Hundreds protest sexual violence at UVM on Admitted Students Visit Day


Mary McLellan

An admitted student and parent walk past the protest, Feb. 18.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Feb. 22 at 9:00 p.m. to correct the spelling of a source’s last name and to correct the year used in one of the timeline points. 

Hundreds gathered on Feb. 18, Admitted Students Visit Day, to protest UVM’s Feb. 17 Instagram post, which simultaneously congratulated athletics and denounced anonymous accusations of sexual assault on social media.

UVM posted on Instagram at approximately 9 p.m. to congratulate its men’s basketball team on its sixth straight America East Regular Season Title and to draw attention to the issue of sexual violence at the University.

“UVM does not tolerate sexual assault misconduct and takes such accusations seriously,” the post stated. “Anonymous accusations on social media are not helpful to victims or to anyone impacted by sexual violence.”

The protest

Between 200 – 300 students congregated on the green at Andrew Harris Commons, said Melanie Waldbrise, sergeant for UVM Police Services. The group formed around 11:40 a.m. and officially began its demonstration at noon, brandishing signs and filling the air with chants.

“UVM appointed a Sexual Violence Prevention and Education Coordinator approximately 18 days ago and what happened?” first-year Sofia Ferraro said. “UVM has yet again shown that they only care about protecting rapists and sexual assault perpetrators with last night’s Instagram post.”

As the protestors passed through the Davis Center, other students on the second-floor balcony stood and cheered in support of the cause.

After several speakers addressed the crowd outside, the procession marched through the Davis Center and passed Brennan’s Pub and Bistro, a site marked off with reserved seating for Admitted Students Visit Day attendees.

Alexandra Bodelle

Many tour guides, known as AdvoCats, went on strike the day of the protest in response to UVM’s Instagram post, according to a Feb. 20 email from Director of Admissions Moses Murphy. In their absence on ASVD, admissions pivoted to offering self-guided tours.

“I explicitly informed guests that many of our students were engaging in social activism on Friday, and that AdvoCats were choosing to also engage in activism by not leading the ASV day campus tours,” Murphy’s email stated.

The last time UVM students staged a protest on an ASVD was the 2018 Waterman Takeover, according to a Feb. 18 email from Murphy.

The Waterman Takeovers are historic UVM protest events, all of which aimed to address issues of race and racism within the UVM community, according to VTDigger’s republished edition of the Cynic’s Black History Month coverage.

This protest happening on ASVD threatens UVM’s retention of the next incoming class, which will push the University into acting, first-year Adam Franz said.

“If I was coming to admitted students day, and I saw this protest, I’d be really fucking scared to go here,” junior Ali Fanger said. “If you’re going to pay a ton of money to go here, know that UVM doesn’t protect survivors.”

The protest made a significant impression on admitted student Rachael Neiberger, and was the most memorable part of her day, she said.

“[This] complicates the image of the school,” Neiberger said. “[I’m] less comfortable and concerned about safety.”

Sophomore Sean Cunneen said UVM’s mishandling of sexual violence shocks him. He had a friend visiting UVM for Admitted Students Visit Day, who was not happy to hear about this issue, Cunneen said.

“[I] recommended that she doesn’t choose [UVM] as a final school,” Cunneen said. “If UVM keeps behaving this way, […] they’re going to be losing popularity and if they want to keep getting students’ money they have to change.”

The University of Vermont congratulates its men’s basketball team on their sixth straight American East Regular Season Title. UVM does not tolerate sexual misconduct and takes such accusations seriously. Incidents are reported through the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity where support and follow-up is provided promptly. Anonymous accusations on social media helpful to victims or to anyone impacted by sexual violence.

— The post made by UVM's official Instagram

Ellie Scott

The cause for protest

The Instagram post received 280 comments in 30 minutes, according to a post from Instagram account @shareyourstoryuvm, an account for survivors to share their stories of assault anonymously.

UVM removed its post after 30 minutes, according to a handout from the event.

The post uploaded to UVM’s Instagram account does not match the style guide they typically use for posts. Instead it matches the style guide used by @shareyourstoryuvm.

UVM’s typical statement posts are designed with a bright photo in the background and a serif typeface.

The post uploaded on Thursday night was designed with a green background, white sans serif text and logo UVM-0001, a primary athletic mark, which are all elements @shareyourstory includes in their posts.

UVM athletics faced backlash for protecting abusers within its institution, according to several student sources and the @shareyourstoryuvm Instagram posts. The men’s basketball team in particular is the target of a significant number of allegations.

Ten posts on @uvmshareyourstory mention the men’s basketball team, eight of which detail sexual assault, as of Feb. 18. One of these posts is a duplicate. No other sports team at UVM is mentioned this frequently on the account.

Graduate student Kendall Ware faced a mishandling of her sexual assault investigation as an undergrad in fall 2020, according to an Oct. 13, 2020 Cynic article on the case. Her abuser played for the men’s basketball team at the time.

“It’s just hard to see sports teams being congratulated when there are survivors at this school who are not being heard,” sophomore and survivor Sabine Love said. “And their use of the language ‘victim’ instead of ‘survivors,’ I mean, we’re not victims. We are survivors. That is very triggering.”

