Students: Silicon Valley's Farm System Is Steeped in "Rape Culture"

After Stanford University officials condemned sexist emails sent by Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel during his time at school, Stanford students who have long protested the university's weak policies on sexual violence are making a more aggressive push to reform "the Rape Culture here at Stanford," as one current student described it to Gawker. The initiative gained momentum this afternoon, with a campus rally led by rape survivor Leah Sharon Francis from the class of 2014.

Francis, who gave Gawker permission to use her name, distributed an email (printed below) to the Stanford community, including the entire undergraduate class, recounting how Stanford invited "my rapist back to campus for grad school." She also launched a Change.org petition addressed to President John Hennessy, Vice Provost Greg Boardman, and Provost Etchemendy.

According to Francis, the student who raped her "was found by Stanford to be responsible for sexually assaulting me through use of force." The school not only permitted him to receive his degree, she claims, but to return to Stanford for graduate school "as long as he agrees to do community service and complete a sexual assault awareness course."

Student advocates say that "insufficient response" to sexual violence is far too common at Stanford. In the past two days, there have been two editorials and one news article in The Stanford Daily about "the problem of sexual assault on campus."

The increased backlash to the school's secretive, internal Alternate Review Process seems to have been prompted by the number of incidents on campus as well as the ongoing national debate about whether colleges offer justice for victims. Recent statements made by Provost John Etchemendy condemning sexist emails offered protestors another opportunity to steer public discussion toward their cause.

The emails, published by Valleywag, were written by Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel while he was attending Stanford and a member of a fraternity. The provost's response somehow found its way to TechCrunch*, an industry blog. One of the editorials in the Stanford Daily said:

As we heed Etchemendy's call to "reflect on our common values," we find ourselves wondering this: How can we launch a more powerful response to sexual violence?

We are offended by Spiegel's language and the culture it promotes, but we are more incensed by the very real violence perpetrated by and against Stanford students and our collective insufficient response to it. Too many of our peers are violated by their classmates every year. A 2012 Vaden student survey revealed that four percent of Stanford students report that they have been raped, seven percent penetrated sexually against their will and 15 percent have engaged in intercourse under pressure. This must change.

The Stanford undergraduate who decried "Rape Culture" requested anonymity from Gawker. She said that the ordeal Francis described was an institutional issue:

There are countless coverups and victims are almost never believed. Stanford instantly swoops in and "hush hushes" a situation; it's pretty disturbing. What's especially shocking is that Rape is punished with about as much seriousness as frat hazing: that is, not at all. To be honest it seems like certain people (heterosexual, wealthy white males almost entirely in fraternities) are completely immune to the law to an extent that is baffling and terrifying. I feel like Hennessey et al. is personally willing to cover for his frat bros and university image at the expense of suffering students.

And I feel as though if I were raped in broad daylight, Stanford would still give the rapist no more than a slap on the wrist. The law simply does not apply to certain students, students who happen to have their own houses and hang out in very powerful packs and move on to become the CEOs of Silicon Valley.

Spiegel's emails are irrelevant to this issue, except that all of a sudden, the administration is concerned. Last week, the New York Times dubbed Stanford "America's 'it' school," surpassing Harvard primarily by "riding a wave of interest in technology." In 2012, The New Yorker called Stanford "the farm system" for Silicon Valley, detailing how the school bent over backward to foster Spiegel's ambitions.

The anonymous student told Gawker that President Hennessy is more sensitive to perception of Stanford in the tech press than to the students who have been sexually assaulted. (In that same New Yorker article, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen said: "John Hennessy is the godfather of Silicon Valley.")

That might be why the Snapchat memo was published on TechCrunch* with the sympathetic headline "Stanford Asks Students To Learn From Snapchat Founder's Mistakes. We All Should" and why a new list-serv was created just to distribute that response, the student told Gawker:

But of course, Stanford admins never react to a situation until it starts to bring in bad publicity on their precious tech blogs. After all, John Hennesey wouldn't want to be embarrassed in front of all his friends at TechCrunch* and Stanford Graduate School of Startups aka Y Combinator. So all of a sudden when you posted the Spiegel emails on Valleywag and Stanford got some bad press they created a special all-undergrad email list just to send that response from Dean Etchemendy (who nobody had ever heard of prior) out to all of campus talking about "intolerance for blah blah blah"

It was all PR. Funny how that note from the dean got released to TechCrunch* and wrapped the whole Spiegel situation up in a nice little bow. Now everyone's pretty much over it. Stanford came out scot free as ever, just like this rapist.

The email from Francis, which was sent out this Tuesday, is perhaps the most powerful sign that Stanford's insufficient approach to sexual violence will no longer be tolerated, the current student added:

For someone to put herself out there like this, sending an email to the entire campus signed with her own name, putting herself at risk——you know it's gotten really, really, bad.

