Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

It’s a shocking and ultimately sad story: The Catholic University of America has summarily suspended William Rainford, dean of its school of social work, simply for tweeting his disbelief in…Julie Swetnick, the least believable of the three women who emerged during the last days of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s protracted confirmation hearing to accuse him of decades-old sexual wrongdoing.

Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez at least had some surface credibility, although their stories of sexual assault by Kavanaugh could not be corroborated, even after an FBI investigation in Ford’s case. But Swetnick’s lurid tale of attending multiple gang-rape parties from 1981 through 1983 at which Kavanaugh—then a teenage student at Georgetown Preparatory School in Maryland—had pawed numerous girls and plied them with booze and Quaaludes was so outlandish that even some Senate Democrats wished privately that Swetnick and her notorious lawyer, Michael Avenatti, had stayed in the woodwork. Most damaging to Swetnick was the fact that she herself had graduated from high school in 1981—what was she doing at high school parties?

It was exactly that aspect of Swetnick’s yarn that Rainford latched upon on Twitter. His September 26 tweet read: “Swetnick is 55 y/o, Kavanaugh is 52 y/o. Since when do senior girls hang with freshmen boys? If it happened when Kavanaugh was a senior, Swetnick was an adult drinking with&by her admission, having sex with underage boys. In another universe, he would be victim & she the perp!”

Valid points all, and made by others who thought Swetnick’s insertion of herself into the anti-Kavanaugh cause damaged it. But this is not the kind of thing that goes over in a school of social work—a profession notorious for its permeation by knee-jerk political correctness (the 1997 ethics code of the National Association of Social Workers requires them to advocate for “social justice,” which typically means fashionable progressive causes). So the day after Rainford’s tweet appeared, some 40 CUA social-work graduate students walked out of their classes in protest and issued a petition that demanded, among other things, that Rainford resign immediately and be replaced by a woman, since the profession of social work is overwhelmingly female (the 40 protesters included only five men). The petition also demanded a public apology from CUA’s president, John Garvey.

Garvey promptly capitulated. He did not fire Rainford, but he did state that Rainford would be suspended for the remainder of the fall 2018 semester. Rainford, who had already apologized and deleted his Twitter account, “understands and accepts this decision,” Garvey wrote.

Garvey had good grounds for disciplining Rainford. Although the dean’s Twitter account was apparently a personal one, he had used the handle @NCSSSDean, which implied CUA’s official endorsement of his own personal views. High-level university administrators should undoubtedly refrain from staking out controversial political positions—much less make jokes about them—in public. But that was not the tack that Garvey chose to take. Instead, he characterized Swetnick—and by extension Ford and Ramirez—not as an accuser but as an actual “victim” of a sexual assault that had actually taken place, presumably by Kavanaugh. Garvey wrote:

The tweets called into question the validity of some accusations of sexual assault made against Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Of deepest concern to me is that they demonstrated a lack of sensitivity to the victim…. Let there be no doubt that our University, and particularly our National Catholic School of Social Service, has a special concern for every victim and survivor of sexual assault.

In choosing to so characterize Swetnick, and by extension, Ford and Ramirez, Garvey not only leapt to a conclusion that has no firm factual basis, but committed CUA itself to crediting unsubstantiated allegations against a federal jurist of impeccable professional and personal reputation—who is also a committed Catholic.

That is the shocking aspect of the story. The sad aspect is that The Catholic University of America is in a fix. Garvey, president of CUA since 2011, has worked admirably to shore up the university’s Catholic identity after decades of the post-Vatican II drifting that has plagued many once-staunchly Catholic institutions of higher learning. He has instituted hiring preferences for Catholic faculty members and stricter enforcement of traditional Catholic moral teaching. He has put an end to co-ed dormitories and refused to grant official recognition to gay and lesbian student organizations. Such actions have generated endless rounds of wrangling among CUA’s current faculty, only a little over half of whom are Catholic. CUA’s desirable Washington, D.C., location not far from Capitol Hill has allowed it to hire top-flight professors from elite doctoral programs (I can personally testify to this, as I received a PhD in medieval studies in 2011 from CUA, where nearly all my teachers seemed to belong to an Ivy/Oxbridge/University of Chicago mafia). The downside is that many of those excellent scholars have little interest in Catholic identity, are politically and socially liberal like most academics, and have chafed under Garvey.

Compounding that tension is the fact that CUA, endowment-poor and tuition-dependent, has seen falling enrollments in recent years (it currently has about 3,300 undergraduates) despite a freshman acceptance rate of nearly 80 percent. A secular consulting firm hired by panicked administrators issued a report in January 2018 laying the blame on Garvey’s Catholic-identity agenda, which the firm claimed was unappealing to today’s minimally catechized and even more minimally church-attending Catholic young people. That may be—although it is more likely that CUA’s enrollment woes are simply a manifestation of the trouble that many small, expensive, second-tier private colleges are having in an era of soaring costs. Garvey has announced radical cost-cutting measures, including cutting 35 faculty slots and consolidating some academic departments. This has led to another round of faculty grumbling (or, more accurately, near-rebellion), especially since the consolidations will mean drastically shrinking fields of study—history and literature—that have been the hallmarks of liberal arts education in the Christian West for centuries.

So Garvey is between a rock and a hard place. The National Catholic School of Social Service might be staffed by irritating doctrinaire progressives, but it’s also a likely campus cash-cow. U.S. News rates it at a respectable No. 50 among 251 graduate-level social-work programs nationwide, so it draws students and their tuition dollars. Garvey must have decided that of all the battles he might fight, he didn’t want this one. It is unfortunate, though, that he avoided conflict on behalf of his dean and a Catholic Supreme Court justice who has been subjected to a campaign of personal vilification unparalleled in recent political history. Furthermore, the olive branch Garvey extended to the protesters seems already to be withering. On Oct. 1 about 100 CUA students and faculty members marched through the campus holding signs saying “#notmydean” and “Start believing survivors not mocking them on Twitter.” Some 77 social-work students and 188 alumni signed letters demanding that Rainford be replaced. It’s clear that they—and Garvey’s troubles—are not going to go away until Rainford is gone.

Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Farragutful via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Become a fan of First Things on Facebooksubscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter. 

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles