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The campus rape debate

| Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

If you believe statistics mouthed by your president, and if you still define rape as it has been traditionally defined — sexual intercourse without consent, usually using force — our universities have become some of the most dangerous places in the world.

The argument of the White House and a multitude of others, you see, is that the male students are raping an astonishing 20 percent of the female students. In an online article, Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, cannot help facetiously wondering how mothers can bear to “send their daughters off to a crime scene of such magnitude, unmatched even in the most brutal African tribal wars.”

Well, the alarmists explain, it is an epidemic, and yes, it is: an epidemic of hyperbole, of redefining terms to mean something they have not previously meant, of ultra-casual “hook-up” sex, of rampant campus drunkenness and, when you inspect some of its supposed solutions, of a government out of control.

If instead of overstatement we engaged in measured reflection, we could still agree there are real problems and address them more intelligently. Female students have, in fact, been subjected to something awful. It includes big-time boozing and starts with a society parts of which have taught too many of them that free-wheeling, emotionally detached sex for the fun of it is jim-dandy as long as they keep it safe. What obviously can follow is young men taking eager advantage of the situation.

The opportunism can be despicably hurtful, although some of what people now insist is rape was consensual. And while consent under certain extreme circumstances might be dubious, it is worse than dubious to paint guilt with the broad brushes too many employ. It is in part by this technique that we get the exaggerated claims, some critics note as they also point to dramatically lower percentage estimates based on different surveys and the federal government's own record of reported campus rapes.

These lower estimates are hardly definitive, either, but do appear far more defensible and far less a justification — if there were any at all — for the Department of Education demanding in 2011 that colleges and universities address alleged sexual assaults of students by instituting their own substitute criminal justice system. Skip that duty and you skip federal funds, said an assistant secretary who clearly knew how to get the attention of administrators.

As dictated by the feds, the college proceedings could suspend and expel the accused after denying the kind of due process others say is crucial for the accused to defend themselves. What has emerged are disgracefully amiss, costly campus boards of academics and bureaucrats sometimes ruining lives without granting basic rights and sometimes earning potentially devastating lawsuits in return.

There's an alternative that's the opposite of dodging the issue, and that's to rely instead on expert police officers, well-trained prosecutors, experienced judges and just legal traditions. Imperfect, yes, but why not turn to the real thing instead of something foolishly fabricated?

Ann Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, is for that. Universities and colleges are fumbling scarily enough with their educational purposes without making them “investigators, juror, executioners,” she persuasively contended on a recent “PBS NewsHour.”

Other forces are coming at the schools from an opposite direction, such as the education department investigating college and universities that have not found as much rape as foretold by the statistical mystics. Also, an outraged group of senators has formulated a bill meant to make universities still more obedient to their regulatory betters even as it hints at some reasonableness.

Universities do have obligations here. As a way to get at issues law enforcement will not address, they need stricter campus rules like those that really did work once upon a time. It wouldn't hurt, either, to tell a hyperventilating government that campuses are not the most dangerous hangouts in America.

Jay Ambrose is a columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.

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