Sexual assault

Campuses need to be prepared to produce sexual assault surveys (essay)

“The first step in solving a problem is to name it and know the extent of it -- and a campus climate survey is the best way to do that.” -- The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault

Campus climate surveys have become an important tool for universities in the battle against sexual assault on campus.

The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, in its April 2014 report “Not Alone,” gave the higher education community a strong hint by writing: “We urge schools to show they’re serious about the problem by conducting the survey next year.”

The task force characterizes regular climate surveys as “a best-practice response to campus sexual assault” and recommends that schools use them to examine the prevalence and incidence of sexual assault on campus, and to assess students’ perceptions of a university’s response to sexual assault.

In the wake of the task force’s report, although climate surveys are not yet required by law, colleges would be ill advised to ignore the drumbeat of support for climate surveys by the federal government.

Here are five things you should know about campus climate surveys.

1. They Will Be Mandated. The task force’s suggestion that schools conduct climate surveys is one of several signals that surveys soon will be required as part of a Title IX/Clery Act compliance program.

Beginning with the University of Montana in 2013, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has made conducting climate surveys a standard requirement in resolution agreements it enters into with schools to resolve Title IX complaints. In addition, a bipartisan group of legislators recently reintroduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, S 590, HR 1310. This bill would require schools to administer “a standardized online survey of students regarding their experiences with sexual violence and harassment” every two years.

Thus, whether de jure or de facto, institutions can count on soon being required to conduct climate surveys.

2. Model Surveys Are Being Developed. The task force included a detailed campus climate survey tool kit with the “Not Alone” report, including sample questions, and selected Rutgers University to pilot the survey. Rutgers has been posting what its team has been learning here and plans to publish a revised survey suitable for widespread use.

The Association of American Universities, an organization of 60 U.S. research universities, is conducting its own survey with 28 members, which will be identical for each participating campus except for five questions that will address campus-specific issues.

Since each campus has a unique culture, it is important to keep in mind that the examples developed by other schools and groups are just that -- examples. Some institutions opted out of the AAU survey because they preferred to conduct a survey tailored to their particular cultures.

Another institution, the University of Alaska, made sure to include questions addressing online harassment in its March 2015 survey, due to its large online-learning community. Colleges with limited resources can begin with the task force’s sample survey (or another model) and adapt the questions to their unique settings to assure the most meaningful results possible.

3. Participation Is a Challenge. CASA would require schools to have an “adequate, random and representative sample size of students” complete the biannual campus surveys. This vague standard may be challenging; an informal review of the results of recent school surveys indicates that 19-25 percent of students participated. Obvious questions exist about whether the students who participate represent a true cross section or are motivated by personal experience with sexual misconduct.

Institutions will have to work creatively to promote the surveys to an often apathetic student body (some designs include incentives for participation, such as nominal gift cards and drawings for larger prizes).

4. How the Surveys Will Be Used Remains an Open Question. A poll of 620 college presidents conducted by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup in 2014 revealed discomfort with mandated surveys, which is likely grounded in several factors.

First, climate surveys are still works in progress (only 21 percent of the presidents indicated that their schools had constructed a survey within the previous two years), and their validity and reliability remain unproven.

Second, as expressed by the American Council on Education in comments on CASA last year, it is unclear for what purpose a climate survey would be used: “Is it intended as a consumer information tool, an institutional improvement tool, an enforcement mechanism or some combination of all three?” The answer to this question could have a substantial impact on how a survey is designed and on how schools and others react to its results.

Underscoring concerns about how results would be used, CASA would require surveys to include questions about how reports of sexual violence were handled, and results to be published by the individual institutions and the Department of Education.

The publication of survey results could have wide-ranging implications -- from reputational harm to enforcement activity. But one can legitimately question whether, for example, negative responses in an anonymous survey with limited participation would truly reflect a systemic problem or an isolated instance.

Other questions relate to the degree, if any, that OCR and courts would consider schools to be “on notice” of a problem reflected in survey results, and the validity of side-by-side comparisons of schools using different survey instruments.

Ideally, these questions will be addressed before surveys are mandated but, as written, CASA would require schools to complete a survey within one year of its enactment.

