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Patrick Henry College: You Can Trust Us to Fix Our Sexual Assault Problem

The March newsletter for Patrick Henry College’s Alumni Association began with a notice that birth announcements were temporarily suspended. Instead, it was to be a “more sober edition,” devoted to the fall-out from “Sexual Assault at God’s Harvard” a story I wrote for The New Republic in March about the mishandling of sexual assault cases at the elite evangelical school. In my investigation, I uncovered allegations that the Patrick Henry administration treated sexual assault perpetrators with impunity, discouraged women from going to the police, and blamed victims for dressing or behaving immodestly. Over the past month, the school’s administration, students, and alumni have responded to the story with an outpouring of public statements and online commentary.  

Shortly after the story’s publication, Patrick Henry released a statement announcing the hiring of “a specialized legal firm” to audit the school’s policies and procedures regarding sexual assault and harassment. At the same time, the school maintained administrators “did not attempt to cover-up any sexual crimes” and “did not seek to blame women” for male students’ actions. “The fact is that the information provided by the key individuals at the time differs from the allegations now related in the New Republic article,” said the statement, which was read aloud during chapel. The student body responded with applause.

Some Patrick Henry students voiced their support for school administrators. “The monstrous Dean Corbitt described in the article is almost unrecognizable,” a sophomore wrote in an email to the American Conservative. “She seems like a twisted distortion of the friendly, cheerful woman who is always seems [sic] to be willing to help out all the students.”

By comparison, a statement from the Patrick Henry College alumni association suggested that alums have been far more critical of the administration than most current students. The alumni made several demands: transparency in PHC’s audit; “better victim care to students when they come forward”; the hiring of a victim’s advocate; and campus education “regarding issues such as consent.”

PHC did not disclose the name of the “specialized legal firm” hired to run the audit, not even to its students. The school did not respond to follow-up questions from The New Republic.  “The secrecy about the firm is just shady,” a PHC junior told me. “The whole problem was that they’ve been dealing with these things behind closed doors.”

A recent PHC graduate, who also asked for anonymity, expressed similar concerns, saying he worried that the process would be a “masquerade.” He added, “I’m not optimistic about the prospects of a legitimately independent audit.”

Patrick Henry founder and Chancellor Michael Farris also announced he had convened an “Alumni Review Committee” to “thoroughly examine our atmosphere, policies, practices, and experience in dealing with the kind of issues raised in that article.” Farris explained that the nine-member committee “will be making recommendations to the Administration—which, of course, must make all final and formal decisions to become effective.”

In a statement, the Alumni Review Committee announced that it would draft a policy to “educate students and staff about resources available to victims, set forth specific parameters for the College’s response to victim reports, and include guidance for victims who report assault or abuse.” While the statement noted that the committee included attorneys with experience prosecuting sexual assault cases, only three of the nine members were named.

“Recent publicity, although flawed by errors and misrepresentations, nonetheless does us a service by prompting reflection on how to improve the College’s care for students in personal crisis situations,” read yet another statement issued by Patrick Henry. The college added that it was considering the creation of “Personal Support Advocates” outside the Office of Student Life.

Of all the developments at Patrick Henry in the past month or so, this was perhaps the most heartening: Daniel Noa, the president of the alumni association, reported back from the spring Board of Trustees meeting, where the article was discussed at great length. Noa wrote:

There was definitely a consensus among the board members, many of whom have had long associations with homeschooling, that sex education in homeschooling circles has often been quite inadequate, particularly in dealing with the issues of consent, assault, aggressive advances, and other relevant issues. The board instructed administration officials to look into models of how this could be addressed with students as part of the orientation process. Instructions were also given to look into expanding the provision for mental health needs that the college is already offering.

The Patrick Henry student senate then released a statement saying, in part, “We join our alumni in categorically rejecting all acts of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault.” Noa is right in identifying cultural factors as the root of Patrick Henry’s problem. But sex education is just the tip of the iceberg. The fundamentalist Christian homeschooling culture that Patrick Henry comes out of is one that demands obedience to authority figures. “It’s a near-glorification of hierarchy,” a 2010 PHC alum wrote in to the American Conservative. “A husband is the wife’s God-given authority, the father is the child’s God-given authority.” It should come as no surprise that a culture that teaches men that they have a God-given right to dominate women and children has a sexual assault problem.

Kiera Feldman is a member of the Ochberg Society for Trauma Journalism and has written for The NationMother Jones, and elsewhere.