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UConn's Herbst rushes to judgment

In what may becoming a pattern, University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst has again rushed to the defense of her university and administration, spinning a situation to put her institution in the best light, in the process minimizing the seriousness of the allegations that spurred her response.

On Monday, seven current and former students, four of them going public with their identities, alleged that the university failed them after they were sexually assaulted. They claim police and other campus authorities greeted their allegations with cynicism, indifference and aversion.

The result of such attitudes, they claim, creates an atmosphere in which the problem of sexual violence and harassment is not taken seriously and some female students live in fear.

Representing them is high-profile civil rights attorney Gloria Allred. The women filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights under Title IX, contending a violation of its provision assuring students receive an education free from violations of their human and civil rights.

Civil litigation seems quite likely.

Stephanie Reitz, UConn spokesperson, quickly dashed off a response: "We are confident at this point that these cases were handled thoroughly, swiftly, and appropriately."

This might sound familiar. Back in July allegations surfaced that a UConn professor, Robert Miller, for years had sexual relations with students. There are also claims Mr. Miller had improper physical contact in the 1980s and 1990s with boys at "The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp" for children dealing with cancer.

Troubling were reports that others at UConn knew about the situation, but did nothing. Asked if this was reminiscent of the Penn State situation, involving Jerry Sandusky, Ms. Reitz provided the same automatic reaction heard this week.

"I wouldn't want to draw parallels between this and the Penn State situation, because the situations aren't parallel," she said back in July.

In both cases - stating the sexual assaults were handled appropriately and dismissing parallels with Penn State - the problem is the same: stating a definitive conclusion, one favorable to UConn, before knowing all the facts. An investigation into how the school handled the Miller allegations, conducted by an out-of-state law firm, is underway.

A spokesperson can hardly be faulted when her approach mimics that of her boss. Last summer, responding to the reports that for years some at the university had ignored the professor's indiscretions, and perhaps crimes, President Herbst essentially cried, "Not me!"

"From the moment information came to university personnel earlier this year to the present, the university has acted quickly and methodically," stated the president. That begs the question what happened before "earlier this year."

President Herbst was again on the offensive Wednesday concerning the allegations of indifference toward sexual assault victims on campus.

The campus priority is safety, she said. It devotes extraordinary resources toward preventing sexual violence. UConn has all types of programs and training to prevent it and properly react to it, she said.

"The suggestion that the University of Connecticut, as an institution, would somehow be indifferent or dismissive of any report of sexual assault is astonishingly misguided and demonstrably untrue. The is so obvious to those of us who work here and deal with these serious and painful issues that I am stunned that I even have to say it, or that any reasonable person would believe otherwise," the president told her board of trustees.

Isn't it possible - despite all the training, programs and procedures - that human beings in the employ of the university acted inappropriately? Perhaps some proceeded on their own beliefs and values, not on policy. And the result, just maybe, is that UConn does have a problem?

It is a possibility that President Herbst, in her rush to spin a favorable response to uncomfortable allegations, appears to dismiss. She does so at her own peril and that of her university.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.


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