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To Honor an Abuser: Why does Tufts put prestige over people?

News & Features | March 25, 2019

CW: graphic sexual violence

In early 2018, a young, rising political star of the Republican party became engulfed in scandal and chaos. 44 year-old first-term Missouri Governor Eric Greitens was accused of sexual assault and attempt at blackmail by a woman with whom he had previously admitted to having an affair. Later, he would also face charges for campaign finance violations. Missouri lawmakers immediately launched an investigation, and at first, Grietens vehemently denied the accusations, decrying them as “tabloid trash.” Greitens clung fiercely to his governorship, despite serious calls for impeachment by the Republican legislature and other local and national politicians. But then, something strange happened. In late May, Greitens suddenly announced his resignation. He did so as part of a deal for prosecutors to drop one criminal charge against him.

Though he was never convicted of a felony, Greitens’ political career was effectively destroyed. Many were shocked, considering his political golden-boy status (some had even claimed he would one day be the GOP pick for the White House), and the long list of accomplishments that preceded the scandal. Over the years, Greitens has previously been lauded for his achievements as a Rhodes Scholar, a Navy SEAL, and a best-selling author. In 2012, he received yet another recognition for these accolades when he was chosen as that year’s commencement speaker at Tufts University.

At the time, Greitens’ selection was widely praised within the Tufts community; one article in the Tufts Daily called him “the greatest commencement speaker that you’ve never heard of.” The same article even noted that, in that year in particular, Greitens was chosen not just by President Monaco and the Board of Trustees, but in a decision by the Tufts community as a whole.

But then, six years later, the allegations broke and outrage ensued. Both the Tufts Democrats and Tufts Republicans clubs called for the honorary degree Greitens had received for his commencement speech to be revoked. Another Daily article describes a petition circulated by the Tufts Democrats urging the University to rescind Greitens’ degree, which also called upon the then-Governor to resign. However, similarly to Greitens’ story itself, the campus hubbub around him vanished nearly as quickly as it had appeared. Soon, busy with finals and the end of another school year, the community appeared to forget about Greitens altogether.

Just as Greitens’ legal case never came to a conclusive end, the Tufts administration never publicly affirmed nor denied its support for Greitens and his degree following his resignation. In light of this, the Observer decided to re-investigate Greitens’ story to see what had changed in the past year, both at Tufts and beyond.

In both arenas, the short answer is not much. When the Greitens scandal first emerged, it was January 2018. The New York Times reported that a St. Louis television network had released a recording which “it had obtained from the ex-husband of a woman who had several sexual encounters with Mr. Greitens over a matter of months in 2015.” The woman’s accusations were numbered, each more disturbing than the last. Some of them came from the recording, others emerged only after she was subpoenaed to testify under oath by the Missouri legislative committee charged with investigating Greitens.

The woman, whose identity was never made public, said that Greitens had taken an explicit photo of her during a sexual encounter, and had threatened to use it as blackmail if she ever exposed their relationship. According to her testimony, before taking the photo, he had blindfolded her, bound her hands to exercise equipment, and pulled off her clothes. He spanked her and kissed her without consent. After she began crying, Greitens took her down and hugged her, but then took down his pants and coerced her into performing oral sex on him. The woman said she continued to see Greitens and have sexual encounters with him afterwards, some of which were consensual. But on other occasions, when Greitens asked her if she had been sleeping with anyone else, and she told him she’d slept with her husband, he slapped her.

When the Missouri state House and St. Louis Circuit Attorney began investigating Greitens, they charged him with invasion of privacy for the woman’s claims. At the same time, he came under an unrelated charge for tampering with computer data concerning charity donors that he was suspected of illegally using for political purposes. Amidst these charges, talk of impeachment began to arise.

Again, though at first Greitens staunchly denied wrongdoing, he eventually struck a deal with prosecutors to resign in exchange for the computer tampering felony to be dropped. The invasion of privacy case, meanwhile, was withdrawn due to what the St. Louis Circuit Attorney claimed to be a mishandling of the case by Greitens’ prosecutor. While the prosecutor’s treatment of the case is still under review, there was never a definitive ruling on Greitens culpability. This means that the privacy charges against him could still be refiled.

At the time of Greitens’ initial investigation, the University hesitated to reevaluate his degree, despite calls from students to do so. The Daily reported that Patrick Collins, Tufts Director of Public Relations, told reporters that the Tufts administration was “aware of and deeply disturbed by the troubling allegations against Gov. Greitens,” and were “closely following the legal proceedings in his case.” However, he added that they were “waiting for the resolution of the case before taking any action.” As the case was never settled, Tufts never reevaluated Greitens’ honorary degree. He still holds one today.

Now, nearly a year later, Collins spoke to the Observer. In an email responding to questions about whether the University had reevaluated this position, Collins wrote the following:

Former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens is a decorated Navy Seal and former Truman and Rhodes Scholar who went on to become a respected humanitarian and an award-winning author. He was selected by the honorary degree committee of the Board of Trustees because of his achievements and commitment to service. Although serious and disturbing charges were brought against him, they were subsequently dropped.”