Stanford spokesperson Lisa Lapin sent a statement to Gawker in response to questions about rape culture and claims made by Francis. Lapin described Stanford as ahead of the curve in progressive policies toward victims of sexual assault. It does not address the limits of the ARP process that Francis detailed in the Stanford Daily.

Here is Lapin's full statement:

There is nothing recent that has prompted Stanford to pay "more attention" to the issue of sexual assault, and it would be completely erroneous to suggest any of the theories you propose below. In fact, in 2010, we were one of the first universities to revise our process for adjudicating sexual assault cases, adopting our Alternative Review Process well ahead of federal direction to all univeristies to revise their practices (what is known as the "Dear Colleague" letter from the Office of Civil Rights.) That ARP process has resulted in more sexual assault cases coming forward for review in the past three years, and a higher percentage of cases being adjudicated.

What seems to have heightened recent attention is the heightened national conversation, and we are very pleased that our students are engaging in this dialogue.

The Provost's note was in response to a specific instance of the emails that were shared about Evan Spiegel. I should note that in 2009-2010, the period in which those fraternity emails were written, the fraternity in question, Kappa Sigma was suspended by Stanford and lost its privileges to have a house on campus for its alcohol excesses as well as its behavior toward women. Stanford took strong action at that time, this is nothing new.

With respect to your discussing a "rape culture" and recent conversations, including the rally today, as I am sure you can appreciate, Stanford cannot comment on pending cases in deference to the privacy and due process rights of the parties involved. But It might be helpful for you to know we do regret any circumstance in which a student believes a process here at Stanford has not met their expectations. We take very seriously the pain and trauma that are generated by sexual assault. We have strengthened our programs in the area of sexual assault response and prevention over the last several years, the ARP process I mentioned, and seek to provide support to individuals in crisis, encourage reporting, ensure fair and thorough disciplinary processes, and educate the community to prevent future incidents. But we are always looking to improve what we do, and we genuinely welcome input from students on how we can do better.

Stanford absolutely must be a safe and respectful environment for all students to pursue their education. The University has just hired a new Title IX Coordinator (though we have long had a Title IX coordinator) who will continue to help us identify areas for improvement. She will be gathering input from across the Stanford community and recommending additional things for us to be doing. The feedback being provided by students now will help inform that process.

Here is Francis' email in full:

————— Forwarded message —————

From: Leah Francis
Date: Tue, Jun 3, 2014 at 9:53 PM
Subject: MESSAGE FROM '14 RAPE SURVIVOR
To: cooperating@lists.stanford.edu, ebf_1913-1914@lists.stanford.edu, cw-undergrad@lists.stanford.edu, overseasstudies@stanford.edu


* Please forward on to at least 5 individuals and all of the lists you are a part of

What: RALLY FOR REFORMING SEXUAL VIOLENCE RESOURCES AND POLICY AT STANFORD

Where: WHITE PLAZA

When: NOON, THIS THURSDAY, 6/5/2014

Dear Fellow Stanford Students, Classmates, and Staff:

Five months ago, I was forcibly raped by another Stanford student. I reported the sexual assault at the beginning of Winter quarter and then I proceeded to go through the ARP (Alternate Review Process). Months later, the student who raped me was found by Stanford to be responsible for sexually assaulting me through use of force.

Stanford did not expel the man who raped me. They suspended him effective 2014 Summer quarter so that he could finish his classes and walk at graduation. They also moved him out of Stanford housing, required that he complete community service, and required that he complete a sexual assault awareness program before receiving his degree or coming back to Stanford for grad school.

What this amounts to:

After his suspension (gap year) is complete, Stanford invites my rapist back to campus for grad school (where he has already been accepted) as long as he agrees to do community service and complete a sexual assault awareness course. Should he change his mind and decide to go to grad school elsewhere, he can choose to walk away from Stanford with no significant undergraduate consequences for forcibly sexually assaulting me.

What you can do: Posters and people!

This Wednesday, 8-10 pm, at EBF, join us in making signs for our rally. What message do you want to share?

This Thursday, 12 pm, at White Plaza, join our rally to demand change of our administration and our community:

  • Mandatory expulsion for individuals found responsible of sexual assault (following the example of Dartmouth, Amherst, and Duke)
  • Better enforcement of sanctions for assailants to comply with Title IX
  • Expanded mandatory education on definitions, consent and bystander intervention for all undergraduates
  • Increase SARA office capacity by hiring more staff
  • Better resources for survivors throughout their chosen process, including safety measures and academic support
Show your support for survivors and demand action. I'll be there - will you?

Thanks for reading,

Leah Sharon Francis

*Co-editor Alexia Tsotsis says on Twitter that TechCrunch's editorial, "Stanford Asks Students To Learn From Snapchat Founder's Mistakes. We All Should," came about through Valleywag and that the provost's statements were not released to TechCrunch. We regret the error.

To contact the author of this post, please email nitasha@gawker.com.

[Image via Wikimedia]