When Madeline Burkhardt, a third-generation Auburn University graduate, heard about the school’s hiring of head football coach Hugh Freeze, she pulled out her notes app and started typing a letter.
She felt someone should know the story of her grandmother, Mary Rosser Burkhardt, who was one of a small number of female graduates in the 1930s. Burkhardt grew up hearing her grandmother’s tales of greasing down the railroad tracks before a big game. If anyone spoke during the alma mater song, she would shush them, Burkhardt said.
“No one disrespected my grandmother’s alma mater,” she wrote. “I write to you today because I will not allow you to disrespect me.”
Burkhardt is one of many Auburn alumni who have pushed back against the university’s hiring of Freeze, who has been accused of inappropriate conduct during his time at Ole Miss and Briarcrest Christian School, and who received widespread backlash for appearing to harass a sexual assault survivor.
For some, the issue is not just with an individual hire – but also what Freeze’s hire says about Auburn’s response to sexual violence on or near campus, and who is considered a role model on campus. Over the past year, Auburn has also been criticized over its handling of allegations against a former dean and over reports of sexual assault.
Recent graduate Regan Moss said Auburn appears ill-equipped to handle sexual assault and misconduct.
“If AU doesn’t value sexual autonomy and doesn’t believe victims, then they have spoken loud and clear,” Moss said. “This issue of rape culture is bigger than Auburn, but Auburn has a particularly embarrassing response to it.”
The university did not respond to questions from AL.com for this story.
“Survivors often have their voices stifled or completely muted by those in power,” Burkhardt wrote. “I know that my grandmother and the other Auburn women who came before me would not want me to be quiet. This isn’t my grandmother’s vision for her beloved alma mater, and it certainly isn’t mine.”
Burkhardt is a survivor of sexual assault. She found Freeze’s comments as the new Auburn coach this week, as well as an apology for sending former Liberty student Chelsea Andrews unsolicited messages, lacking.
Burkhardt’s family has held football season tickets for decades, she said, but do not plan to renew them next season “unless we get a new coach or significant action is taken to ensure the creed is being upheld and students aren’t at risk.”
“For me personally, I would prefer to see actions, rather than just words,” she said.
‘A ripple effect’
Freeze resigned from Ole Miss in 2017 after an investigation found he made calls to an escort service using a university phone.
Shortly after, three female alumni from the Briarcrest high school in Memphis claimed Freeze, who coached there while they were students, exhibited inappropriate behavior while they were minors. A student claimed he made her change clothes in front of him after a uniform violation; another said he paddled her, according to USA Today. Freeze told a reporter at the time that the “accusations are totally false.”
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This year, Freeze sent former Liberty student Chelsea Andrews several direct messages on Twitter, questioning accusations that Liberty mishandled sexual assault allegations.
Andrews was one of more than 20 plaintiffs who sued Liberty for mishandling sexual misconduct allegations. That lawsuit has since been settled. Liberty is still under a Department of Education federal investigation into handling of student reports of sexual assault.
Andrews told AL.com that Auburn did not ask her about the messages before announcing the hire.
Freeze apologized for the messages Tuesday in an interview with ESPN.
“Look, I’ve come to grips with everybody doesn’t know me, everybody doesn’t care to get to know me, and everybody has an opinion — and they’re entitled to that,” Freeze said. “All I ask is that the ones I care about is the Auburn family and the players and the administration and my family; that’s the ones that matter, and that’s the ones I’m saying take the time to get to know us, and as with anyone, all of us have made a mistake before, and I think how we have handled it as a family and how I’ve handled it as owning it and moving forward and playing the next play and working to get better and learn from it, that’s all I can do. I’ll continue to do that every single day.”
Athletic Director John Cohen briefly referenced Freeze’s “remorse” for “past transgressions” at a recent press conference, and said the coach had presented him with an accountability plan, but did not go into details or take questions.
Many have called Freeze a good coach whose past shouldn’t define him.
“There will be a lot of talk about Hugh Freeze’s missteps at Ole Miss, but everyone has a past,” ESPN senior writer Chris Low tweeted Monday. “He’s coached in the SEC, recruited in the SEC and won in the SEC. He’s also beaten Nick Saban in back-to-back seasons. In other words, he checks a lot of boxes for @AuburnFootball.”
But Burkhardt and others say there’s more to it than that.
“We live this. This is our lives,” said Megan Stalnaker, a 2002 graduate, who said most of the support she’s seen for Freeze has been from men, rather than women.
