The XX Factor

Annie Le and Yale: How Much Can a University Do to Protect Women?

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When Yale graduate student Annie Le was horrifically murdered in 2009, police first suggested that the crime was an extreme case of workplace violence. Only later did RayClark, a technician who worked in the same lab as Le, plead guilty to attempted sexual assault (though technically under the Alford Doctrine, in which a defendant concedes that the prosecution has enough evidence to convict without actually admitting guilt).

Responding to the original narrative, Double X’s Jessica Grose wrote that, “In cases of senseless violence, everyone is looking for a narrative that explains the issue in a way that can prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. Sociopathy isn’t something that’s so pat or easy to control.” However, in light of the strong possibility of a sexual motivation for the crime, the case for drawing larger conclusions—about cultures of sexual violence and of institutional culpability—grows stronger.

This is precisely the argument that Le’s family attempts to make in their recently announced lawsuit against Yale. According to the Yale Daily News, the suit alleges that Yale fostered “an atmosphere of tolerance of sexual harassment and sexual assaults” that “emboldened” Clark and points to a Title IX sexual discrimination complaint lodged by students against the University as evidence. Yale has responded by stating that there is no basis for the charges.

While Le’s death was unquestionably tragic and her parent’s search for closure understandable, I wonder how much the university could have really done to prevent it. The specific allegations against Yale seem exaggerated. To begin, the strongest claim—that the university waited too long to investigate Le’s disappearance—is, though woefully unfortunate, probably not criminal.  Le’s housemate reported to campus police that she did not return home after work at 10:40pm, but an investigation did not begin until the following morning. This hardly seems like an unreasonable amount of time to wait, considering that most adult missing persons’ investigations don’t begin in earnest until after 24-to-48 hours, and, well, it’s college—a grad student’s schedule is often erratic.

From there, the case only gets weaker. The family charges that Yale should have known Clark had a dubious history with women, but the case in question—in which a high school girlfriend accused Clark of forcing her to have sex, only to later drop the charges—were sealed in his juvenile record. He had no criminal history as an adult and so unsurprisingly passed general employment screenings. Then there’s the fire alarm. At 12:55pm, the lab was briefly evacuated for a minor problem, and Le did not leave. The family claims that this should have triggered some kind of alert with the University; however, though ill-advised, many people ignore such alarms to continue working or sleeping.

So, considering the uncertain strength of the previous claims, the final point—that, with reference to the Title IX complaint, Yale tolerates violence against women in general—would seem to be the central issue here. While the official verdict on that accusation is still pending from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, I just don’t think that the answer applies to Le’s case either way. The complaint addresses a number of gross events on the campus, including a fraternity initiation in which new pledges chanted “No means yes, and yes means anal!” on the quad, suggesting that the Yale administration has not responded swiftly or harshly enough. While this kind of behavior is clearly out-of-line, t really has little to do with Clark’s situation. He was not a Yale student, and so, presumably, was not really a part of the “culture” in question. The worthy issues of Ivy League privilege and sexist traditions and institutional inertia at play in the complaint just don’t apply, at least not directly, to a low-rung university employee.

Though I wholly sympathize with Le’s family’s search for a larger explanation for their daughter’s death, I don’t think it’s with Yale. This was a case of a disturbed man who lost it on the job and took an innocent life—and that job could have been anywhere.