"We need to change the culture, and it's on all of us to do that."
With those words -- spoken by Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen on the courthouse steps last week moments after a jury convicted 20-year-old former Stanford University student Brock Turner of three felony sexual-assault charges -- the county's chief prosecutor sought to use the conviction to send a powerful message to the community.
"Today, the Santa Clara County jury gave a verdict, which I hope will reverberate throughout colleges, high schools and everywhere in our county," Rosen said. "I want there to be no doubt of the distinction between consensual sex and sexual assault. 'No' means 'no.' Passed out or unconscious means 'no.' And sex without consent means criminal assault."
He then thanked the victim for her courage in working with prosecutors and enduring an emotional trial while still dealing with the trauma of her January 2015 assault. And he thanked the two Stanford graduate students -- the Good Samaritans who rescued the victim and without whom the case would likely not have succeeded -- for intervening the night of the assault and restraining Turner until police arrived.
The prosecutor on the case, Deputy DA Alaleh Kianerci, was just as blunt: "If you make that mistake and make that decision to engage in sexual activity when somebody's too intoxicated, you will possibly end up in court or in jail."
Rosen's personal appearance and poignant statement achieved the intended widespread news coverage, giving added voice to the 12-person jury's unanimous conviction and making clear that the responsibility for addressing the problem of campus sexual assault includes everyone within the school community in addition to law enforcement.
And Stanford University's official response to the verdict?
With months to consider how it might best respond publicly and to its students after a verdict to demonstrate its resolve to stop campus sexual violence, Stanford instead chose not to issue a statement and had its spokesperson simply respond verbally to individual press inquiries.
Lisa Lapin, associate vice president for university communications, told the Weekly in an email that her general statement to the media was along the lines of "We are proud of the students who saw something wrong, intervened and then followed through by participating in the investigation and trial. It was a stellar example of bystander intervention and action we hope all Stanford students will take, and what we teach the community."
No mention of the university's compassion for the victim, a Gunn High School graduate and Palo Alto resident. No appreciation for the Sheriff's investigation or the District Attorney's successful prosecution. And no acknowledgment of its failures and responsibility to change an environment and culture that led not only to this assault but to the failure of anyone at the fraternity party preventing it.
Instead, Stanford chose only to commend two of its graduate students for intervening.
Stanford is hardly unskilled at public relations. But it has repeatedly found itself tone deaf and on the defensive against student, faculty and outside critics, including U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, who have charged that the university's complaint system is confusing and difficult to navigate, with unsatisfactory outcomes that fail to punish perpetrators or provide a safe environment for victims.
Stanford has taken many positive steps, including a communication to all students a month ago by President John Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy on the problem of excessive alcohol use and the possibility of banning hard liquor in undergraduate residences. Educational programs, some mandatory, are attempting to change student attitudes and behavior around sexual assault. Changes in the university's judicial process are being implemented to provide support for victims and establish better processes for responding to complaints. But these efforts get overshadowed by its inexplicable defensiveness and public relations spin.
Institutions know that when there is bad or embarrassing news harmful to its community and its brand, top leadership needs to be front and center, taking responsibility, acknowledging short-comings and demonstrating resolve to fix it. Last week, with an opportunity to use the Turner conviction to bring home the life-changing consequences of illegal behavior and excessive alcohol consumption, Hennessy and Etchemendy were sadly absent and the university silent.