Oregon State University President Ed Ray wants OSU students, staff and faculty to know that if they come forward about a sexual assault, the university will be there to help them.
OSU recently hired gang rape survivor Brenda Tracy as a sexual violence consultant for the university, in part to attempt to hold the university responsible for its role in handling sexual assaults, both and on and off-campus.
Tracy, who held her silence for 17 years, went public in November with the account of her gang-rape by four men in 1998, telling John Canzano, a sports columnist for The Oregonian, that OSU did little to help her after two Beaver football players and two men who were not enrolled at the university sexually assaulted her in an off-campus apartment in 1998.
But since coming forward in November, Tracy and president Ed Ray, who was not with OSU in 1998, have spoken several times about improving the university’s response to reported sexual assaults.
“We’re serious about doing everything we can to get this right,” Ray said Friday in an interview with the Gazette-Times. “The incredibly powerful story she has to tell makes it hard for people to not pay attention. This is a very real horrific story she has to tell and to show how she’s managed going forward and I think she can help a lot of people telling it.”
In November, Ray, after reading about Tracy’s story, sent her a letter of apology and said that OSU wanted to continue contact with her going forward. Earlier this month, Tracy signed a one-year $20,000 contract to become a consultant for OSU.
“The notion of a consulting contract came up (in talks with the university) and it’s not a huge amount (of money) but it’s a way of saying that we acknowledge the value and support of her service to others,” Ray said. “Hopefully what will happen over time is this process will help her continue to heal.”
Ray said part of Tracy’s role will be to help ensure the university is taking the correct steps in handling sexual assault and he wants all students, faculty and staff to hold the university accountable.
“I’m pretty confident we’ve set a process in place to do a much better job" than OSU did with Tracy's case in 1998, Ray said. "But you know what, so what? We need to track this. And we need to do a review of the cases and the outcomes. We need to get a sense of how the victims assess what we’re doing. My confidence isn’t worth a dime. But getting concrete feedback and improving is critical.”
Ray also asked that the community keep the university accountable for its words and that they are followed up with actions.
“Words matter, but talk is cheap. However well-crafted the words are, if there isn’t complimentary action, they’re just words. It’s a challenge to all of us to back this up,” he said. “It is our responsibility to our students and the community. We are going to do our damnedest to make sure that nothing happens to them while they’re here. It’s not about making the university look good or bad. We have to do our best to make sure their experiences are as positive as possible and we need to get on the negatives as soon as we can.”
In 1998, because Tracy was not a student and the incident occurred off-campus, the university had no requirement to follow through with any action. Today, the student code of conduct applies to any incidents involving students either on or off-campus.
Cases involving sexual violence in 1998 were addressed in multiple OSU departments, depending on the details. Today, sexual harassment, dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking are considered forms of sexual harassment under the regulations of Title IX and are handled through the Office of Equity and Inclusion.
Since April 2014, the office has increased its capacity to respond to cases of sexual misconduct through the hiring of an equal opportunity coordinator, three equity associates and redirecting the time of two employees into prevention efforts.
Ray said the policies and initiatives extend beyond new hires and regulations.
“Looking at Brenda’s case, it’s hard to say people didn’t do what they thought they were supposed to do based on what was available,” Ray said. “But that human element of really reaching out to someone clearly wasn’t as strong as it could’ve been.”
In Tracy’s case, the Benton County District Attorney’s Office announced that criminal charges would not be filed — in part because Tracy hesitated on whether to press charges following the arrests of the two OSU football players and two other men in 1998.
“I received death threats," Tracy said recently, remembering that time. "I was traumatized. I had no support. I was broken. It was too much. I wanted to forget it all, so I told the DA I was done."
Ray is hopeful that the university’s new Survivor Advocacy Center will provide a safe place for sexual assault survivors to come forward and feel protected and safe.
“We don’t care if you’re a student or not. If you need some help and someone to talk to about this, then you’ll have one place to go day or night,” Ray said. “To the extent that there was any doubt in Brenda’s mind that there are people she could talk to who would understand and be nonjudgmental and figure out how in heaven’s name to go on from there, that’s an important part of what the advocacy center can do.”
OSU officials originally planned to open the university’s new Survivor Advocacy Center this summer to support survivors of sexual violence and to consolidate the university’s resources on handling reports of sexual violence.
Officials since have pushed the opening back to October in an effort to ensure the center is fully functional and that reports are handled correctly. The opening is expected to coincide with pending legislation on advocate confidentiality set to take affect on Oct. 1. The university has hired a director and graduate student to run the program and has plans to have several advocates working at the center when it opens in the fall to provide 24-hour, seven-day-a-week services.
Ray has also taken to the political front on sexual violence, voicing support for increasing the statute of limitations. Senate Bill 973, introduced in the Oregon Legislature this past session by Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, and Rep. Jodi Hack, R-Salem, would eliminate the statute of limitations for rape.
“(Brenda’s) case was 18 years ago and she’s still suffering. The statute of limitations on her pain has not run out,” Ray said. “Even if you now have compelling evidence and testimony, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Ray said he’s hopeful Tracy will shine a light on the fact that sexual assault starts as a men’s issue and that many incidents could be avoided if bystanders stand up to the early signs of sexual violence.
“This is mostly a men’s problem. Let’s be clear about that. Most men wouldn’t do something this terrible but it’s not obvious they would step up and intervene,” Ray said. “Maybe, after listening to Brenda’s story and hearing what she has to say, some of them will get the courage to be protective of other people. It’s not just about the perpetrators and victims; it’s about everyone around them. If you see something or experience something, you should do something other than look the other way. Maybe you could prevent it before it happens if you take some ownership of it.”
Ray said he was taken aback by the 600-plus students at April’s Take Back the Night event. But he was discouraged to find out that it was the 30th anniversary of such an event.