130-page document absolved the administration of almost any blame and singled out just about everyone else, especially activists—presumably OSAC—writing that their tactics were standing “in the way of candid and collaborative communication between activists and administrators.”

In a prepared statement his spokesperson provided me, Veitch, who declined to speak to me, characterized the report as being “a frank and productive discussion.” But in an e-mail to me, Nalsey Tinberg, the head of Oxy’s faculty council, chastised Smith and Gomez’s account of Oxy’s troubled history. “Unfortunately, the President and the Board of Trustees have missed another valuable opportunity to bring the campus together,” wrote Tinberg, a professor of mathematics at Occidental since 1980. While some faculty members disapproved of OSAC’s methods, she went on, “we all have stood together to make sure our students are safe, protected, and defended. And their fire and passion alone helped to ignite a nationwide movement that we should be proud of.”

If anyone had helped create the toxic culture on campus, Tinberg wrote to me, it was Veitch. “It is his lack of understanding, his lack of empathy, and his sheer stubbornness that has impeded him,” she wrote. The report was just “another public relations effort that blames faculty and staff, OSAC, the press, and even the White House for the inability of our college leaders to do the right thing.”

In his statement Veitch focused on the positive: “We now have a deeper, more nuanced understanding of this issue. I know that I do…. Rebuilding trust takes time. Ultimately actions, not words are what we need.”

As far as students are concerned, the actions of the recent past seem to say plenty. When I checked Oxy’s daily crime log leading up to December 21, there were two rapes and one sexual assault reported for the entire year of 2014. None of them occurred in 2014 but were reported retroactively. By that measure, not a single sexual assault occurred in 2014. Either Occidental has completely solved its rape problem, or students have retreated, concluding the process isn’t worth it.


Mona Gable wrote about Pasadena City College professor Hugo Schwyzer in the April 2014 issue. This feature originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

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