University of Idaho president touts athletic director’s efforts to prevent sexual assault
University of Idaho President Chuck Staben and female members of the athletic department provided a spirited defense of Athletic Director Rob Spear on Wednesday night.
More than 50 people filled the usually quiet ASUI Senate meeting to provide feedback on the student government’s proposed resolution requesting Spear be fired for the mistakes his department made in handling accusations of sexual assault and harassment by two female athletes against a football player in 2013.
Spear’s supporters spoke to the Senate and questioned the people who came to speak in favor of the resolution, which likely will be voted on next Wednesday night. Speeches in favor of the resolution included a statement read on behalf of the sexual assault victim at the center of the controversy — former diver Mairin Jameson.
“I’ve been in ASUI for three years and I’ve never seen anything like that,” said ASUI President McKenzie MacDonald, a senior from Bonners Ferry. “I was so amazed to see the amount of people that came and the amount of people that spoke and the amount of people that told really genuine stories, and just to see people’s passion for the issue and their passion for being part of the conversation was really inspiring.”
The open forum portion of the Senate meeting lasted 1 hour, 17 minutes and was consumed almost entirely by the Spear debate. ASUI doesn’t have any authority over Spear’s fate. The resolution would serve as the students voicing their opinion.
The forum started with a statement from Staben, who also answered questions from the Senate before leaving for a prior engagement. He didn’t mention Spear until he was asked to provide specifics on the athletic director’s efforts to protect students.
Staben said the athletic department’s training to prevent sexual assaults exceeds most others on campus. He also mentioned the bystander-intervention training that was implemented in the aftermath of Jameson’s assault.
“Frankly I think (Spear) is, at this point in time, a role model for the university in his actions in this respect,” Staben said.
Staben acknowledged earlier in the day the mistakes the athletic department made in Jameson’s case in a lengthy email sent to faculty, staff and students with the subject line, “Addressing Safety Concerns a Priority for U of I.” Staben became president in 2014.
“Our initial mishandling added to a difficult experience for the students involved,” he wrote. “I regret those mistakes, and we are learning from them.”
Staben also lectured the senators on the serious nature of suggesting the termination of an employee. Staben wasn’t available for an interview after he spoke.
“I would actually seriously doubt that any of you have terminated employment of another individual,” Staben said. “It is not an easy thing. It is a very serious matter. It is one that should be undertaken when fully informed and quite confident that one is quite correct and that the action is justified.”
Senior Sarah Solomon, one of the proponents of the resolution to fire Spear, spoke next.
“It is also no small matter to mishandle a sexual assault allegation,” she said. “.... There was a job to be done and when the job is not done it is no longer your job to do so.”
Solomon read the statement from Jameson, who for the first time publicly advocated for Spear’s removal. The athletic department admitted it failed to report her assault to the dean of students office as required by Title IX guidelines and university policy, which would have led more quickly to a university investigation and provided her with immediate support such as counseling and other resources. The department also failed to act on a previous harassment complaint by track athlete Maggie Miller against the same football player.
Spear has admitted that he should have informed the dean of students office and was operating under an outdated university policy governing off-campus incidents that had been changed 13 months earlier. He apologized to Jameson by email nearly five years later, after she shared her experience publicly.
“We need to instill a new culture within our athletic department and it will start with new leadership,” Jameson wrote. “As I keep hearing from more and more women with similar stories, I keep saying that, ‘The voice of one can be heard but the voice of many can’t be ignored.’ ”
After Solomon, only two people spoke in favor of the resolution. Five spoke against, including women’s soccer player Kelly Dopke, volleyball coach Debbie Buchanan, women’s basketball associate head coach Christa Sanford, athletic department staffer Melissa Weitz and former women’s soccer player Jill Reader, who works in the athletic department and whose husband is the director of football operations.
“As a soccer team, we are unified on this decision in supporting Rob Spear,” Dopke said.
Spear held a meeting earlier in the day with the Vandals’ female student-athletes to discuss the Jameson case. He was joined by Erin Agidius, director of the university’s Office of Civil Rights and Investigations.
The women who spoke in support of Spear had similar talking points, including the confusion over the off-campus policy, that the football player was removed from the team within 16 days of Spear learning of the incident, that Jameson slowed the criminal process by not seeking charges immediately and that senators only had one side of the story because of federal privacy laws, despite extensive information from Spear in the Idaho Statesman’s original story and a lengthy statement from the university admitting mistakes and apologizing to Jameson.
But the women also spoke to Spear’s character.
“I can’t even say it enough how good of a person he is,” Reader said. “For those looking from the outside, it just breaks my heart the way people are talking about him.”
One speaker suggested that Spear hadn’t done anything wrong, one tried to use a federal privacy law to explain why Spear didn’t apologize for nearly five years and one questioned the veracity of Jameson’s story.
“I don’t think she’s purposely putting misinformation out there,” Weitz said, when pressed on earlier comments.
Dave Eubank, a graduate student who edits the blog for the University of Idaho Women’s Center that recently included a current Idaho volleyball player’s admiration for Jameson and Miller, provided passionate support for the resolution.
“Mairin and Maggie came forward,” Eubank said. “Most don’t. You think they’re the only ones? All statistics show that’s not the case.”
The Senate will spend the next seven days gathering more information and likely tweaking the resolution before next week’s vote. Spear is scheduled to meet with the Senate before Wednesday’s meeting and an open forum will be available during the meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. Pacific in the Idaho Commons building.
There is some disagreement within student government about the resolution. MacDonald, the president, spoke against the resolution “as written” Wednesday night but in favor of making a “strong statement,” while Vice President Catherine Yenne is the primary author. Among the 15 voting senators, there are differing opinions as well.
“Everything’s a little more up in the air after the open forum,” said Nicole Skinner, a sophomore senator from Meridian.
Skinner hopes to find a way to include student-athletes who would like change in the department. She has spoken to some, she said.
“I really appreciate the student-athletes coming tonight,” she said, “but I also know there are a lot of student-athletes in favor of the resolution that don’t feel comfortable speaking out in favor of it because they have scholarships and play time at risk. I get worried that the student-athletes opposed to the resolution are going to sway it maybe more than they should.”
One point of contention is that the resolution targets Spear based on mistakes made nearly five years ago.
Senator Zachary Spence, a senior from Deary, has concerns about the wording of the resolution, the five-year time gap and its focus on Spear when others in the department also failed to follow policy.
“Is it right to punish somebody for something that happened much longer ago, and we’ve had changes in between? I’m not sure that it is,” Spence said.
Skinner, on the other hand, finds the time gap irrelevant.
“I struggle with the fact that Rob Spear was given a second chance in the first place,” she said. “I struggle because they keep trying to turn the conversation to, ‘Look at the university now.’ ... Even though we’re having to have a delayed response to these incidents, they didn’t have to. They had all the information we have right now and more.”
Most important to Spence, he wants the Senate to exercise due diligence to avoid any hint of hypocrisy, he said. The original thought was that the vote could come this week but the Senate opted to let its usual two-meeting process play out.
Spence has experienced “extreme, excruciating stress” since the resolution became a topic on Friday, he said.
“There was a lot of emotion tonight,” he said, “and hopefully as a body we’ll be able to rise above that.”