Peter Morenus/UConn Photo

At first, the kerfuffle at the University of Connecticut between a largely black sorority and a predominantly white fraternity might seem a lot like the big-kid version of a schoolyard fight. It is, after all, a dispute over an iconic boulder on campus affectionately known as the “Spirit Rock.” No one has been physically hurt, and campus officials have taken action in response to the event.

But a closer look at the quarrel likely reveals a racially charged conflict in which white frat brothers, according to university investigators’ initial findings, physically intimidated the group of black women, hurling verbal insults at them, including “fat black bitch” and “whores.” It has forced university officials—administrators accustomed to treating race and gender bias as distinct problems—to grapple with a conflict that’s almost certainly shaped by some combination of both issues. What’s more, the Spirit Rock affair is unfolding at a time when public scrutiny of issues related to sexual violence and harassment on campus has reached an all-time high. Turns out that what happened at the Spirit Rock is hardly a petty matter.

In the last three years alone, students at a number of schools across the prestige scale have filed suits against their institutions for their handling of sexual assault and harassment complaints. A White House task force issued a report in April detailing its plans and recommendations to combat the epidemic—a problem so widespread that, according to justice department figures, one in five women on the nation’s college campuses will be sexually assaulted before she graduates.

Adding to the federal pressure, the Department of Education has launched an extensive investigation into dozens of schools in an effort to hold them accountable for their alleged failure to properly investigate or punish perpetrators of campus sexual assaults. The probe is the latest chapter in a federal initiative to solve the problem. In 2011, the department sent a warning letter to every college and university explaining that, under the terms of Title IX, it's legally obligated to meaningfully respond to allegations of sexual violence and do what it can to create a campus environment that's equally safe for men and women. The agency launched its current investigations into the University of Connecticut and 93 other schools starting last December.

Technically, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded programs, which include virtually all higher education institutions. Most schools have interpreted that mandate in narrow terms; they’ve increased funding for women’s athletic scholarships and included fine print emphasizing that sexual discrimination is prohibited on posters and brochures. Some have gone further and instituted substantive reforms, looking closely at the career and educational opportunities women have on campus. The Department of Education has not only embraced a broader interpretation of Title IX—using it as a tool to regulate sexual-violence policies—but it’s also upped the ante on large-scale enforcement efforts, a shift long-overdue considering the nation’s courts had taken the same approach nearly a decade prior. Now, federal education officials are looking for evidence at campuses across the country that complaints of sexual assault and harassment are regularly mishandled, ignored, or downplayed. Schools such as UConn—an institution that boasts a female president and a powerhouse women’s basketball team—must exhibit total compliance with Title IX or risk losing essential federal funds.

Whether UConn is in compliance remains uncertain; the Department of Education inquiry is still pending. In July, the school settled a private Title IX civil suit brought by five students for $1.28 million on the grounds that it admitted no wrongdoing. The university announced that it was committed to eliminating “sexual and gender-based harassment and violence, to prevent its recurrence … and hold perpetrators accountable.” But events like the dispute at the Spirit Rock have raised questions about the sincerity of that pledge.

On September 29, members of UConn’s historically black Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, or the AKAs, went to the paint the Spirit Rock—a roughly four-foot-tall boulder situated on a patch of grass on the school’s Storrs campus. At UConn, a school that serves about 30,000 students, what happens at the Spirit Rock is apparently so significant that the university maintains an official “Rock Painting Policy”. The rules boil down to this: If a message on the rock has been there long enough to dry it may be replaced. Any group in the middle of painting it is not to not be “bothered, harassed, or demeaned,” according to the policy.

But as the AKAs got to work painting the Spirit Rock, members of a predominantly white fraternity, the Pi Kappa Alpha, or the PIKEs, began to gather and complain. A get-well message for a PIKE was about to disappear. PIKEs congregated near the rock and yelled at the AKAs, swung a golf club to propel nearby trash toward the sorority members, and hit the boulder several times with a football, according to reports.

