Former University of Virginia Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo said she was made out to be public enemy No. 1 after Rolling Stone magazine published the now infamous and retracted article “A Rape on Campus.”
Speaking publicly for the first time since the article was published almost two years ago, Eramo told ABC News “20/20” in an exclusive interview that her life has never been the same.
“I’m never going to be where I was on Nov. 18 of 2014,” she said. “But I can hopefully recognize that person again.”
Watch the full story on ABC News "20/20" this Friday, Oct. 14, at 10 p.m. ET
The article, which Rolling Stone retracted after a Columbia Journalism School review ruled it a “failure that was avoidable,” centered on one young woman identified as “Jackie,” who was allegedly brutally gang-raped at a UVA fraternity house weeks into her first year at school. Many thought the article portrayed the university and Eramo, then the associate dean of students who handled Jackie’s case, as examples of the school-reputation-first response some sexual assault survivors say they receive from administrators on college campuses.
Eramo said that Jackie first told her in May 2013 that she had been sexually assaulted at a UVA fraternity but that reading Jackie’s account in the Rolling Stone article was still a shock.
“My heart sunk,” she said. “It was very different from what I knew of the story. So I was very confused at first, like, ‘Why wouldn’t she tell me?’ you know? ‘Why would she provide all this information and not provide it to me and let me help her?’ So that was kind of my first reaction.”
Eramo said the way the article portrayed her support of Jackie was very misleading.
“It portrayed her as a callous, indifferent administrator who became a false friend of Jackie in order to coddle her into not reporting her sexual assault beyond the bounds of Dean Eramo’s office,” said Libby Locke, one of Eramo’s lawyers.
Eramo told ABC News that she could not discuss her interactions with Jackie beyond what was contained in court documents for her defamation lawsuit against the magazine in order not to violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
The trial for Eramo’s $7.85 million defamation civil suit against Rolling Stone is expected to start Monday. The UVA chapter of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity named in the article, also brought a defamation suit against the magazine, for $25 million; it is scheduled go to trial in the fall of 2017.
In the article, Jackie claimed that Eramo seemed to discourage her from going public with her allegations because she was worried about the university’s reputation and that Eramo said, “Nobody wants to send their daughter to a rape school.”
Eramo told ABC News that she never said that and she would never make a statement like that to an alleged sexual assault survivor. When asked whether Jackie made up that statement, Eramo said, “I can’t say, but I know I didn’t say it.”
Eramo was not interviewed for the Rolling Stone article because, she said, the university didn’t allow it, citing privacy laws. But she was mentioned in the article 31 times.
“They made it look like I used the trust of, yeah, women to cover up rapes,” she said. “And that was so far from anything I would ever do. It was just unbelievable to me.”
Eramo said that she was subjected to a barrage of hateful messages from readers in the aftermath and that she thought she was going to be fired.
“And I just didn’t know if I could do it, honestly,” she said. “I went to work every day, and I tried to do it, but I wasn’t sure I could do it.”
Eramo is still employed by the university, but she is no longer the associate dean of students.
“I now work in the vice president for student affairs’ office for … planning and other more administrative — more of an administrative role,” she said. “So I don’t work with students as often … It’s been a very difficult adjustment to be in a different role and not, not have the privilege to be with students in that time of need.”
Soon after the article was published, Jackie’s accounts of what happened that night were called into question. The Charlottesville Police Department launched an investigation into Jackie’s claims and concluded there was “no substantive basis to support the account alleged in the Rolling Stone article.”
Despite her issues with the accuracy of the Rolling Stone article, Eramo said that she couldn’t speak out at the time because of privacy laws and that she couldn’t defend herself.
“I can’t speak to the specifics of my interactions with students,” she said. “There was nothing I could do to speak what I knew wasn’t accurate ... and that was really difficult.”
While Rolling Stone admitted that mistakes were made in reporting Jackie’s story and ultimately retracted the story, the magazine is fighting Eramo’s libel suit.
Among other arguments, its attorneys cite a report from a Department of Education civil rights office investigation launched in 2011 that reviewed how several universities, including UVA, handled sexual assaults on campus as one reason UVA was chosen as the subject for the article.
Rolling Stone points to the report’s conclusions, which were released in September 2015, among them that UVA “failed to respond in a prompt and equitable manner to many reports of sexual violence that were not filed as formal complaints” and that “statements made by a university official” — Eramo — “that were broadcast on the university’s radio station in September 2014 created a basis for a hostile environment for affected students.”
In a statement to ABC News this week, Rolling Stone said, “Dean Eramo’s lawyers are attempting to shift the focus of her lawsuit in the media to Rolling Stone’s reporting errors surrounding Jackie, which is not the basis of her lawsuit. In fact, a multiyear review of sexual violence at UVA by the U.S. Department of Education found Dean Eramo to have specifically contributed to the university’s hostile environment for sexual assault victims — an assertion much more critical of Eramo than any statement from the article. The depiction of Dean Eramo in the article was balanced and described the challenges of her role. We now look forward to the jury’s decision in this case.”
“Obviously, I don’t agree with that account,” Eramo said, referring to criticisms that she violated Title IX laws and created a hostile environment for students. “I think we were doing the best we could in a very difficult climate … I think everybody can improve. And I think we were trying to improve.”
The Rolling Stone article was painful for Eramo, she said, not just because she cares about her students but also because she’s a UVA alum. As the former associate dean of students, she was also the chairwoman of UVA’s sexual misconduct board and on the front lines of dealing with those who said they were sexually assaulted on campus. She said the number of students she counseled went up year after year — a matter of pride for her, she said, because it meant more students were coming forward.
“In 2006, I probably saw a handful of cases, and then by 2014, I know I had about 38 to 40 just sexual assault cases,” she said. “We know it’s an incredibly underreported crime, and so to have people feeling comfortable enough to come in and talk to me about it — we couldn’t do anything about things we didn’t know about.”
In the aftermath of the Rolling Stone article and the 2015 OCR report findings, UVA has instituted a number of changes in how it handles sexual assault cases, including creating an office to ensure that they comply with federal law, added training for students and faculty, added new confidential outlets for reporting and the university hired designated experts to investigate sexual assault claims.
UVA declined to comment to ABC News, and Jackie’s lawyers did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment.