HYDE PARK — A University of Chicago professor’s inadvertent “rape joke” during a graduation address has spread across the Internet and prompted an apology.
Allen Sanderson, a senior lecturer of economics at the university, thought he was poking fun at a recent university survey about sex on campus during the Remains of Education Address at the baccalaureate ceremony at Rockefeller Chapel on Friday.
“You’ve been able to rub elbows with some of the greatest minds in the world. And judging by the recent campus climate survey, that's not the only thing you've been rubbing up against,” Sanderson joked during his address that also lampooned humanities and social science majors.
The survey released June 8 asked students whether they had been on a date since enrolling in the university, which appears to be the crux of Sanderson’s joke, but also asks about sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape.
“Lots of people looked around at each other, asked ‘Did he just say that?’ or similar questions, and generally just looked shocked, before taking out their phones,” said Ellen Rabin, an undergraduate at the event.
Sam Cholke says the joke went viral before the speech was even over:
Other students said the joke fell flat.
“Many people groaned and some people walked out after his statement,” said Cameron Okeke, another undergraduate at the event. “I would have walked out immediately, but I was trying to remember the words so I could make a Facebook status.”
The remarks quickly spread to Twitter and other social media, where it was labeled a “rape joke.”
By Saturday Sanderson issued an apology.
“Some of my remarks were offensive and I apologize for marring what should have been a purely celebratory event,” Sanderson wrote in an email sent to students. “I've received a number of e-mails from concerned students and I've apologized to them individually. Now I wish to apologize more broadly. It was certainly not my intent to cause more pain or distress, or to condone inappropriate behavior.”
Students at the event said Sanderson’s address was full of stinging jokes about the difficulties of being a graduate with a humanities degree and even took a few shots at the dean of the undergraduate college, John Boyer.
“They’ve raised the minimum wage — an anthropologist's dream come true,” Sanderson also joked during his speech.
His sex joke touched a nerve, though, on a campus where students, faculty and the administration have been reconsidering how sexual assault is talked about and addressed on campus in the wake of a 2014 investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
Jeremy Manier, a spokesman for the university, said Sanderson does not speak for the university and the university does not limit comments by faculty.
"The university fundamentally rejects any form of sexual misconduct under any circumstances and by any member of our community," Manier said. "The university recently conducted a climate survey regarding sexual misconduct as part of a number of steps to reduce its occurrence and to provide education and support around these issues. These important efforts are ongoing, and we have more work to do."
Just in the last year, the university has revamped its unlawful discrimination and sexual misconduct policy, created new student and faculty committees on sexual assault and appointed a new associate dean of students in the university for disciplinary affairs.
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