5. Climate Surveys May Uncover Blind Spots. Despite the potential pitfalls with mandated climate surveys, they can generate valuable data points for schools looking to learn about the success of their efforts to combat sexual violence.

For example, in late January, George Washington University released the results of a 2014 survey that revealed that 80 percent of the students responding did not know how to contact the Title IX coordinator or the university’s sexual assault response team.

The survey results may simply reflect a general challenge in communicating sexual violence resource information to students -- the information might not be important to students until it is needed.

Still, this eye-opening result gives GW valuable insight and will encourage it to communicate the information through additional or alternative means.

Consider these five issues as you plan for your own campus climate survey.

Scott A. Coffina is a partner in Drinker Biddle & Reath’s white collar criminal defense and corporate investigations practice group. Rachel M. Share is a litigation associate at Drinker Biddle & Reath.

Multiple Authors: 

Essay on how the federal service academics prevent and punish sexual assault

Sexual assault on college campuses is a national problem. No campus is immune. It is a challenge at public and private institutions, it plagues small colleges as well as universities with tens of thousands of students, it happens at highly selective colleges and institutions that cater to a local demographic. It also happens at our federal service academies (FSAs).

FSAs, supported nearly entirely by federal funding, are rightfully held to a higher standard due to both the level of federal support and the jobs FSA graduates fill in service to our nation. As superintendents (i.e., presidents) of the five academies -- the U.S. Military Academy (USMA), the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA), the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (USCGA), the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) and the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) -- we embrace this higher standard and work at every level of our institutions to create a culture where sexual assault is eliminated and never tolerated.

We work tirelessly to design training and education programs to prevent sexual assault, to create an environment that encourages reporting, to care for the victims following an assault, to hold perpetrators accountable while protecting their constitutional rights and to track and report our progress so we can continuously improve. Our institutions have been the subject of intense scrutiny on these issues over the last decade, preceding the current national focus on sexual assault in higher education. We are taking this opportunity to share how we are addressing the issue of sexual assault on our campuses to promote transparency, and encourage continued dialogue among university leaders on this challenging problem.

Federal Oversight of Sexual Assault Prevention at FSAs

While the FSAs are not all covered by the Clery Act, which requires annual reporting on campus crime, all the FSAs must report sexual assault data annually through various other laws that cover the institutions. The most recent Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at Military Service Academies: Academic Program Year 2013-2014 was released in February 2015. The analogous USMMA report has also been released, and the USCGA report is scheduled for release this spring. These reports are designed to provide assault details, including the gender and military status of the accused and victim, time of day, location, etc., as well as the investigative and adjudication processes and outcomes. They also include all formal complaints of sexual harassment, and starting with academic year 2013-14, all informal complaints of sexual harassment. These reports contain similarities to those required of colleges and universities under the Clery Act and are written to provide insight into the prevention, victim advocacy/response, investigation/adjudication and assessment/reporting programs implemented at the FSAs. The following sections describe these efforts in more detail.

Prevention -- Education and Training

If we are to be successful at changing a culture, then we have to change behavior. When our candidates arrive at our academies, they arrive with a set of values that may or may not be congruent with the core values of the individual services and academies. Our education and training programs are therefore key to transitioning values and attitudes at matriculation to the values of our institutions (e.g., duty, honor, service, excellence, courage).

Education and training programs are the primary mechanism used to prevent sexual assaults at the FSAs. Although each of the academies is different, students typically receive roughly 30 hours of training and education on sexual assault prevention and response (SAPR) during their four-year academy experience. This training begins within the first two weeks of a new student’s arrival on campus and is augmented throughout the first-year summer program to include gender socialization, alcohol use, definitions of sexual assault, introductions to the reporting mechanisms and bystander intervention. This training is supported by external groups that specialize in defining sexual boundaries, discussing ways we communicate about sex and promoting healthy relationships. This initial training forms the foundation for training and education experiences that occur throughout the next four years.

Key to cultural and behavioral change is enabling open and honest dialogue where reflection and introspection can occur, and we have found that the best way to enable this dialogue is through peer-led small group forums, which all of the FSA programs now include. The students leading these forums receive extensive training that enables them to act as a counselor and approachable responder, ultimately serving as a low-threat conduit for students to seek help from the various supporting agencies (e.g., sexual assault response coordinator [SARC], counseling center, mental health, chaplains, etc.).

