With a few glowing lines on a reference letter, a York professor lent strength to one of the most harmful attitudes faced by survivors of sexual assault.
Political science professor Stephan Newman drafted a character reference for recently convicted rapist Mustafa Ururyar’s sentencing, which describes him as being “unfailingly polite and courteous.”
The letter goes on to state that even after the conviction, Newman found it hard to believe in Ururyar’s guilt. “A violent act of that sort seemed wholly out of character,” he wrote.
Similar cases aren’t few and far between on university campuses. The only rarity is sexual assault survivor Mandi Gray’s willingness to be persistent and vocal about her case until a conviction was reached. Very few survivors of sexual assault come forward with their experiences, due to the same idea that this letter perpetuates — that they won’t be believed.
By normalizing the notion that all rapists are easily spotted by their day-to-day violent tendencies, sexual assault survivors are often backed into a corner — disbelief in the rapist’s guilt is connected to disbelief in the survivor no matter the evidence they put forward.
The only person whose role it is to make judgements regarding whether the assault took place is the judge — this professor has no right to take on that role, just as the trial participants have the right to be judged on the facts and nothing else. In writing that he doesn’t believe people shouldn’t be judged by their worst actions, he falls into a position that isn’t his to assume.
Particularly as a figure of authority in the university — whose voice matters in York’s culture — Newman failed to live up to his responsibility to promote a safe and welcoming environment for all students and faculty.
Perhaps with more adequate resources and training for educators regarding sensitive topics, Newman may have realized the toxic message his words were propagating. As a professor on a campus with a rape culture problem, in a country full of campuses with a rape culture problem, it’s not too much to ask that professors are sensitive to the realities that hurt so many students.
The letter may have been just words for Newman, but for survivors and students struggling with the reality of rape culture on campus, his words are as sharp as sticks and stones.
All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.