“The University of Utah acknowledges that the murder of Lauren McCluskey was a brutal, senseless, and preventable tragedy and acknowledges the unspeakable loss the McCluskey family has suffered and continues to suffer.”
— Settlement statement, McCluskey vs. Utah, Oct. 21, 2020
That was really all that the family and friends of Lauren McCluskey wanted. An admission from the University of Utah and its president, Ruth Watkins, that the murder of the young woman was not just some tragic accident or something for which the university and its entire public safety, housing and student support system bore no responsibility.
It took two years of internal reviews, outside investigations, legislation, lawsuits and extensive reporting by The Salt Lake Tribune to get to that admission, two years to the day after McCluskey was murdered just outside her residence hall by an estranged, abusive boyfriend.
It was a long overdue concession on the part of the university, a necessary reversal of Watkins' previous astounding assertion that there was nothing the school could have done to prevent the murder. A retraction of the indefensible position taken by the state’s lawyers that, because the killer wasn’t a U. student or staff member, the university’s public safety agency had no duty to protect anyone from him.
Those shameful statements sound like the work of insurance companies, lawyers and expensive crisis public relations firms, not a university of the quality of Utah’s flagship institution of higher learning. And the fact that the university has, indeed, instituted several reforms and a reorganization of its campus security operation shows that the school did, indeed, see many things wrong with the way it handled the matter.
McCluskey, a 21-year-old track athlete from Washington state, reported to campus officials and to the Salt Lake City Police Department that she was being harassed, threatened and blackmailed by her ex-boyfriend. Friends of hers also took their concerns to university housing officials.
There were plenty of people whose job it was to help students, to help people, in that situation. Nobody did anything to help.
The cascade of failures included not only chucking the criminal complaints into a pending tray but also the failure of multiple agencies to discover that the eventual killer was already a convicted sex offender, a felon on parole, and that his behaviors were clear cause to have him returned to prison.
This perfect storm of failure by so many speaks of nothing so much as a reluctance by many in positions of authority to take seriously the fears of a vulnerable young woman, to deny her the right to go about her life and her education without risking her life. That atmosphere violated both the federal Title IX statute that mandates a safe educational environment for female students and simple common decency.
It took unceasing pressure from U. students and faculty, from the media, from members of the Utah Legislature and, most of all, from the grieving parents of the murdered young woman, Matt and Jill McCluskey, to resolve this matter as well as could be expected.
That pressure included a $56 million lawsuit — now settled for $13.5 million — which seemed to be the key to finally getting the university’s attention.
The money will go to a foundation to promote campus safety at the U. and other schools. The university also agreed to build a new indoor training facility for Lauren’s beloved sport and to name both it and the school’s new campus safety program after her.
The primary credit for all these admissions and changes goes to McCluskey’s family, her parents, who devoted themselves to the cause.
It is sobering to consider what might have happened if the victim of this horrific crime hadn’t come from parents who were not only devoted to their daughter but who also happened to be university professors themselves, not only aware of what the university experience should be but also experienced in campus politics and the ways of academia.
If anyone at the university, its lawyers or its P.R. people, thought the McCluskey family was going to give up and walk away, they were wrong.
And the lives of countless young women, at many universities, will be the better for it.