These students are also often the ones who organize and support relevant programs for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month in April, participation in local events, national conferences and the White House's ongoing “It’s on Us campaign. For example, as part of the most recent Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the Air Force Academy held a Take Back the Night event organized by students, which included multiple interactive displays and a guest lecture by Katie Koestner, founder and director of Take Back the Night.

In addition to the smaller peer-led groups, larger audiences with guest speakers nationally renowned for their research or advocacy on sexual assault prevention and response provide additional context. The point is that any successful program requires strong leadership starting from the top, and the buy-in and ownership of the students themselves. Grassroots student ownership is a critical component.

Officers and enlisted military members working directly with the students as mentors in their military organizations also receive special training and educational experiences to better prepare them for the challenges of the 18- to 22-year-old demographic. They guide discussion of actual case studies, they describe the elements of sexual assault and sexual harassment, they promote the responsible use of alcohol and examine trends in alcohol consumption by their peers, and they define the expectations of leadership that are required of these students now and when they graduate to lead in their respective service.

These training experiences are complemented by a focus in the general education curriculum on character and ethics. The FSAs typically require students to take general education courses that focus on educational outcomes like respect for human dignity, morals and ethics, and ethical reasoning and action. Academic courses promoting these outcomes provide a reinforcing mechanism for the assault prevention training and an opportunity for students to think critically about the elements that can lead to sexual violence, harassment and oppression.

Furthermore, at the FSAs, these classroom principles are highlighted and reinforced via centers dedicated to character, ethics and leadership, which organize full-day forums on ethics, professional conduct and risk. These forums provide a venue for students to engage in small group discussions with experienced moderators to reflect on challenges they face now as students, as well as difficulties they may encounter as future leaders. Finally, interdisciplinary faculty reading groups are used at some FSAs as a forum for faculty members to discuss gender relations and sexual violence in literature and popular culture, which provides a venue for faculty to share ideas and discuss topics before introducing them into the classroom.

In these ways, sexual assault prevention is designed as an integrated aspect of the academy culture and is a critical component in the character and leadership education of every student. Clearly, it is our responsibility to develop leaders who will set the conditions within their units where everyone is respected and feels valued, included and secure regardless of gender, ethnicity or any other characteristic -- a particularly important aspect given the removal of the combat exclusion law, which will allow women in formerly restricted units.

Victim Advocacy/Response

Victim care is among the highest priorities of every academy superintendent and our SAPR offices. Each SAPR office is staffed by dedicated, highly trained professionals, who provide immediate response and support to all victims of sexual assault. SAPR professionals have the ability to receive sexual assault reports in confidence, which provides victims the ability to make restricted or unrestricted reports.

Restricted reports are designed to give the victim access to counseling, medical care, legal services (e.g., a special victims counsel [SVC] or victim legal counsel [VLC] at all but USMMA), and in some cases special consideration in academy programs (e.g., coordinated flexibility in course work) without requiring the victim to pursue an investigation.

Unrestricted reports trigger an investigation by appropriate criminal investigative authorities in addition to allowing the victim access to the above services. Unrestricted cases of sexual assault are tracked via a monthly case management group meeting that enables all interested parties (e.g., law enforcement, SARC, counselors, medical professionals, administrators) to remain involved in the process and ensure victims are receiving the care and services they need, and ensures that any special circumstances are addressed at the appropriate level with an integrated response. These case management group meetings track a case until its final disposition.

Over time, the SARC has been augmented by professional victim advocates who provide one-on-one support to each victim throughout the process, as well as specially trained student advocates who support a victim in a low-threat student setting at some FSAs. More recently victim care at all FSAs except USMMA has expanded to include trained lawyers who enter into an attorney-client relationship and advise victims on their legal rights throughout the process, to include the victims’ right to privacy, and empower the victim to make informed decisions. Included in this advice, these lawyers help victims make an informed decision on whether to convert a restricted report to an unrestricted report. Because these lawyers have an attorney-client relationship with the victims, all conversations are confidential. If the victim converts a report of sexual assault from restricted to unrestricted, the lawyer safeguards the victim’s rights in the ensuing investigation and criminal justice proceedings. In this way, the FSAs ensure victims receive the focused care they need in either a restricted or unrestricted setting.


