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United States / Rape Culture

Stanford University’s Quiet Complicity in Chanel Miller’s Sexual Assault

In the arid landscape of Palo Alto, California, nestled between Lomita Court and Jerry House, there stands a lush garden bordered by a shallow stone wall. The flowerbed occupies an easily overlooked corner of the Stanford University campus typically used by students for beer pong and pig roasts. It is a quiet, serene, unassuming space, its unremarkable exterior concealing the reality that on a January night not five years ago, in that same spot, lay a naked, unconscious woman, bruised and covered in debris. Chanel Miller had attended a fraternity party at Stanford that night where she was later sexually assaulted by Brock Turner, a Stanford freshman at the time. The criminal case that ensued attracted national attention and spurred renewed discourse around sexual assault on college campuses.

The most distinctive aspect of the case was Miller’s powerful victim impact statement, published by Buzzfeed News on June 3, 2016, that quickly went viral thereafter. Her 7,137-word statement offered a painfully raw glimpse into the grueling aftermath of the assault and her suffering that was compounded by the legal system’s warped approach to sexual assault. Miller expands upon these sentiments in her recently published memoir, Know My Name. Her writing in both pieces is unflinchingly detailed and deeply poignant, a defiant criticism of the various forces that sought to silence and victimize her throughout the trial. Foregrounded in her work is a reproof of the justice system, whose demeaning, accusatory stance towards her as a victim left deep emotional wounds. Equally blameworthy, if less obviously so, emerged another institution: Stanford University.

Stanford played a nebulous role in Miller’s assault aftermath from the very beginning. When her statement was first published, Miller was referred to in the article’s headline as the “Stanford victim.” Nearly every article that addressed her assault foregrounded Stanford as both the setting of the assault and the educator of the perpetrator. Turner’s status as a “Stanford swimmer” was weaponized by members of the defense to establish a narrative which privileged his situation as a student-athlete at a prolific institution, muddying the clear-cut facts of his actions. News articles listed his swimming times and the bright future that beheld him as grounds for leniency, tossing sympathies to the defendant simply on the basis of his privilege. While the jury convicted Turner of three charges of sexual assault, Judge Aaron Persky sentenced him to six months in jail, of which he only served three. This light punishment sparked outrage and spoke to the extraordinary bias exercised by legal officials in the case; many speculated whether the same consideration would have been extended had the perpetrator been a minority or attended a less prestigious university. Miller’s dubious title as the “Stanford rape victim” highlighted an essential part of her story: Stanford and the privilege it implied, which assisted in privileging her attacker and delegitimizing her at every turn. 

While Stanford was mainly a passive participant in weaponizing its prestige to further Turner’s cause, the university is far from blameless. Stanford made several statements that showcased its spineless, self-interested stance towards the assault. On January 20, two days after Turner’s arrest, Stanford responded by announcing that Turner had been banned from campus. As Miller notes in her memoir, the university addressed her assault as an isolated incident, turning a blind eye to the pervasive campus rape culture that facilitated her own rape. The college’s apathy was further illustrated by their failure to reach out to Miller following the assault. A Stanford dean was given her name and phone number, yet no affiliate of the institution so much as acknowledged her trauma for ten days, effectively washing their hands of Miller despite the extensive trauma she allegedly sustained on their campus. When Miller’s victim impact statement went viral, the university published its own statement defending its behavior and rejecting blame for the assault, stating that “its students, its police and its staff members did everything they could.” Miller’s memoir sets out the reality to be in grim contradiction to Stanford’s self-satisfied pronouncement. Miller recounts shaking and gasping in a parking lot, then frantically dialing a Stanford hotline for sexual assault victims as a desperate recourse. Stanford’s behavior could hardly be described as proactive; rather it veers on indifferent, and clearly disinclined to truly support her as a victim of sexual assault. Jennifer J. Freyd, a Stanford alum and psychology professor, wrote open letters to the administration condemning their self-congratulatory and defensive stance and outlining Stanford’s institutional betrayal in its entirety. Despite Freyd’s efforts, Stanford would continue to err and perpetrate this betrayal long after the case was resolved, as the institution’s unfeeling attitude edged towards deliberate blindness.

A year after the assault, Stanford agreed to install a garden on the patchwork dirt lawn where the incident had taken place, stating their hope to create a “contemplative space” for the community. Asked for a quote to mark the garden, Miller submitted a quote from her victim statement: “You made me a victim…I had to force myself to relearn my real name, my identity. To relearn that this is not all that I am…I am a human being who has been irreversibly hurt, my life was put on hold for over a year, waiting to figure out if I was worth something.” Her liaison at Stanford rejected the quote, but Miller’s lawyer pushed back, arguing that “a pretty garden with a softer message that no one notices is actually less useful than the dumpster that preceded it.” Stanford succumbed, but a year later, a month after the garden installation, no plaque had been added. Responding to the request of Miller’s lawyer, the university explained they had rejected Miller’s quote on the grounds that it was not sufficiently “inspirational,” adding that they had to “prioritize the well-being of all of [their] students.” As a counter, Stanford suggested Miller’s reassurance to her sister, “I’m right here, I’m okay, everything’s okay, I’m right here,” as the quote for the garden. As Miller notes in her memoir, “These were words I’d used to comfort my sister straight out of the hospital in the moments I was least okay… it was grossly taken out of context” (Miller 309). This logistical tussel makes explicit Stanford’s intention with regards to Miller’s assault. Rather than confront the painful reality of her experience, one likely shared by the many survivors on Stanford’s campus, the university sought to paper over it with a blithe affirmation of well-being, missing the gravity of the issue entirely. Their queasiness with the ugly truth that a cultural problem proliferated their institution was all too visible in this exchange. While Stanford professed loyalty to Miller as a survivor, its actions suggested a shallow, if at all present, understanding of her experience as well as a lackadaisical desire to honor it. 

The garden that now stands at the corner of Stanford’s campus falls short of its professed aim of transforming the site of an attack into a positive space. Stanford’s censorship of Miller’s words and indifferent attitude towards her experience stand as its glaring flaws. The exhibit, devoid of a plaque or other inscription, has been rendered a testimony to the institution’s feeble reluctance to address a pervasive rape culture problem. Shoving Miller’s assault under the rug and painting over its brutal reality, Stanford signals its complacency with the campus rape culture, suggesting that such an assault could very well happen again, indeed in that very same spot.