“Completely backwards”: Helen Dragas on the sexual assault crisis at UVA

Helen Dragas, pictured here at a BOV meeting in 2012. Helen Dragas, pictured here at a BOV meeting in 2012.

This story is part of our ongoing coverage in the wake of the Rolling Stone story on rape at UVA. There’s more: An in-depth look at the University’s sexual assault policy, responses from the Rolling Stone reporter and women she interviewed as well as two women who reported their own rapes while students, a look at an alumna’s success raising money for a victims’ defense fund, and information on victims coming forward from a Charlottesville prosecutor. 

A year and a half after UVA Board of Visitor member and former rector Helen Dragas found herself at the center of a media firestorm over the firing and subsequent rehiring of President Teresa Sullivan, she weighs in on the current crisis around sexual assault at the school and what she hopes will happen next.

I understand you donated $5,000 to the alumni-organized fund for legal assistance for victims of sexual assault. What prompted your donation?

I’m a female board member, an alumna, and the mother of a young woman walking The Grounds. I want victims of sexual assault to have recourse and support from the trained professionals.

Has the Rolling Stone article changed your perception of the issue of sexual assault at UVA?

Not just the article, but the wave of stories that have come in after that. They add up to one conclusion: We have a tragic and serious problem at UVA, and it’s one that has been partly created by a response to victims that they need to think of the University first, themselves second. That’s crazy, and completely backwards. We should be placing a premium on safety–a good reputation will follow.

Do you have thoughts or feelings on how the school should move forward– things that are already being done or things you’d like to see happen?

People are pouring forth their good suggestions out of concern for our students. We need to actively gather more ideas from the UVA community and beyond, and think through which ones can be executed immediately and which must happen over the long-term. We need concrete, but thoughtful, action, not a prolonged commission to study the problem.  I’d like to see a very transparent process for getting us where we need to be.

Do you believe the Greek system, and fraternities in particular, need to be overhauled or eliminated at UVA?

I’m reserving judgment until I learn more and hear from more people.

Do you have faith in the current administration’s ability to steer the school through this tumultuous time?

To every extent that we can, we have responsibilities as Board members and administrators not to let harm come to our young people. We have a long road ahead of us. We will stumble because we are human, but even an imperfect response won’t happen until there comes a time when we choose to face reality, not hide from it. When the Board meets in emergency session [Tuesday], I hope this will mark a time of new beginnings.