The AKAs say they summoned campus police sometime after PIKEs called an graduate student member a “fat black bitch” and referred to others as “whores.” Officers compiled a report, opened an investigation, and ordered the PIKEs to leave. Some of the frat members allegedly returned and watched the AKAs from the top of a nearby multi-story parking garage, presumably to intimidate them, the reports say. The next day, on September 30, the AKAs filed a formal complaint with the university’s community standards office, sparking a so-called “campus conduct investigation.” The process included interviews with and written statements from students on both sides of the conflict.

A few weeks later, the school sent the PIKEs a written notice indicating that the frat was being placed on probation. As a punishment, the PIKEs’ activities will be “monitored and evaluated,” and frat members can’t paint rocks—on campus or off—until next May. PIKEs will also have to work with university staff to develop “substantive educational events to address the underlying issues of this incident including, but not limited to sexism, racism, bystander intervention, and micro‐aggression,” the letter, dated November 6, explained. And it appears that the school considered the details it gathered during the investigation egregious enough to make every PIKE member’s attendance at the educational events mandatory.

But at a “town hall” a few days after the letter was issued, school officials denied knowing about the the insults the PIKEs allegedly hurled at the AKAs during the conflict at the Spirit Rock. In response, some students argued that the intimidation and name-calling they experienced merited more than the sanctions the university had handed down on the PIKEs.

After all, the conflict surrounding the Spirit Rock was still a hot topic on social media. Over the course of October and November, UConn’s feed on Yik Yak—a social media app that curates anonymous comments and displays them for students within a 1.5-mile radius of various college campuses—reflected a kind of funhouse-mirror view of race and gender. Perhaps most importantly, the commentary showcased a vexed but increasingly familiar debate about who in the circumstances are the victims—and who are the aggressors.

Among the comments:

“FUCK AKA YOU FAT BLACK BITCHES.”

- “Yancy [the graduate student targeted during the Spirit Rock incident] is fat and black. And a bitch.”
- “Fat n black describe her accurately. Why [sic] else does she want?”

“Goddam do you not realize Yancy idolizes Jesse Jackson? SHE turned this into a race war. Nobody in pike is racist, it was a heat of the moment dumb comment. It’s her moment to shine. Don’t let it be.”

Not a single PIKE attended the town hall. Title IX-compliance staff, however, did show up. Then, more than one month after the initial incident at the Spirit Rock, UConn’s Title IX office opened an investigation.

This time, investigators will focus on alleged sexual harassment, gender bias, and the AKAs’ sense safety and fair treatment on campus. The move is significant: A student found by the university to have violated Title IX can face penalties ranging from mandatory classes to probation or expulsion. An organization can face similar penalties, too.

Curiously, both the AKAs and PIKEs have remained tight-lipped about the incident at the Spirit Rock and the social-media commentary that followed, speaking only internally with UConn’s administration and their respective national organizations. In the months since the incident at the Spirit Rock, the AKAs have issued statements thanking the campus for its “support.” One even included the kind of page-long roll call of “thank yous” that at awards shows prompts music and commercial breaks. For their part, the PIKEs have released statements so insincere that they read as if they were torn directly from a manual titled “How To Respond to Allegations of Discrimination: Distance Yourself or Organization, Then Lead a Rendition of Kumbya.” Meanwhile, the frat has emphasized that just 10 members were involved in the incident at the Spirit Rock and insisted it has no history of “racial insensitivity.” The group has also called for the PIKEs and AKAs to work together in the future. UConn officials insist they are taking the conflict seriously; investigations into the incident are underway and are expected to continue into the next year. Meanwhile, the campus conduct investigation closed in early November has been reopened.

Still, the incident at the Spirit Rock continues to unfold, forming new, complicated layers. This month, rumblings on campus—tidbits that haven’t, however, been publicly documented by the university—indicate that during the incident at the Spirit Rock at least one AKA allegedly summoned members of a predominantly black fraternity whose members are known to carry canes. (The frat in question typically uses those canes in step shows, a type of group performance.) Though it's just hearsay for now, the rumor has traction. And whatever the outcome, this speculation raises new questions about the murky intersection of race and gender discrimination on college campuses. As UConn political science Professor Evelyn Simien asked at the November town hall, had a historically black fraternity confronted a predominantly white sorority at the Spirit Rock what kind of response would have followed?

The answer would, again, reveal the real way race, gender, and Title IX really work on campus.

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