Opinion: Can We Be Better?
By Professor Scott Hancock
Earlier this week The Gettysburgian reported on the most recent developments in Kelsi Kennedy’s lawsuit against Gettysburg College. Kennedy states she was raped in what used to be the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity house in October of 2016, and her lawsuits have sought to hold Gettysburg College legally responsible in three different ways. As The Gettysburgian noted, one of those was recently dismissed by a federal judge. The other two are pending.
I’m not a lawyer. I do not have a J.D. I don’t know all the facts. And there are undoubtedly legal aspects of this case that I would not fully understand even if I did have all the facts at hand. As a professor who pushes to students to ground their arguments with strong critical thinking and sound evidence, I want to be wary of venturing a public opinion when I’m keenly aware of my own limited knowledge—especially nowadays, when much of our political discourse coming from the highest levels of government and so-called ‘experts’ on news shows is often based on cherry-picked bits of data or just outright, purposeful deception.
And yet. Not knowing everything can easily become an excuse to be silent and stay out of the fray altogether. We don’t always need every possible fact, or have to understand fully every possible nuance, before suggesting different ways of thinking about something. So my argument here is not about the merits of either Kennedy’s or the college’s defense—I simply don’t know enough to weigh in intelligently. Instead, I’m concerned about a legal strategy undertaken by the law firm representing Gettysburg College—and therefore is the college’s strategy—that I’d argue violates the moral and ethical values that the college claims it stands for and wants students to aspire to.
The Gettysburgian article states that Gettysburg College is asking the judge to dismiss the remaining claims. That’s not surprising. But our college is also asking the judge to “order Kennedy to pay the college’s legal fees.”
Some context: rigorous methodological research has shown that false claims of rape are uncommon. When a woman says she has been raped by a man, 92% to 98% of the time, that claim is not a false one. For example, a thorough study of accusations of rape in Los Angeles over the course of a year found that 95.5% of claims were not false claims. I point this out, because as an academic institution that highly values serious research and its application to real life situations, we should know that it is extremely likely that Kennedy did indeed endure a serious sexual assault and trauma—and, if this is the case, is very probably is dealing with the trauma now and for years to come.
I get it that the college needs to defend itself against lawsuits. I get it that the college has sought to dismiss the Title IX claim by someone who was not a student, as that claim could open the college up to all kinds of liability. I don’t like it but I understand it.
I do not understand why Gettysburg College is going beyond defending itself and going on the attack—against a young woman who has in all likelihood been raped and traumatized on our campus by our students—by seeking to make her pay for the college’s perhaps unsavory but understandable defense. I do not understand why Gettysburg College, whose website states that “there are no bystanders here”; that it has always stood for “socially responsible citizenship”; whose mission statement says our core values include “sensitivity to the human condition”, the value of “ethical leadership that is inclusive, collaborative, and directed towards effecting change for the greater good” and “that a residential college best promotes the sense of community”; why this college seeks to punish a woman who we have every reason to think has indeed been attacked on our campus, in our community, by our students who have failed to live up to those values.
I asked someone who has had a long and successful career as a lawyer what might be going on here. This person told me—after remarking wryly that ‘this is why people don’t like lawyers’—that it is likely the law firm and the college are making the demand that Kennedy pay the college’s legal fees as a bargaining chip so she will settle. Again, I get that—but I think we can be better. I think Gettysburg College, which is constantly calling our students to think and act on higher moral and ethical plane that consistently exhibits sensitivity, compassion and justice, can be better. I’m not suggesting that the college capitulate to anyone who makes any claim of being harmed on campus. The college most certainly should hold individuals responsible for their conduct, and seek to defend itself in ways that are legally permissible—and are ethically and morally responsible. It’s about balancing the college’s right and power to defend itself with our ability to love and care for other people who enter our community, regardless of whether they were students or not. Martin Luther King, Jr., said in 1967 that “what is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” Seeking to make Ms. Kennedy pay the college’s legal fees is an exercise of power without love. And that’s not justice. Though since “justice” is a word curiously absent from our mission statement, I suppose one could argue we need not be concerned about achieving it. We should be: we can be better.
From a purely pragmatic perspective: what kind of message does this send? Yesterday the President and Provost’s Office offered a presentation to the faculty about the challenging future demographic and enrollment trends for liberal arts colleges like Gettysburg. Strategies were proposed for how we can be innovative in continuing to attract a healthy number of excellent students, and faculty were encouraged to offer more suggestions. Well, here’s one: let’s not succumb to playing the game like everybody else does in cases like Ms. Kennedy’s. What kind of message might it send, and what kinds of students might we attract, if Gettysburg College did something a bit radical and acted as an institution in a manner that combined power, love and justice to someone who was attacked in our community?
Can we be better?