“Most women have in some form or fashion had a man hold their power over them, or have used intimidation or coercion in ways that they really shouldn’t have,” she said. “And it has a ripple effect. And I hate to see that for Auburn.”
Auburn’s campus culture
Auburn students continue to grapple with sexual assault on campus – and how the university handles reported cases.
According to a 2020 survey by the Association of American Universities, 13% of surveyed students around the country experienced rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation, during their university career. That rate is higher among women and undergraduate students.
In 2021, Auburn reported 43 cases of rape, according to its annual campus safety report – up from 10 in 2020 and 13 in 2019. The increase, officials said, was due to multiple reports from one survivor.
Additionally, 19 cases of fondling and 35 cases of stalking were reported that year.
Nationally, many cases of sexual misconduct go unreported, sometimes because of feelings of shame or emotional distress that come with reporting, because they did not feel like the crime was “serious enough,” or because college-aged victims did not think available resources could help them, according to the AAU.
Protests broke out at Auburn last September after a string of three sexual misconduct cases were reported on and near campus in the span of a week.
Many criticized the university for refusing to name the fraternity involved in one of those cases, for refusing to release sexual misconduct data and later for offering a $350,000 payout to a former pharmacy dean after a Title IX investigation found he sexually harassed a student at an off -campus bar.
Auburn was one of only six universities around the country that refused to provide sexual misconduct and Title IX data to reporters from USA Today. Journalists reached out to more than 100 universities to assess track records of complying with the landmark Title IX guidance.
Read more: After protests, Auburn student momentum to address sexual assault has died down
Students again resurfaced complaints this week.
“Auburn needs to reevaluate the kind of culture it is setting for its ‘Auburn Men’ and the kind of environment it is setting for its ‘Auburn Women,'” student journalists wrote in an Auburn Plainsman editorial Tuesday. “Let it not forget that the culture it sets for men inevitably dictates the environment that is set for women.”
Change, some say, has been slow – and inconsistent.
In the past year, Auburn worked on a Title IX advisory board and campus leadership team, and established a Coordinator of Healthy Relationships position in the administration, Regan Moss said.
Moss, a 2022 graduate, was behind several of those efforts, but she said other plans fell through. A new Title IX information page came to a halt, she said, and a human trafficking awareness training was shut down abruptly “with little to no explanation.”
University officials did not respond to AL.com’s questions about sexual misconduct cases and concerns, or detail any efforts to improve awareness efforts or sexual assault resources on campus.
Freeze’s hire is just a more blatant example of a larger issue, Moss said.
“Administration chose to hire Freeze before he apologized in any capacity,” she said. “AU administration clearly revealed that they do not think the dismissal of a victim’s account of sexual violence harms someone’s professional record nor that it is misaligned with Auburn’s values.”
‘Our voices don’t matter’
Since Freeze’s name rose to the top of the list of candidates for the coaching role, many Auburn alums have taken to social media.
Melissa Munn, a 2013 graduate, tweeted out a letter she sent to university officials on Nov. 26. Munn wrote that, as a victim of sexual misconduct, it was “shocking, sickening and disheartening” to learn that Freeze was in the candidate pool.
“Even considering a man with this history of conduct both in the past and recently demonstrates to over half your fanbase that Auburn is not concerned with the dignity of women, sexual assault victims, or those who defend these victims,” she wrote.
That same day, Darcie Yount, a two-time Auburn graduate, wrote to athletic director John Cohen and university president Chris Roberts.
“I sincerely believe that by hiring Coach Freeze the message being sent to the Auburn Family is that the safety of the women on campus is a lesser priority than the number of football games we win,” she wrote.
Yount told AL.com she never received a response. Neither did Munn. Or Andrews, the Liberty alum who has been outspoken about Freeze’s hire.
“It just sends a message that our voices don’t matter, and money talks,” said a 2018 graduate and sexual assault survivor who wished to remain anonymous. She too had sent a letter to university officials that went unreturned.
Moving forward, Yount said she’d like to see the athletic department create a plan to support sexual assault survivors on campus. Stalnaker said she wants to see the university hand over its sexual misconduct records, and give a “thoughtful response” about why they hired Freeze.
Meanwhile, Burkhardt is taking the opportunity to raise funds for Rape Counselors of East Alabama, a regional group that serves the Auburn area, and said she’d love to see the football program contribute.
“If they’re gonna keep him around, some good should come out of it,” she said.
Education Editor Ruth Serven Smith contributed to this report.
Rebecca Griesbach is a member of The Alabama Education Lab team at AL.com. Her position is supported throughout a partnership with Report for Americaa nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.