Most notable about Collins’ response is the fact that after being asked why the University chose not to rescind Greitens degree in light of the allegations against him, Collins immediately came to Greitens’ defense, calling him a “respected humanitarian.”  The portion of Collins’ statement describing Greitens’ background and accolades is also nearly identical to the statement he gave to the Daily in 2018. Further, in saying that Greitens’ charges were dropped, Collins made no mention of the plea deal struck with prosecutors that excused him only on the condition of his resignation. He also failed to explain the mistrial ruling that led to the dismissal of the invasion of privacy charges. Before speaking with Collins, the Observer requested interviews with Tufts’ Commencement general contact, several members of the Board of Trustees, and three staff members of President Tony Monaco’s office, all to talk about Greitens and the nature of selecting Commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients in general. Nearly all individuals contacted either failed to respond or declined to personally comment, deferring instead to Collins.

Many students have expressed their disappointment with the University’s response to Greitens’ case, both at the time and upon hearing of the administration’s reaffirmed support for his degree. Representatives from the executive boards of both the Tufts Democrats and Tufts Republicans confirmed to the Observer that they stand by the initial statements they posted on their respective Facebook pages, condemning Greitens and calling for the revocation of his degree.

Many felt that the emphasis of Greitens’ academic and professional accolades in Collins’ statement was inappropriate, especially in response to deeply troubling accusations of sexual assault. When reading Collins’ response, first-year Izzy Essman, who is from St. Louis County and vividly remembers the stir caused in her community by Greitens’ accusations, said that Collins’ response “sounds like a Wikipedia page.”

That’s very insubstantial,” Essman said. “And it’s so frustrating when students ask for real answers and real conversations on a topic and get back just the weakest responses possible.”

Essman also expressed dismay that the University insisted on waiting for a firm judicial conviction before cutting ties with Greitens, especially since they have not always followed this protocol. Take for instance, another formerly celebrated public figure now infamous for sexual assault: Bill Cosby. Cosby was also awarded an honorary degree from Tufts in 2000. However, amidst allegations of sexual abuse and harassment, the University revoked his degree in 2015.

Collins said that although Cosby’s degree was revoked, “before resolution of serious allegations against him,” the University was still “justified in doing so because [Cosby] had confirmed some of the allegations against him in a deposition that was part of the public record” and that “his confirmations presented a substantial basis to discredit the accomplishments for which he had been recognized.”

Essman was not convinced by this explanation. “You don’t always have to wait for there to be a conviction if something is credible,” she said. “The justice system does not always work the way it should or the way it’s supposed to.”

This has proven especially relevant to cases of sexual assault, which, by nature, are difficult to retroactively “prove” in a court of law, often becoming cases of one individual’s word against another. This challenge has been increasingly tested today in the whirlwind of the #MeToo movement, where countless women have spoken out about sexual assault. The movement has adapted the slogan “believe women”—a call to meet survivors of sexual assault with support and validation rather than skepticism or victim-blaming.

Junior Han Lee is the co-head of education and outreach for Tufts’ Action for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP), a group of students committed to “raising awareness of and ending sexual assault and rape culture on our campus, and promoting a culture of consent,” according to the group’s website. Lee feels strongly that the University’s continued defense of Greitens and his character, despite the accusations against him, bears damaging consequences for survivors of sexual assault on campus.

“It’s 2019, we’ve had all these movements, and I think Tufts has made a couple steps forward,” she said. “But by supporting men like Greitens all of that is dismantled immediately, because I think it shows pretty clearly that Tufts is willing to protect men like Greitens in the same way that they were willing to protect perpetrators on this campus for so many years.”

Junior Jen Kim, who leads the survivor support branch of ASAP, echoed Lee’s statement, saying “Tufts’ defense of Greitens’ honorary degree honestly just underlines what the University’s priorities are: public image and prestige, rather than believing survivors… It’s incredibly disheartening to see Tufts defend his honor.”

Again, Lee emphasized that much of the danger of Tufts’ stance comes from the implication that the justice system’s failure to convict Greitens inherently denies the credibility of his accuser’s story. Referring to Greitens’ accuser’s decision to come forward, Lee said, I think that she made a very risky move, and no one does that for attention,” an argument often made to discredit victims of sexual assault cases. Again, in the Greitens case, his accuser was never publicly named.

Lee says that the idea of false accusations in assault cases is a significant topic of conversation within ASAP.

“One of the questions we get most frequently is, ‘what about the crying rape statistic?’” she said. “But statistically, it’s not high at all.”

According to FBI data, only two percent of rape reports are ever determined to be false. The same percentage holds true for other felonies. On top of this, it is estimated that around 60 percent of sexual assault cases go unreported to authorities.

“The fact that Tufts is willing to make a big deal over [that percentage] is not great,” Lee said. “It doesn’t look good for the University at all.”

