Kavanaugh-Ford hearing faced dilemmas familiar on campus

The extraordinary United States Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday involving Christine Blasey Ford and Brett M Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, was an all-day airing of distant memories, teenage parties, trauma, and the long-term effects of sexual assault.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

The event also grappled with many of the same questions that have been intrinsic to the debate over campus sexual assault and harassment.

Ford, who appeared shaken at first but gradually gained confidence over nearly four hours of testimony, painstakingly recounted the details of the day on which she says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her and why she decided to come forward now. “Apart from the assault,” she said, “these last couple of weeks have been the hardest of my life.”

At a summertime gathering when she was 15, she said, a 17-year-old Kavanaugh and one of his friends pushed her into a bedroom. She said the future Supreme Court nominee then groped her and tried to take off her clothes, and covered her mouth when she tried to scream.

A couple of years later, when she enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she said she initially struggled as a student and in terms of her relationships with men because of the assault.

Kavanaugh, who testified after Ford and admitted that he had not listened to her testimony, was visibly frustrated and defiant in denying the allegations. “My family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed,” he said. He chalked up the accusations to a “frenzy on the left” and said it was all part of “a calculated and orchestrated political hit” to derail his nomination.

Administrators and lawyers who handle campus sexual misconduct cases drew parallels between Thursday’s hearing and their jobs. One remarked: “This Kavanaugh hearing is a blown-up politicised version of exactly what Title IX investigators face every day.”

Here’s how the hearing echoed the conversation within higher education about sexual assault and harassment, and the requirements of the federal gender-equity law known as Title IX.

1. How does sexual trauma affect memory?

Early in the days of the activist movement around Title IX and sexual assault, one of the key criticisms highlighted by student victims was that campus administrators hadn’t questioned them in a sensitive manner and didn’t understand the impact that trauma could have on a victim’s recollection of an assault.

In recent years, many campuses have shifted toward “trauma-informed” practices. They encourage investigators to keep an open mind and acknowledge that lapses in memory and chronological glitches might be a result of trauma. Critics say the trend makes it more difficult for accused students to defend themselves.

On Thursday, Kavanaugh cited gaps in Ford’s memory to discredit her testimony. “She doesn’t say how she got to the house in question, whose house it was, and how she got home,” he said.

As Ford was questioned about her story by Rachel Mitchell, the prosecutor who asked questions on behalf of the committee’s Republican members, she couldn’t remember some details. But she’s a psychology professor, and she has written extensively about the long-term effects that trauma can have.

She also said some parts of that day are seared into her mind. She’s absolutely sure that Kavanaugh is the person who assaulted her, she told Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, and the ranking minority member on the committee.

“The same way that I’m sure that I’m talking to you right now, just basic memory functions, and also just the level of norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain,” Ford said. “That neurotransmitter encodes memories into the hippocampus, and so the trauma-related experience then is kind of locked there whereas other details kind of drift.”

And here’s what she cited as the most vivid memory of the assault: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense.”

2. Should you have your life ruined for things you did as a teenager?

As more students accused of sexual misconduct have been named in the press and faced severe punishments from their colleges, including suspension or expulsion, many have spoken out about what they see as unfair treatment. They have lamented the impact that the investigation process had on their mental health.

They have worried about whether their names will be attached forever to the behaviour. Some states have enacted laws that require colleges to note such wrongdoing on the academic transcripts of students who are found responsible for sexual misconduct.

The father of Brock Turner, the former Stanford student who was convicted of sexual assault last year, wrote in a widely criticised statement: “His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20-plus years of life.”

In the Kavanaugh case, people have lamented that it’s unfair to ruin Kavanaugh’s career based on long-ago allegations with scant evidence. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said: “I’m not going to ruin Judge Kavanaugh’s life over this.”

Kavanaugh repeatedly emphasised during the hearing how far in the past the alleged incident was – 36 years. He described his behaviour as nothing out of the ordinary: “I drank beer with my friends. Almost everybody did. Sometimes I had too many beers. Sometimes others did.”

Asked about claims by former college classmates that he often became very drunk and belligerent, he retorted: “I got into Yale Law School. That’s the No. 1 law school in the country.”

“On the one hand, it’s hard to look at it – that a 15- or 16-year-old should have known and that’s the end of the discussion,” said Andrew Smiler, an expert on masculinity who often works with young men who have committed sexual assault.

“On the other hand,” he said, “it is also sociologically complicated by the fact that this is a lifetime position that the person is basically interviewing for.”

3. Does it matter if someone owns up to his or her mistakes?

Colleges have been experimenting with ways to handle certain sexual misconduct complaints more informally, in cases where the allegations aren’t as severe or when victims would prefer not to go through an investigation.

Taking that route, known as restorative justice, often involves the accused student apologising to the victim for what happened, expressing remorse, and vowing to learn from the experience.

Kavanaugh was often emotional during the committee hearing. He also said that he “intended no ill will toward Dr Ford or her family”.

In the eyes of many observers, though, he was not remorseful. When trying to defend himself, he came off as defiant. He told the committee that he has fought for women’s rights throughout his career. He said he’d sent more female law clerks to work at the Supreme Court than did any other federal judge in the country.

If his nomination is approved, he said, all four of the law clerks he plans to hire are women. On multiple occasions he mentioned letters from women he knows who have attested to his integrity.

Kavanaugh was also adamant that the way he’s been treated since Ford’s allegations were made public is a sign of what’s to come for anyone seeking a position in the highest levels of government.

“If every American who drinks beer, or every American who drank beer in high school, is suddenly presumed guilty of sexual assault,” he said, “we’ll be in an ugly new place in this country.”

His attitude didn’t sit well with some observers, including one professor who tweeted: “Abolish the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh is not crying because he has any sense of remorse or because he empathises with Dr Ford. He’s crying because his lifetime of male/elitist entitlement is being challenged. He’s crying because the ugly truth about him and his behaviour has been laid bare for the world to see.”

Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at sarah.brown@chronicle.com.