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University head criticized over sex assault remark

  • Article by: RYAN J. FOLEY
  • Associated Press
  • February 27, 2014 - 6:05 PM

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Facing criticism for a remark she made about sexual assault, University of Iowa President Sally Mason on Thursday discussed her own experience of being accosted by a stranger when she was a college student.

Mason opened a campus forum on sexual assault issues as her job appeared to be on shaky footing, following a week of protests among students calling for improvements to the university's handling of rape allegations.

The protests gained traction after Mason told the student newspaper earlier this month that ending sexual assault was "probably not a realistic goal just given human nature and that's unfortunate." Mason has since apologized for the remark, but student critics said it reflected the university's lack of commitment to preventing rape and a lack of sensitivity toward victims.

Speaking to about 200 students Thursday, Mason said that when she was a student in Lexington, Ky., a man in a trench coat grabbed and groped her before she was able to fight him off and get away. She said the attack "left me shaken" but that she had no clue where to turn for help.

"I never want a young woman on this campus, ever in her life, not to know where to go if something like that happens to them," Mason said.

The Iowa Board of Regents on Thursday scheduled a special meeting for Friday to hear an explanation of the earlier remark from Mason and to meet behind closed doors to discuss her performance. Board members had considered replacing Mason in 2012, but backed off after leaders of students, faculty and staff groups came to her defense.

After the forum, Mason told reporters that she has a lot of work to do and looked forward to explaining her plans Friday to regents. She said this week has been difficult but may someday be seen as a "breakthrough moment" for addressing the issue on campus.

Board President Bruce Rastetter, a Republican appointee of Gov. Terry Branstad, didn't return a phone message Thursday afternoon.

University officials say sexual assault is not increasing on campus, but the university's handling of such cases is drawing increased scrutiny. Mason noted that the campus uproar comes amid heightened pressure from the federal government to prevent sexual assaults.

Recent cases that have drawn attention include one that involved three men who allegedly assaulted a women walking on campus and three separate incidents involving a taxi driver who allegedly tried to assault riders. Statistics shows that four sexual offenses were reported to campus police in 2013, compared with eight the prior year.

Mason's administration decided last fall to send campuswide warning emails more frequently after assaults occur. Such warnings are required under federal law, but the university had not always sent them when the victim knew the acquaintance.

Other U.S. colleges and universities also have come under criticism for how they handle sex assaults on campus. The University of Missouri this year launched a review after critics said officials were too slow to investigate the claims of a swimmer who said she was raped by as many as three football players in 2010. The swimmer later committed suicide.

Last month, President Barack Obama announced a new task force on college sex assault, citing statistics showing that 1 in 5 females are assaulted while in college but only 1 in 8 report attacks. The White House called it a public health epidemic.

Mason's personal story came during an emotionally charged forum in which some students shared their experiences of being raped.

Some students are upset by language in the university's warning emails that they say put too much emphasis on the victims and not enough on perpetrators. The emails typically included tips to prevent being sexually assaulted such as avoiding binge drinking and walking home alone, protesters said.

"It was like, 'If you don't do those things, well, then you kinda had it coming,'" said Stacia Scott, a 21-year-old senior who is a leader of the student protests. "Students reached this breaking point where we said, 'enough is enough.'"

Scott and another protest leader, graduate student Elizabeth Rook, said they have already met with administrators to push for language revisions.

Rook gave Mason credit for taking quick action to address many of their concerns. And Scott said she doesn't want Mason to be fired or disciplined, noting that Mason swiftly apologized and started to address the protesters' concerns.

"We want President Mason to be part of the solution," said Scott, who is studying social work.

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