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Occidental College chief asks for reconciliation after accusations

School administrators were 'shell shocked' by criticism over the handling of student sexual assault reports, said President Jonathan Veitch. The complaints are now part of two federal investigations.

September 20, 2013|By Jason Felch and Jason Song
  • Danielle Dirks, right, an Occidental College faculty member, meets with the Occidental Sexual Assault Coalition on campus. Dirks is one of several faculty members who are critical of the Eagle Rock school's handling of sexual-assault accusations.
Danielle Dirks, right, an Occidental College faculty member, meets with… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

The president of Occidental College this week made an emotional plea for support to some 60 faculty members, saying his administration was "shell shocked" by criticism over its handling of student sexual assault allegations.

Speaking for 20 minutes without taking questions, President Jonathan Veitch pleaded for reconciliation on campus, saying the controversy had taken a toll "on my health and my soul," according to several people who attended the meeting.

He mentioned that his five-year contract was up for renewal, which suggested to some that he needed the faculty's backing.

The episode was the latest in a withering feud at the Eagle Rock college, where some faculty and students over the past year have accused top officials of discouraging victims from reporting sexual violence, handing down weak sanctions against men found responsible for rape and retaliating against professors and students who have spoken out in protest.

The complaints are now the subject of two federal investigations into possible violations of civil rights and campus crime-reporting laws, putting the tiny liberal arts school in a national spotlight. Dozens of other schools face similar allegations, including USC and UC Berkeley, although the number of complainants at Occidental is unusually high. Fifty students, staff and faculty have joined in the federal civil rights complaint on a campus of about 2,000 students.

Veitch's speech came a day after the Los Angeles Times revealed the college had reached a confidential monetary settlement with at least 10 Occidental students who said their accusations of rape and other assaults were squelched or downplayed by administrators.

The settlement bars the women from publicly discussing the college's handling of their cases. The women's attorney, Gloria Allred, said in an email Thursday that it would not prevent them from participating in federal or campus judicial proceedings, as some faculty had feared.

At the faculty meeting Thursday, Veitch defended his handling of the broader controversy.

"It was really a plea for civil discourse on campus and an expression of affection for people," Veitch said in an interview after the meeting. "None of us got in here to fight with each other."

Veitch said he did not mean to suggest to faculty that his job was in jeopardy. Indeed, Stephen Rountree, a vice chairman of Occidental's Board of Trustees, said Veitch had been recently offered a multi-year contract and had "a thousand percent" support from the board.

Veitch acknowledged several missteps over the past year but said he believes Occidental now has some of the strongest sexual-assault policies in the country. The college has also hired an advocate for victims and is requiring more training on the issue during freshman orientation."I think we've been doing well, and it frustrates me that we haven't been able to convey that," he said.

He praised the efforts of two of his most vocal critics, Caroline Heldman, chair of the politics department, and Danielle Dirks, a member of the sociology department faculty, who helped organize the students to file the federal complaint.

"This is a dispute over tactics and not goal," Veitch said. "I'm actually grateful they've brought this to the forefront."

Heldman and Dirks, who have gained national attention for their outspoken advocacy on behalf of students, were not satisfied that progress had been made under Veitch.

"The best way to describe it is failed leadership," Heldman said.

"I've heard from three students since the beginning of the school year who say they were raped," said Dirks. She said of the cases: "None of them has been handled appropriately."

In February 2012, Heldman and Dirks banded together with students to form Occidental Sexual Assault Coalition, a campus advocacy group that has pushed the college to address what it calls the "rape culture" on campus.

The group appeared to have reached agreement on policy changes with Veitch, but the campus' handling of a sexual assault accusation in February 2013 angered students and faculty. Critics said the campus failed to alert students as promised. In a TV interview, Dirks and Carly Mee, a student who said she had been raped as a freshman, accused the administration of failing to honor its pledges.

In response, Veitch released a letter saying the two had "actively sought to embarrass the college on the evening news." He later apologized, but the letter is now an attachment to the federal complaint, in which Dirks and Mee say they were victims of retaliation.

Heldman and Dirks say the public rebuke persuaded them that only a federal investigation would force Veitch to take their concerns seriously. They and dozens of students filed the federal complaints two months later. The professors have the broad support of the college's faculty, said mathematics professor Nalsey Tinberg, president of the faculty council.

"Those two women have shown courage," Tinberg said. Other professors at Occidental have also voiced support for Dirks and Heldman and expressed their concern in May with a vote of no-confidence in two top administrators.


jason.felch@latimes.com

jason.song@latimes.com

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