"Your comments put students at risk": An open letter to Lincoln University's president

A former faculty member at the university takes Robert Jennings to task for his grotesque rape apologia

Published November 19, 2014 11:45AM (EST)

    (Higher Education Today via Vimeo)
(Higher Education Today via Vimeo)

This piece originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

The Good Men Project Dear President Jennings,

I should start by saying that I love Lincoln University. I spent the first six years of my career as a faculty member in the teacher education department. Every time “Lincoln University” appeared under my name in a peer-reviewed article or at a speaking engagement, I would feel great pride to represent a small historically Black university an hour outside of Philadelphia. Not University of Pennsylvania. Not Temple. Lincoln. Thee Lincoln. As many professors do at some point, I started looking to make a move to another university the year before you arrived as president. I didn’t leave until 2012, which means that you were my boss for two semesters. This also means that I attended one of your gender separate convocations (the men’s one, naturally), but more on that in a minute.

Like so many others, I was disgusted and angered by the comments you made at your “all women convocation.” Your view that women on campus falsely claim to be raped when “it didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to” was myopic and crude. I hope you’ve read the many pieces that have mapped out just why your comments were so appalling – to women and to men – on so many levels. I hope you’ve clicked on the hashtags #NotMYLU and #NotHerFaultLU on Twitter to see how people are reacting across the country. I hope you haven’t dismissed all of this criticism, believed the few people who have tried to defend you, or figured this is just a well-timed smear campaign by a small group of rogue faculty members. I hope you’ve started to realize that clarifying the intentions behind your comments is part of the problem. Intentions do not matter. Damage does.


Your comments reminded me of a tough conversation I had with a close student of mine while I was at Lincoln. The student came into my office Monday morning to ask for an extension on her paper that was due for my class the next day. She needed an extension because what happened over the weekend disrupted her schedule to complete the work. There was a party, and at the party she saw a group of men taking a woman who was intoxicated and about to pass out into a room. One of the men literally picked the woman up over his shoulder and was carrying her into a room. My student knew what was about to happen, so she intervened. She physically blocked the men, tore the woman out of their arms, and took her home. She prevented a rape.

How do your comments at the women’s convocation apply to this horrible scenario? The woman who was nearly the victim of sexual assault should have had more respect for herself? She should have demonstrated more “personal responsibility?” Or she should have worn a gown, like you recommended in your remarks? And what about the men?

Your remarks also reminded me of another tough conversation I had with a group of men after class one day. The student-led discussion in the class somehow touched on relationships, and it spilled over into an informal but intense conversation among myself and three of the guys in class whom I had gotten to know pretty well. One of the students said he felt like he had the right to have sex from a certain woman because over the phone she told him she was “down for whatever” but then changed her mind once she got to his room. “But Doc, some girls do that on purpose!” he tried to convince me. His friends didn’t necessarily agree with him, but they too struggled to make sense of the situation.

I asked a lot of question about the specific scenario and how they think about sex and relationships in general. Their views and experiences were different from mine, but we had a two-way conversation. I had them think about all of the reasons why a woman might change her mind about sex. “Maybe your room was filthy and that turned her off. Maybe your breath was stank. Or maybe you can’t understand her reasoning, or there isn’t one, but you have to accept it anyway.”

We also talked about practical ways to deal with the situation and sexual letdown if it presents itself again. “Go work out, jump in the cold shower, or, hell, just masturbate,” I told them. They groaned and laughed at me but agreed that all of those were better options than committing sexual assault. Finally, I asked the young man to think about his own actions in putting himself in that situation that clearly didn’t work out the way he had hoped. It wasn’t a conversation I had planned for, but I handled it the best I could at the time.


How do your comments at the separate gender convocation apply to this scenario? Nobody leaked a clip of your men’s convocation, but I remember well the first one you instituted as President. At the time, I thought the idea of separate gender convocations was archaic and childish, but I went anyway to see what you, as the new President, were up to. In that session you talked to the men on campus mostly about three things: pulling up their pants, holding doors for people, and wearing ties. You said you might even buy each of them a tie!

What we didn’t get in that convocation was anything that would apply to either of the situations above or the student reality on campus. With a room full of men, you completely missed was every opportunity to engage with their ideas about masculinity – let alone masculinities. With a room full of Black and Brown men, you didn’t talk at all about how the popular media packages Black manhood, and how certain ideas – like dominating women or feeling entitled to women – seep undetected into our consciousness. We didn’t talk about all the different ways that students wanted to define manhood and masculinity for themselves. And you know we didn’t even come close to acknowledging that all the men in the room aren’t heterosexual.

You probably know that there is a petition going around that calls for your resignation or removal by the Board of Trustees. Around 600 people have signed it, but I decided not to. I take signing these types of things very seriously, especially when it touches on something so important as somebody’s job. And then I read your apology. Which was really a non-apology. Then I decided to sign the petition. You said nothing about victim blaming, slut shaming, and rape apologetics, which are the real issues with your original comments. You didn’t even say, “What I said was hurtful and wrong.” I’m not convinced you realize what all the fuss is about.

As I end this letter, I should underscore something that both of us know: sexual violence is an issue not unique to Lincoln University. Too many campuses are awful sites of sexual violence, often times, due to the inaction of administrators. Just look at what has unfolded at Columbia. But I don’t care about Columbia and its $9.2 billion endowment. I care about Lincoln, the Dear Old Orange and Blue. Your comments have revealed a dangerous approach to handling sexual violence on campus and put both students and the university at risk. Lincoln and its students deserve much better.




By Emery Petchauer

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Gender Politics Lincoln University Rape Robert Jennings The Good Men Project