He said, she can’t remember: the Adam Lack case

On the night of February 3, 1996, a first-year drank with her girlfriends before heading to a party at Delta Tau. A few hours later, a male junior found the girl lying next to a pool of vomit and helped her to his room.

The next morning, the young woman woke up, gave the young man her phone number and walked back to her room. He called her several times and, eventually, they spoke on the phone. He told her they had had sex and talked into the wee hours of the morning. She said she had no recollection of the evening after arriving at the party. She asked if he had used a condom, and he said he had.

Five weeks later, the woman filed a complaint with the Office of Student Life in March 1996, accusing the man of sexual misconduct. She admitted she could not remember the events of the evening, but felt she must have been too intoxicated to consciously consent to sex. He claimed he did not realize the young woman was drunk, and that she had initiated their sexual encounter.

The girl was Sara Klein ’99. The number of faculty, administrators and students who remember that name dwindles as the years pass by.

The guy was Adam Lack. Few who were on campus at the time have forgotten his name, or the spectacle created by the allegations against him.

The Adam Lack case began and ended with confusion and for a time, at least, completely overtook the lives of its participants, including Brown administrators and professors who became involved. It was a difficult case; much more complicated then a “he said, she said.” It was, as many pointed out at the time in the pages of The Herald, a case of “he said, she can’t remember.”

But the incredible staying power and national significance of the Adam Lack case lies in the fact it coincided with a particular moment in the United States when “political correctness” was a point of ridicule.

Adam Lack represents different things to different people. Brown faculty or alumni might recall how his case brought to light the inner workings of the University’s disciplinary process, sparking a fierce debate over how colleges should mediate disputes between their students. For some, Lack is associated with the excesses of feminism; for others, his name is a catalyst for activism against date rape and relationship abuse.

Adam Lack became a euphemism, one could say, just when euphemisms were supposed to be going out of style.

Tonight on 20/20: “When Yes Means No”

The Lack case truly exploded at Brown in the fall of 1996 after Lack’s one-semester suspension was downgraded to a guilty conviction for “flagrant disrespect.” Those who believed he was a convicted rapist were disgusted, while those who thought he had been unfairly targeted by campus feminists wished to see him exonerated. A student group called Coalition Against Sexual Assault formed to advocate for more support services for victims and a greater awareness of sexual assault on campus.

On January 29, 1997, ABC 20/20 correspondent John Stossel arrived at Brown to film a piece on the controversy. CASA organized a rally to coincide with the event, hoping to present for the cameras a campus unified against sexual assault.

The rally turned ugly when instead of simply filming the events and interviewing students, Stossel grabbed a microphone and asked the protestors to define rape.

“To me it’s a man holding a woman at gunpoint or knifepoint,” he said. “There seems to be a new way of looking at it. I’d like some of you to talk to me about it.”

The rally devolved into a shouting match between Stossel and several students, who accused him of manipulating the news.

When Stossel’s report aired in March of that year, it was titled “When Yes Means No,” and featured footage of angry students, including Klein, screaming. On air, Stossel announced, “There is something of an authoritarian atmosphere surrounding women’s issues on this campus.”

T.V. viewers saw Brown presented as a PC-netherworld filled with angry activists out to frame the innocent. Campus feminists, Stossel’s piece concluded, were authoritarian and unwilling to accept critiques of their women-as-victims mentality.

“Politics of the ugliest kind”

For Professor of Music David Josephson, Stossel’s portrait of Brown in the mid-1990s is not far from the truth, despite questionable reporting tactics.

“This was such a roused campus when it came to girls and boys,” said Josephson, who still keeps multiple folders full of documentation from the Lack case in his office. “It was drenched in gender politics of the ugliest kind.”

When Klein accused Lack of having sex with her against her will, campus feminists reliant on the woman-as-victim trope swung into action without considering the merits of Klein’s case against Lack, Josephson argued.

Professor of History Carolyn Dean, who is also a member of the Gender Studies faculty, arrived at Brown in 1993 and remembers the mid-1990s not as a time of excess, but as a moment when Brown women were confronted with new challenges within the feminist movement and heated sexual politics on campus.

“Feminism became more widely a part of undergraduate women’s lives,” following the “rape list” controversy and several other sexual harassment scandals in the early 1990s, Dean recalled.

Feminists at Brown, Dean said, were not stereotypically “against the institution,” but rather were working in tandem with the University to create a safer climate for women and other minority groups.

It is this very partnership between campus feminists and the administration, particularly the Office of Student Life, that Josephson holds responsible for the fate of Adam Lack, whom he had never met nor heard of until May 1996, when the UDC’s guilty ruling in Lack’s sexual misconduct case was announced on the front page of a special edition of The Herald.

“I had a feeling this man did nothing wrong,” Josephson said, “that he was being lynched by the feminist mob on campus.”

In one of his letters to The Herald in the fall of 1996 defending Lack, Josephson wrote that gender discrimination did not exist at Brown. Dean, who speaks often of discrimination against women in the tenure-granting process, responded to Josephson in writing, earning a page in one of his folders of Lack miscellany.

Today, Dean laughs when reminded that she stepped into the fray with Josephson, recalling how the Lack case galvanized some faculty members to become involved in student politics in a way that rarely occurs.

“I have no idea what happened on that night,” Dean said, pointing out that in actuality, no one on earth other than Lack himself knows the truth about what happened on Feb. 3, 1996 since the UDC hearings in the Lack case were closed and Klein admittedly did not remember the events of the evening.

The cloud of uncertainty surrounding the Lack proceedings is what made the case so attractive to campus activists and the national media alike, Dean said. “It became symbolic of a whole set of larger concerns and issues.”

Brown moves on

The battleground of the PC-wars shifted in the late 1990s, as a new breed of Brown scandals centered not around sexuality, but race.

Still, Dean and student activists caution against adopting an attitude of complacency toward sexual assault at Brown. Diana Brazzell ’04 of the Coalition Against Relationship Abuse said CARA has worked with the administration to advocate increased resources for victims of sexual assault and relationship abuse.

On CARA’s agenda are issues that were central to the Lack case eight years ago: clearer definitions of sexual assault and relationship violence within Brown’s disciplinary code and smoother response mechanisms once a student brings a sexual assault or abuse problem to the University’s attention.

Brazzell said being involved with sexual assault activism has made her aware of how far Brown still has to go in terms of dealing with this issue.

“There are cases of students who were raped and didn’t want to report it because they felt they wouldn’t be believed,” she said. “Students report problems happening on their hall of harassment and assault and in the end, the person who reported is the one who gets moved.”

Students, Brazzell said, must dispatch stereotypes that Brown students are too informed, too self-aware and too intelligent to find themselves as either the perpetrators or victims of sexual violence.

Especially when alcohol is involved, Brazzell said, “The biggest thing that is hard for people to understand is that there’s a spectrum of consent going from, ‘Yes, I really want to do this,’ to, ‘Okay, I’m not really sure about it, but I feel a lot of pressure,’ to some pretty strong coercion, to forcing someone.”

The idea of a continuum of sexual consent is an idea Josephson said he could get behind. But in the legal system, “there are different types of murder … but just one type of rape,” he critiqued.

For better or worse, where Adam Lack and Sara Klein’s encounter falls on the spectrum of consent remains a mystery.