In the past week, and just weeks after a group of pledges to a Yale fraternity marched through that campus singing a "rape" song, several articles have appeared indicating that the son of California Republican Gubernatorial Candidate Meg Whitman, Griffith Rutherford Harsh V, was accused of sexually assaulting a female classmate while a student at Princeton University.
I am a parent, and I assume, like most parents, I prayed when each of my children were born that they would come equipped with essentially good natures that, with consistent and effective nurturing would result eventually in compassionate, respectful, and responsible adults. I also know there is only so much time to teach and model, and only so much control I will eventually have over their future actions when they ultimately leave the proverbial nest. At some point they will ultimately become responsible for their own mistakes.
I have no doubt Meg Whitman harbored those same desires for her two sons as they grew to adults, and have no basis on which to judge her or their father's parenting of them. Since we all have families, and many families have their proverbial black sheep, the indiscretions of a relative do not and should not immediately tarnish someone's electoral aspirations. We know, for example, that various Kennedys have had drug and alcohol problems, Jeb Bush's daughter had legal problems, and Rudy Giuliani's children have had various transgressions made public, among many other such stories. While each of these cases is different and each of these clearly entail complicated family stories, none of the men in question allowed the follies of their family members to end their political careers. And because each case is in fact different, it is not axiomatic that an adult child's problems reflects poorly on a candidate's capacity or integrity.
That having been said, in Whitman's case there are deeply troubling signals.
Whitman's son was accused of sexually assaulting a female classmate while a student at Princeton University, a school that, according to Gawker, lists Whitman as one of its most generous donors.
CalCoast News.com reports:
Critics contend that the incident has been downplayed by university officials, unwilling to embarrass the former eBay CEO who has donated more than $30 million to the Ivy League school.
CalCoastNews.com further reports that the victim:
...a classmate of Harsh, told university officials that she awoke one morning with a black eye, bruised and bloodied face, and no memories from the previous night. Harsh admitted to having sex with the woman, but insisted it was consensual, and that her injuries had come from falling down.
The woman consulted her friends, some of whom worried about the “social repercussions” of accusing such a high-profile student of rape. She was “terrified,” according to her friend. “She didn’t want to press charges because it’s Meg Whitman’s son. She didn’t want to go through that. She didn’t go to the police. She didn’t get a rape kit.”
Princeton reportedly "dealt with it quietly and internally, ultimately allowing Harsh to continue his education."
The university disciplinary panel concluded that it did not have enough evidence to discipline Harsh. He took a leave of absence for a year before finally graduating in 2009:
three years after his rape accusation—and two years after the inauguration of Whitman College, the residential living complex his billionaire mother donated $30 million to help build.
Shortly after the Princeton rape incident:
Harsh was back home in California when he was arrested for breaking a woman’s ankle during a brawl at a bar. He was released after his mother posted $25,000 in bail and the charges were eventually dismissed.
These reports strongly suggest a pattern of the use of wealth, power and privilege by a parent to intervene in the case of a son who is an abuser. The timing of the assault and the timing and size of donations to Princeton University are suspect. The fact that Harsh was "never arrested or charged with a crime in connection with the 2006 incident" is suspect; the fact that he later was arrested again and let off suggests a troubling pattern.
This is deeply troubling, and at least again circumstantially fits in with a widespread and documented pattern of leniency for male students charged with sexual assault on campuses throughout the country, one that is particularly evident in cases of wealth and privilege.
As has been reported here extensively, rape, sexual assaults, and gender-based violence are deeply entrenched and widely hushed-up problems on college campuses in the United States. One in three women in this country will face an incident of sexual assault or harassment in her lifetime. Although data on campus sexual assault are difficult to come by in part because of under-reporting by both victims and by universities, a 2000 study by the U.S. Department of Justice, "The Sexual Victimization of College Women," found that 5 percent of college women are raped or experience an attempted rape in any given year, based on a survey of 4,446 women. The report further suggested that between 20 and 25 percent of female college students may experience a sexual assault -- a few examples included forcible fondling, sexual coercion, rape -- over the course of a college career.
The majority of cases of sexual and gender-based violence on college campuses in the United States involves a known assailant: a boyfriend, date, classmate, a frat "brother," or a male teammate.
In a series of reports released earlier this year, the Center for Public Integrity extensively documented a pattern at universities including the following findings:
- The majority of rapes and sexual assaults on campus involving a female victim were perpetrated by someone known to the woman.
- Students found “responsible” for alleged sexual assaults on campuses often face little or no punishment, while their victims’ lives are frequently turned upside down. Many times, victims drop out of school, while students found culpable go on to graduate.
- Administrators believe the sanctions administered by the college judicial system are a thoughtful and effective way to hold abusive students accountable, but the Center’s investigation found that “responsible” findings rarely lead to tough punishment like expulsion — even in cases involving alleged repeat offenders.
- Research shows that repeat offenders account for a significant number of sexual assaults on campus, contrary to the beliefs of those who adjudicate these cases. School authorities are often slow to realize they have such "undetected rapists" in their midst, and some appear to be "pillars of the campus community."
The treatment of Griffith Harsh is therefore "textbook," so to speak. He assaults a woman; he gets lenient treatment by the University; he gets to graduate with no blot on his record. Along the way, his mother donates $30 million to the university. The fact that incredible wealth and privilege also are involved in this case makes this even more disturbing.
Moreover, it seems like the exercise of wealth and privilege in unflattering ways is a pattern for Whitman's sons. Whitman's other son, Will Harsh, also has had extensive problems with anger management and control on campus. Both Griffith and Will have been kicked out of prep schools, a campus eating club and dormitories for use of blatantly racist language, for starting fights, and for other transgressions. In these cases as well, both sons have been "rescued" by their parents' wealth.
How does this reflect on Whitman's gubernatorial bid?
Whitman can't be responsible for her sons forever. But the ways in which she chooses to deal with the fallout from their actions is on her. There is no question in my mind that any parent wants to shield their child from trouble, no matter their age. But the pattern of cases of both of Whitman's sons suggest a pattern of violent and racist behavior, and the use of vast wealth and privilege to get her sons out of trouble and to shield them from the consequences of their own actions. It also suggests a deep and profound disregard by Whitman herself for the victims of Griffith's violence and possibly for the racist behavior of Will.
What does this mean for the potential governor of a state like California? The University of California system alone has more than 222,000 students. Can a Governor who has regularly used wealth and privilege to enable her sons to escape responsibility for their actions be an effective overseer and manager of systems in which statistically thousands of women on campus are at risk each year? What about sexual violence, coercion and rape perpetrated against women and girls in the population at large? To what extent do Whitman's own past actions speak of her understanding of those who do not wield the wealth and power she has, political office notwithstanding?
These are important questions to ask, no matter the candidate.
Universities, by making light of sexual assaults, perpetuate the culture of rape and assault that undergird the notion that "No means Yes" and victim-blaming that is so pervasive in our culture. Parents who use their wealth to hush up their childrens' transgressions participate in that culture. We need leaders willing to challenge and change this system, and with the integrity to do so. Whitman's ability to be that type of leader remains, in my mind, in serious doubt.
This post was originally published at RH Reality Check, a site of news, community and commentary for reproductive health and justice