Yale Harassment Controversy Rekindled by Quarterback’s Rhodes Scholar Case

Yale University is once again in the spotlight after a controversy over its quarterback went from a feel-good story about college sports to an embarrassment, tarnishing the campus newspaper and reawakening accusations that sexual harassment goes unpunished.

Patrick Witt, 22, garnered national attention in November when he said he’d rather play his final game against Harvard University than interview as a Rhodes Scholarship finalist. That story was challenged last week, by the New York Times, which said Witt’s Rhodes candidacy was suspended after a fellow student accused him of sexual assault.

Yale is the target of a complaint filed in March with the U.S. education department that it tolerated an atmosphere hostile to women. Last month, football coach Tom Williams resigned after reports that he exaggerated his own Rhodes candidacy. Last week, a former editor at the Yale Daily News said the newspaper knew of the accusations against Witt for months and didn’t pursue the story.

“Why do we get ourselves in this situation again and again?” said Tobias Kuehne, 23, a senior from Berlin, Germany, and co-editor-in-chief of the Yale Undergraduate Law Review. Students don’t feel as if the school is being unjustly attacked about sexual misconduct issues, he said. Rather, “the sentiment is, why do we keep screwing up?”

Kuehne said the controversy has been the talk of the New Haven, Connecticut, campus this weekend.

Never Suspended

Witt’s candidacy for the scholarship was never suspended although the Rhodes organization asked Yale to re-endorse him, said Mark Magazu, Witt’s agent. Before the school responded, Witt chose to play in the Nov. 19 Harvard game, Magazu said in a phone interview. Witt declined to comment.

Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said the university, part of the Ivy League of eight schools in the U.S. Northeast, wouldn’t comment on the assault allegations or Witt’s Rhodes candidacy, citing privacy rules. Elliot Gerson, American secretary for the Rhodes Trust, declined to comment, saying matters related to the group’s deliberations over applicants are confidential.

The Title IX civil rights investigation was prompted in part by actions in 2010 by fraternity members chanting sexist slogans such as “No Means Yes” and holding signs with sexist remarks. Since the March complaint, Yale sanctioned the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, of which Witt was a member, and formed an advisory committee on campus climate. The university also streamlined its procedures for making complaints.

Title IX is the 1972 federal law that bans discrimination against women on campus.

Seth Waxman, a member of the advisory committee and a former U.S. solicitor general under President Bill Clinton, didn’t respond to an e-mail over the weekend requesting comment.

‘Yale Man’

The Yale administration has made it easier for students to report sexual misconduct because the process is less confusing and has been publicized more, said Kate Orazem, 22, a senior history major and one of the Title IX complainants. Even so, the attitude on campus appears the same, said Orazem, who writes for Broad Recognition, a feminist blog at Yale and is a member of a female sketch comedy group.

“I’m not sure that the culture that engendered those behaviors has changed all that much,” Orazem said in a phone interview. “There continues to be a contingent of the student population that feels that those kinds of behaviors are acceptable and humorous and part of their ‘Yale man’ image. I don’t necessarily think that the Title IX complaint has done very much to address that.”

Leadership Qualities

Witt’s decision to play against Harvard rather than pursue the Rhodes scholarship was the subject of numerous articles. In an interview with Bloomberg News, he said he would consider loyalty to his teammates and his desire to be a leader in determining what to do.

“In the description of the Rhodes, leadership is a major facet of who they select as candidates and finalists,” Witt said in the Nov. 8 article. “In some ways, if I were to attend the interview and miss the game, I wouldn’t be acting as the leader that they selected to interview.”

Rhodes Scholarships, among the most prestigious in higher education, were established in 1902 in the will of Cecil Rhodes, a British mine operator and explorer who founded what is now the DeBeers Group. Thirty-two U.S. Rhodes Scholars are selected annually from more than 2,000 applicants. Winners spend two or three years studying at the University of Oxford in the U.K.

Witt, who transferred to Yale from the University of Nebraska in 2009, is now in Los Angeles, preparing for a professional football career, Magazu said. He’s sharing a room with Andrew Luck, the former Stanford University quarterback projected to be the No. 1 pick in the National Football League draft in April.

Informal Complaint

When Witt’s accuser, a woman with whom he had a relationship, took her complaint to Yale, she opted for an informal procedure which protected her anonymity, Magazu said. Witt was notified of her complaint and met with Michael Della Rocca, chairman of the committee that handled the accusation. Witt left believing the matter was resolved, Magazu said. The Rhodes committee was contacted by someone who knew of the accusation, although Witt believes it was not the woman, Magazu said.

“He’s a little hurt by all this,” Magazu said. “It’s been difficult because for him, his first instinct was to try and run out and explain.”

Witt is now trying to focus on football and hopes the New York Times story won’t damage his chances, Magazu said.

“It doesn’t help,” the agent said. “What Patrick understands is how he reacts to this will tell as much about him as the story.”

Football Future?

Witt isn’t likely to become a professional quarterback, said Scott Kennedy, Director of Scouting for Scout.com.

“He’s got good size, he’s obviously smart but he just doesn’t have the arm to play football in the NFL,” Kennedy said in a telephone interview. Kennedy, who said he has scouted Witt since the quarterback was in high school, said he would be surprised if an NFL team selected the former Bulldog in the 2012 Draft this April.

“If he ends up on a roster it will be because of what he can bring to the program as an assistant coach, so to speak,” Kennedy said. “As a third-teamer who can help you game-plan.”

Magazu disagreed. He said he’s talked to most of the teams in the league and is confident Witt will make it to the NFL.

“He’ll be drafted,’ Magazu said. “He’s 6’4”, 230 pounds with an Ivy League brain and an encyclopedic understanding of professional offenses and defenses.”

Campus Newspaper

In a Jan. 27 article on jimromenesko.com, a blog about journalism, Alex Klein, a former opinion editor at the Yale Daily News, said the newspaper was aware of the accusation against Witt and “decided to sit on the story in mid-November.” Klein, 21, is a senior at Yale, majoring in ethics, politics and economics.

“I’m disappointed that the Yale administration and the Yale Daily News allowed the heroic Patrick Witt narrative that they created to propagate even after being informed that Patrick Witt had been accused of sexual assault,” Klein said in a telephone interview. “It shows the Title IX complainants may have a point.”

In a response, the current editor of the paper, Max de La Bruyere wrote on the campus newspaper’s website that the confidential nature of the student’s accusation against Witt meant there would be no formal adjudication.

“In order to be fair to all those involved and the process they had adhered to, and because the nature of the complaint meant that all its details remain allegations, the News chose not to print a story,” de La Bruyere wrote.

To contact the reporter on this story: Oliver Staley in New York at ostaley@bloomberg.net; Janet Lorin in New York jlorin@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Lisa Wolfson at lwolfson@bloomberg.net.

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