University of Utah administrator says ‘rebuilding trust’ after Lauren McCluskey’s murder will take time

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r University of Utah track and field alumni Alissa Atisme, freshman Ally Gomm and senior Brooke Martin console each other during the academic senate meeting Sept. 30, 2019 at the Henry Erying Building on campus.

A University of Utah administrator acknowledged Monday that trust in the school has been eroded by how it failed to respond to concerns reported by student-athlete Lauren McCluskey and — more recently — how it has defended itself since her murder.

In trying to address the mounting criticisms, though, Senior Vice President Dan Reed faced an auditorium filled with faculty and students, many there with sharp questions that proved his point.

Before he could address his plans to fix it, one student criticized the university for not believing women. Another demanded to know why the school hasn’t listened to those most worried about their safety. And one of McCluskey’s former track teammates said she has little confidence that university police are really capable of protecting students.

Reed quietly listened, attempting to answer the questions lobbed his way. In the end, he said: “Rebuilding trust takes time. And the leadership at the university is absolutely committed to doing that.

“There is no magic elixir that changes perspectives overnight,” he continued, acknowledging that the university needs to do more to address how its actions have impacted students. “The responsibility falls with all of us.”

The meeting Monday is the latest in what have been ongoing tensions on campus with students lobbying against the school. Last week, the student government there put out a surprising public statement that condemned how it handled McCluskey’s case. Several students also created an Instagram account to share their concerns about feeling unsafe at the university. And at the football game Saturday, a handful held signs that said, “U failed Lauren.”

Before the Academic Senate, Reed was supposed to address how the school has improved security and other administrators were going to talk about the events it has planned for “Safe U. Month” in October. But it quickly became a chance for many to air their criticism.

“One thing that I’m concerned about is that all of these programs, these educational events, rely on people believing women,” said student Devon Cantwell. “What are we doing to make sure people actually believe women on this campus?”

Abhi Harikumar, a student studying chemical engineering, added: “Student concerns about this are not being recognized or heard by officials.”

Several in the audience clapped at the comments. A few wore purple shirts and purple ribbons to honor McCluskey and recognize domestic violence victims. Many stood around edges of the auditorium after almost every seat was filled.

Brooke Martin sat next to two of her teammates, each of them wearing their red shirts that said “TRACK AND FIELD.” From a seat in the middle, Martin said the three of them were the only ones out of the 42 athletes on their team who felt comfortable coming to this meeting.

“The rest of us were scared to come because we fear punishment for pushing back and wearing these shirts,” Martin said. “Some of us are scared to speak up about this. But we’ve got to step up for our sister.”

Martin was McCluskey’s training partner for three years, she said. And she would have been for a fourth if McCluskey, a student and member of the track team, hadn’t been killed on campus last fall.

Martin said she doesn’t believe the university has made significant changes to improve safety — and she’s willing to risk being kicked off the team to confront that. What she’s most upset about is that the U. argued in a court filing last week that it cannot be held legally liable for not keeping McCluskey safe from her attacker because he wasn’t a student or employee.

“Is safety first, second and third if the perpetrator isn’t a student?” she asked, basing her question on the posters the university has put up around campus. One says: “Safety is first. Second. And third.” Another notes, “Safety is a culture.”

The Utah attorney general’s office, which filed the motion for the university, has defended it, calling the filing a standard response to a monetary lawsuit on Title IX and constitutional rights. Reed added Monday that he knew there would be questions about it, noting it is a “parallel, separate process to what we’re doing to improve safety.”

But hundreds of students have expressed concerns that, based on the statements, campus police will have no obligation to protect them.

McCluskey, a 21-year-old student-athlete, was fatally shot outside her campus dorm on Oct. 22 by Melvin S. Rowland, a 37-year-old registered sex offender on parole whom she had briefly dated. He died by suicide hours later.

She had contacted campus police several times in the weeks before to report harassment after ending their relationship on Oct. 9. And she twice reached out to Salt Lake City police when she felt the U. wasn’t taking her concerns seriously. Both times she was referred back to the campus department.

Because of that, some questioned whether the university should even have a police force or if it should instead be covered by the city’s officers.

“If this is a funding issue, could jurisdictions work together rather than transferring human lives off to each other?” Martin asked.

Reed responded by saying that campus police are responsible for any incidents that happen at the university — though the two departments are working to coordinate and communicate better after McCluskey’s murder. The U.’s law enforcement has also hired a domestic violence detective to respond “frankly better than what we should have a year ago,” he said.

Echoing Reed, Brittany Badger, the director of the U.’s Center for Student Wellness, added there will continue to be work, though, to “re-instill some trust.”

She noted: “That is a challenge.”

In their statement last week, U. student government leaders said they were disturbed by responses the university has made and criticized it for “victim-blaming.” AnnaMarie Barnes, the president for the Associated Students of the University of Utah, had intended to read the resolution Monday, but instead — because it is still “in the legislative process” — said only that she wanted to “express deep disappointment and concern” on the behalf of students to administrators.

“The conversation is ongoing,” she said. “And we are deeply, deeply concerned about safety on our campus. … We pay a lot of money for people to keep us safe on campus. That onus falls on university police.”

The resolution will go to one more vote Thursday night before it is final. ASUU will also hold a listening session Wednesday to address student concerns about safety. Throughout the month, the U. has planned trainings and discussions focused on improving security and recognizing dating violence.

U. President Ruth Watkins, who stopped by the meeting briefly Monday, didn’t address concerns over the university’s response to the $56 million lawsuit filed by McCluskey’s parents or the police force.

Standing by the door, she instead said several groups have been working to improve safety. She then left before students had finished speaking to return to a conference on college completion.

Before that, she noted: “There have been a lot of voices in this conversation.”