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Editorial: Denove response shows a UCLA more concerned with protecting reputation than community

By Editorial Board

May 8, 2019 10:27 p.m.

UCLA’s public relations strategy usually has a poetic irony: The more egregious the problem, the more ridiculous the response.

This time, though, the doubling down took a dark turn.

Last week, the Daily Bruin was tipped about how Thomas Denove, a professor emeritus in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, was charged with sexual assault of children – charges he didn’t contest. Denove was arraigned Nov. 9 and charged with two counts of substantial sexual conduct with a child and one count of willfully committing a lewd act upon a child with the intent of gratifying sexual desire. He pleaded not guilty to the final count.

He could face more than a decade in prison for these felony offenses.

But students wouldn’t have known that when they were signing up for Denove’s summer class – an offering that was quietly removed after The Bruin informed the university of the professor emeritus’ felony charges.

Quietly, it turns out, is how UCLA has taken to responding to a whole host of high-profile sexual assault or sexual harassment cases. The university, via its spokespeople, sought to downplay the gravity of allowing Denove to remain at a campus that gets dozens of visitors – children included – each day. And that response is in line with the various other sexual harassment and sexual violence cases regarding on-campus personnel – a veil against public scrutiny and awareness.

But the university’s silence over Denove is the cynically logical conclusion of its you-can’t-criticize-what-you-don’t-know approach. The estranged professor emeritus is still a presence on campus because of deficiencies in UCLA’s workplace policies. And while no one is asking for administrators to wallow in despair over the archaic academic models that allow sexual predators to persist on campus, the least the campus community deserves is acknowledgement.

That’s too much to expect from UCLA, though.

In fact, when news of the charges against Denove broke, the university’s media relations team decided to go on the offensive: Tod Tamberg, media relations director, argued over minute semantic details in The Bruin’s coverage, claiming UCLA was not oblivious about Denove’s felony charge status, as the newspaper had informed him.

Clearly ridiculous logic puzzles – illogical ones, rather – are the way the university’s mouthpiece intends to disseminate its message.

But at a certain point, we have to wonder whether UCLA’s image is even worth protecting. The university has shown time and again its penchant for dismissing concerns about its Title IX settlement practices or its confidentiality policies for sexual violence and sexual harassment investigations. These are norms that, as this board has pointed out on numerous occasions, contribute to a culture where victims are lulled into a dangerous silence and sexual violence and sexual harassment persist.

Denove’s actions are abhorrent to a bloodcurdling degree, and in no way are we saying UCLA played a part in his moral deficiencies. Yet, in light of the public learning about a faculty member’s crimes, the university spokespeople have shown they are more concerned with absolving UCLA of blame than with its catastrophic oversight in protecting the community.

Yes, UCLA is within its rights to attempt to save face. And its public relations team has the thankless and morally ambiguous job of doing the dirty work of making the Bruin Bear’s blue and gold shine, regardless of the situation.

Yet universities are made up of people with consciences. Denove won’t be the last repugnant faculty member to walk this campus.

This board can only hope UCLA’s heralds would be repulsed at that idea – not pick unnecessarily flippant battles to preserve its reputation.

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