First-year Sofia Ferraro said she found the post tone-deaf and insensitive.

“I think them turning off [Instagram] comments is a way of protecting their reputation,” Ferraro said. “Every school has a sexual assault issue but the way UVM handles it is just so incredibly poor.”

Senior Jessie Dion said these issues need to be addressed and UVM should avoid pushing these issues under the rug.

“The posts that UVM basketball put up [were] so terrible, to say that anonymous things don’t help anybody because it does help people,” Dion said. “But that should be addressed. These players shouldn’t be allowed to play despite their skill.”

A student places signage stating “Fire John Becker” over the Davis Center building guide Feb. 18. John Becker serves as the Head Coach of UVM’s men’s basketball team. Next to the building guide, signage for Admitted Students Day greets tour groups. (Sophia Balunek)

Patricia Prelock, provost and senior vice president, addressed the UVM community in an email sent two hours after the protest, at 2:04 p.m. Feb. 18.

“Following a University post yesterday about the Men’s Basketball team, there were numerous harmful comments accusing the entire team of sexual misconduct,” the email stated. “We are aware that UVM’s post in response to these comments was not received in the way it was intended.”

UVM does not tolerate sexual violence and has put significant effort and resources into prevention and support, according to the the email.

UVM athletics recognizes the harm felt by survivors and the importance of their control over if and how they choose to come forward, according to a statement from Director of Athletics Jeff Schulman, by way of a Feb. 20 email from Nich Hall, director of communications for UVM athletics.

The athletics department refers all known allegations to the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity immediately upon becoming aware, according to the statement. The AAEO then handles investigating those reports independently.

“As is the case for all students, student-athletes are not sanctioned based solely on an allegation on social media or elsewhere,” Schulman stated. “We are also aware of student-athletes who are being collectively targeted with accusations simply due to their association with a particular team or group and recognize the impact of these accusations.”

UVM Athletics has also expanded its sexual violence prevention programming significantly over the past several months, according to the email and a Feb. 14 Vermont Cynic article.

This protest comes nearly 10 months after thousands of students staged a walk-out May 3, 2021. Protestors flooded the steps of Waterman to stand against UVM’s handling of sexual violence and to advocate for improved prevention and support strategies for the UVM community.

On May 3, 2021, UVM administration agreed to a set of 17 student demands, originally released April 30, 2021, according to a May 4, 2021 Cynic article.

Since that time, UVM has implemented 14 demands on the list and is in the process of implementing the final three, according to the University’s We Hear You website.

Still, UVM’s efforts since last spring have been unsatisfactory, Franz said.

“It’s not enough to say nice things, it’s not enough to post things on social media,” Franz said. “If they’re really committed to [ending] sexual violence on our campus, they need to put a lot more resources into it.”

It’s just hard to see sports teams being congratulated when there are survivors at this school who are not being heard. And their use of the language ‘victim’ instead of ‘survivors,’ I mean, we’re not victims. We are survivors. That is very triggering.

— Sabine Love, sophomore and survivor

The collective effort behind the protest

Love first saw the idea for this protest on YikYak, an anonymous social media platform, they said.

“[It] was super surprising that an anonymous social media platform was able to basically create a protest in under 12 hours, of just people saying that they were angry and they want to protest and then people came together and heard other people’s voices,” she said.

UVM Union of Students later shared details of the event on their Instagram story at 12:03 a.m., Feb. 18.

Explain the Asterisk VT, an organization that aims to end campus sexual violence, according to its website, shared the same event details on their Instagram story around 10 a.m., Feb. 18.

“My immediate reaction [to UVM’s post], I had a pit in my stomach,” first-year Clara Campbell said.

Campbell found it disgusting that the post went directly from congratulating the basketball team to what she believed was invalidating survivors, she said.

“It’s a kick in the face to [say], ‘We take this seriously, but not seriously enough to give it its own post,’” Franz said. “It’s performative and they couldn’t even get the performance right.”

What is to come?

Ferraro said although students have not distilled specific additional demands for the University to address, she is grateful to see that action is happening.

“The protest today was more about gaining momentum,” Ferraro said. “These people were so angry, like, rightfully so. There’s going to be a lot in the future that I know already people have been planning.”

Dion said they are also looking forward to seeing people bringing their attention back to this issue.

“I think it is really important to continue this work,” Dion said. “And I think that there could be more protests. And I think that the University just needs to do more.”

The University can do much better to address sexual assault on campus if more people listen and act in support, sophomore Wes Hatfield said.

Seeing student activism is encouraging, admitted student Wyatt Pole said.

“I was scared because of [the protest] but at the same time […] I feel better that they’re being vocal about it,” Pole said.

Love and junior Abigale Szlajen said students are in the process of planning another protest, set to take place early next week.

Any survivors in need of support can access 24/7 hotline services through HOPE Works advocates at (802)-863-1236.

CAPS Counselor Laurie Brown is hosting a weekly Survivor’s Space for drop-in support, Thursdays from 5-6:30 p.m. at the Women and Gender Equity Center, through the Center for Health and Wellbeing, according to UVM’s website. The Center is located at 34 South Williams St.