Every unrestricted report of a sexual assault at a FSA is referred to a criminal investigative organization -- such as the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) -- a force that includes investigators specially trained to address sexual assault. The investigative organizations can interview witnesses, gather evidence, reconstruct the circumstances of a crime and provide a report of investigation to guide leadership on the appropriate disposition of the case. The crimes investigated involve a broad range of sexual offenses from sexually harassing statements to an unwanted touch or kiss to forcible rape. Note that the spectrum does not imply that one type of behavior will lead to the other. It simply illustrates the range of sexual harassment to sexual assault behavior we work to eliminate.

The severity of the allegation and availability of reliable evidence will inform how the misconduct is addressed. Options available to the FSAs range from administrative remedies such as disenrollment (i.e., expulsion with recoupment), to discipline through the student conduct system, to criminal proceedings. For criminal misconduct, each of us as superintendent and general court-martial convening authority, in consultation with our lawyers, may refer students to a court-martial. This requires a preliminary hearing, overseen by a military judge or senior attorney, to examine the evidence and provide advice as to whether probable cause exists. We receive an independent legal review and advice from our staff judge advocates (SJAs), who are senior lawyers with specialized training in sexual assault. Throughout this process we also consider the input of the victim’s lawyer and the accused’s defense counsel. Any decision not to prosecute a case undergoes multiple layers of review by attorneys and senior leaders.

One challenge the FSAs share with other small residential colleges is how to best separate a victim and accused on the relatively small academy campuses. For example, all Air Force Academy cadets live in one of two dorms roughly a quarter-mile apart, take all of their courses in the only academic facility on campus, and have relatively frequent gatherings requiring the attendance of all students. Hence, there is a high probability that the victim and accused will have continued incidental interaction. Thus, following an alleged sexual assault, the accused is given a military protective order, (i.e., no contact order) which requires him or her to avoid any physical, verbal or electronic contact with the victim and to report any incidental contact to the administration. Moreover, typically one of the cadets (i.e., accused or victim) is relocated so that they’re not living in the same dorm. Victims at several of the FSAs are also offered, upon the recommendation of the SARC and approval of the chain of command, the opportunity to take a semester or year off with no penalty in their progression to provide the time necessary to heal.


The FSAs use a variety of internally and externally administered anonymous climate surveys, focus groups and real-time reports from the SAPR office to guide programs and determine areas for improvement. These surveys examine the overall climate, provide feedback on the outcomes of the education and training efforts, and help leadership judge the perspective of the students toward sexual assault and sexual harassment, and they are used to judge prevalence -- i.e., the “true” amount of unwanted sexual contact. Comparing the prevalence with the number of restricted and unrestricted sexual assault reports in a given year provides an indication of the level of reporting. For example, the Academic Year 13-14 MSA report indicated the strength of reporting at the MSAs was roughly 16 percent, consistent with national levels of rape reporting, and three times the level of reporting indicated in a 2000 study of female college and university students funded by the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which used a similar definition for sexual assault.

Although the difference in prevalence and reporting may be due in part to students addressing the unwanted sexual contact themselves, it still suggests there are likely many incidents of unwanted sexual contact going unreported at MSAs.

To assimilate the survey data and derive programs that prevent assaults and encourage reporting, several of the FSAs (e.g., USAFA) have created a new office that reports directly to the superintendent. This office is better able to integrate sensors from across the campus to identify trends, target corrective action and interface with academy senior leadership to ensure unity of effort across the multiple helping agencies on campus. They are a one-stop shop for campus cultural issues and provide a higher headquarters ability to respond to and triage problems. They also are responsible for ensuring all reporting is integrated, accurate and informative. This office removes the burden and confusion that comes from having multiple offices respond to an assault, and provides centralized control of the response within the office of the superintendent.


