University head criticized over sex assault remark

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University of Iowa President Sally Mason talks with students, faculty, and members of the public during a campus forum, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 in Iowa City, Iowa. Under fire for her handling of sexual assault, University of Iowa President Sally Mason on Thursday publicly shared her experience of being assaulted by a random stranger when she was a college student in 1970. (AP Photo/Iowa City Press-Citizen, Benjamin Roberts) NO SALES

University of Iowa President Sally Mason talks with students, faculty, and members of the public during a campus forum, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 in Iowa City, Iowa. Under fire for her handling of sexual assault, University of Iowa President Sally Mason on Thursday publicly shared her experience of being assaulted by a random stranger when she was a college student in 1970. (AP Photo/Iowa City Press-Citizen, Benjamin Roberts) NO SALES

FILE – In this Jan 21, 2011 file photo, University of Iowa President Sally Mason speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in her office in Iowa City, Iowa. Mason is leading a forum Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 to discuss recent concerns about sexual assaults this school year. The protest group formed after Mason told the student newspaper last week that preventing all sexual assaults wasn’t realistic “just given human nature.” Mason has apologized for any harm her words caused and pledged to use her power “to end this terrible crime on our campus.” (AP Photo/ Ryan J. Foley, File)

Meagan Thies, a 2011 University of Iowa graduate, speaks about her experience of sexual assault during a campus forum, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 in Iowa City, Iowa. Under fire for her handling of sexual assault, University of Iowa President Sally Mason on Thursday publicly shared her experience of being assaulted by a random stranger when she was a college student in 1970. (AP Photo/Iowa City Press-Citizen, Benjamin Roberts) NO SALES

University of Iowa graduate student Andrea Weare listens while a special panel of university officials and women’s health advocates hear questions and comments during a campus forum, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 in Iowa City, Iowa. Under fire for her handling of sexual assault, University of Iowa President Sally Mason on Thursday publicly shared her experience of being assaulted by a random stranger when she was a college student in 1970. (AP Photo/Iowa City Press-Citizen, Benjamin Roberts) NO SALES

University of Iowa President Sally Mason talks with students, faculty, and members of the public during a campus forum, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 in Iowa City, Iowa. Under fire for her handling of sexual assault, University of Iowa President Sally Mason on Thursday publicly shared her experience of being assaulted by a random stranger when she was a college student in 1970. (AP Photo/Iowa City Press-Citizen, Benjamin Roberts) NO SALES

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Facing criticism for a remark she made about sexual assault, University of Iowa President Sally Mason on Thursday discussed her own experience of being accosted by a stranger when she was a college student.

Mason opened a campus forum on sexual assault issues as her job appeared to be on shaky footing, following a week of protests among students calling for improvements to the university’s handling of rape allegations.

The protests gained traction after Mason told the student newspaper earlier this month that ending sexual assault was “probably not a realistic goal just given human nature and that’s unfortunate.” Mason has since apologized for the remark, but student critics said it reflected the university’s lack of commitment to preventing rape and a lack of sensitivity toward victims.

Speaking to about 200 students Thursday, Mason said that when she was a student in Lexington, Ky., a man in a trench coat grabbed and groped her before she was able to fight him off and get away. She said the attack “left me shaken” but that she had no clue where to turn for help.

“I never want a young woman on this campus, ever in her life, not to know where to go if something like that happens to them,” Mason said.

The Iowa Board of Regents on Thursday scheduled a special meeting for Friday to hear an explanation of the earlier remark from Mason and to meet behind closed doors to discuss her performance. Board members had considered replacing Mason in 2012, but backed off after leaders of students, faculty and staff groups came to her defense.

After the forum, Mason told reporters that she has a lot of work to do and looked forward to explaining her plans Friday to regents. She said this week has been difficult but may someday be seen as a “breakthrough moment” for addressing the issue on campus.

Board President Bruce Rastetter, a Republican appointee of Gov. Terry Branstad, didn’t return a phone message Thursday afternoon.

University officials say sexual assault is not increasing on campus, but the university’s handling of such cases is drawing increased scrutiny. Mason noted that the campus uproar comes amid heightened pressure from the federal government to prevent sexual assaults.

Recent cases that have drawn attention include one that involved three men who allegedly assaulted a women walking on campus and three separate incidents involving a taxi driver who allegedly tried to assault riders. Statistics shows that four sexual offenses were reported to campus police in 2013, compared with eight the prior year.

Mason’s administration decided last fall to send campuswide warning emails more frequently after assaults occur. Such warnings are required under federal law, but the university had not always sent them when the victim knew the acquaintance.

Other U.S. colleges and universities also have come under criticism for how they handle sex assaults on campus. The University of Missouri this year launched a review after critics said officials were too slow to investigate the claims of a swimmer who said she was raped by as many as three football players in 2010. The swimmer later committed suicide.

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