Finally, Lee adds that even though she has observed some action taken by Tufts to improve response to sexual assault and support for survivors during her time on campus, she doesn’t always see those moves as being altruistically motivated.

“I think very much it’s to make this establishment look like it’s progressive, and like it cares about students, especially its students who are survivors,” she said. “But the reality of it is that once you make it onto this campus, once you see the statements Tufts is making, it’s pretty evident that’s not their actual stance.”

This is not the first time Tufts has been critiqued of taking taking selectively “progressive” stances only when they are easy or convenient. In fact, it’s a critique that has been notably relevant to other commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients in recent years.

Last year, for the class of 2018 graduation, Ellen J. Kullman (E’78), was selected as Commencement speaker. Kullman is the former CEO and board chair of the leading chemical company DuPont Inc., as well as a former member of Tufts’ own Board of Trustees. She has been named one of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business, and was noted on Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women list. She was also the first woman to head DuPont in the company’s 200-year history. Collins called her a champion of women’s progress in the workplace,” and said that “many students appreciated her thoughtful remarks,” during Commencement. However, both upon her selection and up until the day of Graduation, many students expressed pointed critiques of the University’s choice of Kullman, some finding the move of supporting a contentious company like DuPont that has been complicit in environmental degradation outright offensive, while others called her selection simply “bizarre.”

On graduation day, a group of students chose to engage in a silent protest of Kullman’s Commencement speech, holding up signs condemning the ethical failures of DuPont, and turning away from her for the duration of her speech. The Boston Globe would later report on the protest as the header of its section on local college commencement.  

Bianca Hutner, A’18, an activist for fossil fuel divestment and a co-president of Tufts Climate Action (TCA) during her time at Tufts, said she felt “a moral obligation” to participate in the protests against Kullman at the time.

“[I] felt like I was standing for all these things during college,” she said. “And then I had this one critical moment where if I did nothing, it would kind of feel like ‘Oh, what was this all for?’”

Aside from her objections to DuPont’s history of environmental destruction, Hutner also expressed frustration at what she perceived as the University’s attempts to spin Kullman as a role model for gender equity and women’s leadership in justifying her selection.

“If you’re talking about gender equity, you should be talking about the effects and the harm [DuPont] has done by polluting waters… which oftentimes affects women.” Hutner cited, for example, the links between chemical water pollution and infant health.

Similar to the critiques of Greitens’ defense, Hutner and other students who protested Kullman felt that her honorary recognition as a speaker was at odds with the values of the greater Tufts community. Again, these are not the only two cases of this discord; in 2016 other students critiqued the choice of speaker Hank Azaria, who is well-known for voicing many of the characters on The Simpsons, including Apu, who Azaria, a White man, voices with an Indian accent. Junior Nikhil Srinivasan criticized Azaria’s “role in propagating stereotypical depictions of South Asians in the media,” in a Daily op-ed. Srinivasan also expressed that Azaria essentialized both Hindu culture and South Asian people during his speech.

From Azaria to Kullman to Greitens, it is clear from student critique that the individuals Tufts chooses to uplift and honor bear significant consequences for the student body. When asked about the criteria on which Tufts selects these honorees, and what messages or values they wish to convey to students with their selections, Collins responded that “the university considers nominees for Commencement speaker and other honorary degree recipients who, at the time of their nomination, have a record of distinguished and sustained accomplishment in the varied academic, scholarly and professional fields represented at Tufts, including business and industry, the visual, literary, musical, and performing arts, or public life.” He made no mention of the consideration of the values these individuals are deemed to uphold or the example the University wishes them to set for students.

Even if the University denies that they make explicit value statements with their speaker choices and degree recipients, they must acknowledge that their decisions do not occur in a vacuum. To defend the honor of an abuser is a clear value statement, whether Tufts want to admit it or not. Additionally, to put a decorated speaker in front of graduating seniors about to enter the professional world makes another statement: this is someone you should emulate.

Lee emphasized the impact that a case like Greitens’ has on our campus’ survivors. “The thing [ASAP hears] even to this day the most often is that people are scared to report,” she said. “Tufts has a history of not handling these cases well.”

“The danger that Tufts is making here by not rescinding his honorary degree [is that] people feel like they can’t come forward. You’re going to have less reporting, you’re going to have more survivors feeling isolated and alone.”

Essman agrees, adding that even if the University fails to see the substance of the allegations against Greitens, his character and integrity has already been sufficiently damaged by the many “uncomfortable allegations about him as a politician and a person.” Both she and Lee said they don’t see what benefit it poses to Tufts to maintain its connection to Greitens.

“If I were the Tufts administration, I would want to reexamine my idea of what makes an allegation credible,” Essman said. “And at what point it’s time to break ties with toxic individuals.”

The University may choose to portray their refusal to rescind Greitens’ degree as a passive choice. However, in officially and explicitly honoring a tried sexual assailant, Tufts actively chooses to prioritize prestige and politics over the needs of some of its most vulnerable students. This is unacceptable.