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Why Write a Novel About Campus Sexual Assault?

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Why Write a Novel About Campus Sexual Assault?

Steven Wells

“Why write a novel about campus sexual assault?” It’s a question I’m frequently asked about my latest effort, Yes Means Yes: A Novel. And after working on little else for the past two years, its one I’m eager to answer.

It was a Boulder, Colorado, newspaper article, published in August of 2014, that first caught my attention. The story chronicled events at my alma mater, the University of Colorado, where a female graduate student of philosophy had recently been awarded a settlement of $825,000. Preceding the settlement, she had filed notice of claim against the state, a step that typically comes before a formal lawsuit against a public institution. In the claim, she alleged that a philosophy professor had retaliated against her for reporting she was sexually assaulted by a fellow student in 2012. That’s a lot of money, I thought, and was intrigued to read details of the story. As I read of the events and through a trail of related articles, I encountered what would be a persistent challenge in writing my book—details are almost always kept confidential to protect the privacy of those involved, and just as frequently, I suspect, to protect the reputation of university administrators.

When the female graduate student first reported to the university in October that she had been sexually assaulted by a doctoral student of philosophy at an off-campus party in August, the university referred the report to the Boulder police. They completed an investigation and closed the case without any arrests. The university’s Office of Discrimination and Harassment then mounted its own investigation, and an administrative hearing found the male graduate student responsible (the university assigns responsibility, not guilt) for violating the university’s sexual harassment policy. After report of the assault and prior to the finding, the male graduate student had finished his studies and was hired by the university as an instructor. After the finding, the university decided not to renew his instruction contract. Up to that point, it seemed like a normal case of criminal and administrative processes. That’s when things took a surprising turn.

After the ODH finding of responsibility, a Philosophy Department faculty member named Barnett decided to initiate his own review of the university’s administrative process. He ultimately produced and presented a thirty-eight-page report to the chancellor of the university. Barnett claimed in his report to have interviewed witnesses from the party, other faculty members in the department, and to have secured sworn statements by nearly all the third-party witnesses cited in the ODH investigation. Barnett had been a mentor to the graduate student and stated his motivation in writing the report was to encourage the university to “Do the right thing” and reverse what he believed had been a miscarriage of justice. Barnett’s report is claimed to have concluded that during the university’s investigation and hearing, it had mischaracterized or excluded information from witnesses, systematically manipulated the evidence in order to support a finding of guilt, and that the ODH systematically operates under a cloak of secrecy and without due process.

Unfortunately for Barnett, who had circulated the report to just two individuals within the university’s administration, news of its contents leaked and became widely known within the department. Furthermore, there were suggestions Barnett had verbally stated to other faculty that the female victim had been “sexually promiscuous” and had falsified her report of the assault to cover up the fact that she was cheating on her boyfriend. The university then commissioned its own investigation into Barnett by a private attorney. It was this subsequent investigation, coupled with the leaks of Barnett’s report, including his characterizations of the victim, that resulted in her claim to the state, and ultimately a settlement of $825,000 because, as she said, Barnett had “smeared her reputation.” No official information has been released to the public, including the Boulder police report and details of its closed investigation, details of the Office of Discrimination and Harassment’s sexual assault investigation against the student and the hearing that resulted in a finding of responsibility for sexual harassment, Barnett’s report, or the private attorney’s report. There’s no reason to expect they ever will, so a reader can only form an opinion based on newspaper reports. Furthermore, the victim declined to be interviewed about the case. After the $825,000 settlement was announced, the university moved to terminate Barnett, which would make him only the fourth tenured professor to be terminated in the history of the university. Pending his termination, Barnett sued the university. In 2015, three years after the original incident at the off-campus party, a settlement was reached that stipulated a payment of $290,000 to Barnett and his resignation from the university. The whole incident cost the university well over a million dollars.

After countless hours researching this topic, I recognize that the events in Boulder touched on common elements I’ve discovered in similar cases across the country: universities under investigation by the Department of Education for Title IX violations and public pressure for them to address the issue of sexual assault on their campuses; statistics that indicate sexual assaults on campus are at epidemic levels; the existence of secret tribunals, staffed by non-legal professionals, that limit due process protections; and rampant use of drugs and alcohol, both on and off-campus. Add in the law passed in California in 2014, referred to as “Yes means yes,” and I knew I’d uncovered an important social topic with broad appeal that would inspire deeply personal reactions. My own experience as a father of a twenty-four-year-old daughter, recently graduated from college, directly connected me to an issue that concerns parents everywhere.

Once I’d settled on the topic, I next worked to create a world where a compelling character personally confronts the issues of sexual assault in a campus environment through a narrative that is realistic, gripping, and suspenseful. It won’t come as a surprise to learn the story’s protagonist, Katie, is a twenty-three-year-old graduate student of philosophy at the University of Colorado.