As this nation’s federal service academies, we must hold ourselves to the highest standard, and we must be held accountable. We work daily to live up to this standard. We have made great strides over the past decade to improve the care of victims, the education of our students and the prevention of sexual assaults. However, we clearly have room to improve. We must continue to foster an environment that does not tolerate sexual assault, that supports victims and that develops leaders dedicated to maintaining an environment of dignity and mutual respect. We welcome continued dialogue with higher education leadership as we explore lessons learned and best practices. Together we can strive to eradicate sexual assault on college campuses.

The authors of this piece are:

  • Lieutenant General Michelle D. Johnson, superintendent, U.S. Air Force Academy.
  • Vice Admiral Walter E. “Ted” Carter Jr., superintendent, U.S. Naval Academy.
  • Lieutenant General Robert L. Caslen, superintendent, U.S. Military Academy.
  • Rear Admiral James A. Helis, superintendent, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
  • Rear Admiral Sandra L. Stosz, superintendent, U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
Editorial Tags: 

Education Department reminds colleges to hire Title IX coordinators

Office for Civil Rights releases new guidance. Some say it's sorely needed. Others question why colleges weren't consulted. 

Essay says that colleges need not only policies, but frank conversations, to prevent sexual assault

The issue of sexual violence on college and university campuses has been a metaphorical bomb dropped on the reputation of American higher education. A bomb that has been ticking and counting down for decades, and has now reached the point of explosion and complete catastrophe. Indeed, no single issue has permeated the higher education landscape to such a scathing -- and well-deserved -- degree. And, through myriad public lawsuits, protests and articles, the culture surrounding the issue of sexual violence on college campuses has been firmly established: change will come through isolation, confrontation and regulation.

I agree that strict policies and zero-tolerance attitudes are critical to changing the culture of sexual violence. Yet I fear this steadfast dedication to zero tolerance has bled into zero tolerance of conversation and constructive dialogue among students on topics of sexual violence.

The tried-and-true commitment to civil discourse -- a pillar of the American higher education system -- is strikingly absent from the issue of sexual violence on college campuses. However, we know that difficult topics require conversation, in addition to policy and procedure. When it comes to an issue as critically important to student safety and well-being as sexual violence, nothing should be off the table. For example, we cannot discuss sexual violence without also addressing alcohol abuse -- the two are bound together. Indeed alcohol abuse plays a role in almost all of the behavior issues afflicting college campuses -- and society -- and we have to have a holistic approach. We should encourage students, male and female, to tell their stories openly and honestly, without fear of judgment -- whether it is a first-person account from a rape victim or a bystander who has witnessed, or knows of, a violent assault and did nothing about it.

College and university campuses need truly grown-up conversations about sexual violence led by and among our student bodies. Conversations and discussions that are free from this entrenched sense of “Thou shall not.” Instead, we need conversations that feed the higher education essence of “Thou shall think and act.”

How do we, as higher education leaders, create an atmosphere in which people will not be afraid of awkward conversations? I believe we need to focus on three ingredients: awareness, transparency and student leadership.

First, leaders must continue to build awareness of sexual violence issues and policies on our campuses. At West Virginia University, we have joined the It’s on Us campaign, a national conversation starter on campus sexual violence. Through the campaign, West Virginia University is leading comprehensive awareness strategies centered on a commitment to recognizing assault, intervening in situations of assault and creating an environment in which assault is wholly unacceptable.

In tandem with awareness, campus leaders must be transparent about the issue of sexual violence. This is where the conversations can be awkward. Yet transparency is crucial to lessening the intimidation of sexual violence issues. And, through transparent conversations, we will get to a place where students can have awkward discussions without being afraid of conversations on awkward topics. Campus leaders must show students that the most worthwhile things in life are not pleasant all of the time.

Finally, the issue of sexual violence on campus is not a top-down discussion. As I previously stated, change will come through peer-to-peer conversations among students. Leaders must help students have these crucial and awkward discussions. We need to encourage bottom-up conversation but engage in top-down support.

I would be remiss -- and naïve -- to not mention the dual importance of both change and continuity of change. If we are to be laser focused on the challenge of culture change regarding sexual violence, then we must also focus on the challenge of continuity. Universities have survived for millennia because of the fact that there is coherence and continuity in what we do in classrooms and research laboratories. We must apply the same foundational thinking to our culture.

