UW-Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank made the appropriate decision when she readmitted Quintez Cephus to the coming school year.
This was not an easy, or casual choice. Blank and the university were pulled in different directions by sincere Wisconsinites with profoundly different thoughts on what the chancellor should decide about the Badger wide receiver’s future. But Blank chose to act in the interest of fairness and respect for the rule of law, and we applaud her for that.
Cephus was expelled from the university last semester after he was accused by two women of sexual assault. The expulsion was appropriate at the time. But, earlier this month, Cephus was acquitted of those charges by a Dane County jury in less than 45 minutes and he then petitioned to be allowed to return to the university.
That put Blank in a difficult position. She is a savvy chancellor who is in touch with the concerns of students and the broader community.
She understood that if she allowed the 21-year-old football player back in school, she would raise concerns among sexual assault victims and advocates who argue, correctly, that women have for too long been victimized by a culture that has been too quick to challenge and dismiss those who report attacks.
This is one of the reasons why the federal government strengthened Title 9, directing colleges to promptly investigate sex harassment and assault complaints and immediately take disciplinary action against the alleged perpetrators. That's what happened to Cephus last year, after the two women said he attacked them while they were intoxicated.
Because charges of second- and third-degree assault were filed against him by the Dane County District Attorney's Office while the UW's investigation was underway, Cephus' lawyers told him not to respond to the UW inquiry for fear that cooperating with that probe would jeopardize his defense in the upcoming criminal case. Based on the information it had, the university found probable cause that the football player had indeed raped the women and Blank threw him out of school.
But then Cephus had his day in court.
Juror Kelly Engsberg explained to Channel 3 that the members of the jury took their responsibilities seriously. "Every single person was thoughtful, taking notes, listening intently all week long,” she said.
"I am a 100 percent supporter of #Me Too,” added the juror, who explained that, “It's our job as a society, my job as a juror, to really dig deep and look for the truth and to try to figure out truly if a crime occurred.”
When all was said and done, Engsberg recalled, “It was quick and it was unanimous right off the bat. There was little to no question of whether or not we were all on the same page."
The takeaway was that a Dane County jury had determined that Cephus is not guilty. With the verdict in hand, Cephus had every right to argue that he should be allowed to return to school. He was joined in making this argument by many leading figures in Madison's African-American community. In a letter to Blank, a number of pastors, the CEO of the Urban League and civil rights leaders made the case for reinstating this African-American student. They suggested that if the now innocent Cephus was not reinstated, Blank would send yet another signal that African-American students are not afforded equal treatment by UW-Madison. This was a serious matter for a university that has often fallen short when it comes to attracting and retaining a student body that reflects the diversity of Wisconsin.
UW football coach Paul Chryst and members of the team weighed in as well, indicating that they would welcome Cephus back.
Blank had a lot of information to process. But there was an essential detail that could not be avoided: the fact that, if Cephus was not allowed to re-enroll, then he would wind up expelled for something that our justice system says he did not do.
A jury has found this man innocent. That decision had to be respected.
We understand that there will be some Wisconsinites who worry that the decision to reinstate Cephus will deal a blow to the gains that have been made in pursuit of equitable treatment for the victims of sexual assault. The concern is sincere, and we should all be mindful of the need to maintain the progress that has been made toward greater transparency and greater respect for those who report attacks. We especially appreciate the voice of Erin Thornley Parisi, the executive director of the Rape Crisis Center of Dane County, who explained to the Wisconsin State Journal that ongoing efforts should be made to examine how the criminal justice system fails both African Americans and sexual assault victims.
Women who call out sexual harassment and report assaults are courageous. They must be heard. Institutions such as the university must take appropriate steps to address reports of assault, and so, too, must the criminal justice system. Everyone has a right to a day in court. When a judge or a jury decides a case, however, that is a defining moment. In this case, a jury has determined that Quintez Cephus is innocent. As such, Chancellor Blank was right to allow his return to the university.
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.