Universities can battle sexual violence by proving that there is another way. Higher education must move from the symbol of being the ivory tower to the symbol of being the helping hand. We have all conceded that this is a very serious moment in the history of higher education. We must, therefore, become the central force for change. That means colleges and universities need to make a case through example and through speaking out that the state and nation must do the same. We must fight the darker angels from the fringes and recapture that middle ground, which will solidify our path to both change and continuity. 

Lastly, I have come to believe that the most important lesson related to leading change may be counterintuitive. Many people argue that change should be made gradually -- that people cannot stand such sudden change, and that rapid change is overly disruptive. My view is to the contrary. In today’s environment and with such an important issue, incremental change is not enough. When change is this necessary, it should be made quickly and boldly.

I leave you with the old Irish proverb that says, “You will never plow a field by turning it over in your mind.” Good stuff, indeed, and I hope it ignites conversations among readers.

E. Gordon Gee is president of West Virginia University.


Editorial Tags: 

Presidents shouldn't turn to student affairs offices only in crisis (essay)

Title IX and gender-based compliance. Alcohol and drug abuse prevention. Mental health. Student privacy. First Amendment expression. Threats to campus safety.

These tricky higher education hot topics are a starter list of the issues that are perplexing campuses across the country and are slated to be discussed at the American Council on Education’s annual meeting. A common denominator among these issues and plenty of others is that they fall to student affairs professionals to address.

But my colleagues and I in NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education are more than just fixers during a crisis. Higher education must broaden the discussion of student affairs to include strengths and not just potential vulnerabilities.

NASPA released a survey last year of more than 860 chief student affairs officers and found that 12 percent of their time is spent addressing crises, which means 88 percent of their time is spent on noncrisis work. Unfortunately, most boards, members of the campus community and even the media only ask questions of and hear from student affairs leaders when the institution faces a crisis or they feel the institution is vulnerable.

With a portfolio that includes student learning and success; campus culture; health, wellness and safety; compliance and regulatory responsibilities; and leadership development, the chief student affairs officer and the student affairs team must be a vital resource for all members of the institution as they plan and formalize the vision, goals and strategic direction of the institution.

Student affairs responsibilities exist across campus and the greatest benefit of our efforts can occur if we are allowed to break through self-imposed silos and partner creatively.

Here are a few examples of this type of creativity.

  • The University of South Florida launched a program to increase the overall student retention rate by 15 percent. Critical to the program are strategies such as expanded orientation, required housing for freshmen and intentional advising, tutoring and mentoring to support those students who are at risk for attrition. Students deemed most at risk are offered mentoring. The Office of New Student Connections was created to coordinate mentoring, coaching, online networking and programs to involve freshmen and transfers in campus life.
  • Elon University has built on the strengths shared by many campus leadership programs, which are often housed in student affairs, to increase leadership skills and grow core interpersonal competencies among students. Elon’s Center for Leadership oversees the LEAD program, which bridges the important topics of leadership and civic engagement. Elon is joined by many institutions, including University of Miami and Florida State University, in partnering student affairs professionals with faculty to create meaningful civic engagement experiences for students in the community, region and abroad. These experiences provide students with tools for self-examination and growth, and culminate in an opportunity for students to apply learned leadership skills in the community.
  • Employers have clearly articulated that they want their employees to have specific, real-world skills, and institutions like the University of South Carolina are providing leadership and organizational behavior training for students who qualify for work-study employment. Students earn money to help pay the bills, get job experience and are introduced to information and opportunities that increase their work-ready competencies. These experiences will help them land jobs and succeed in their chosen careers.
  • The City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) takes a holistic look at the needs of its students by providing academic, student affairs and financial support to encourage full-time enrollment for all students, and specifically for those who are Pell Grant eligible. ASAP’s efforts include special seminars and block-scheduled classes, new approaches to developmental education, enhanced advising and career services, MetroCards for use on public transportation, and use of textbooks. To date, the program has increased semester-to-semester retention, average number of credits earned over two years and proportion of students who earned an associate’s degree in two years.

Student affairs work is growing in complexity and we are implementing best practices for delivering practical, real-life experiences to students that will help them grow and refine their leadership skills. Our staff members are partnering with faculty colleagues to position our students to graduate with interpersonal and intercultural skills. And we provide opportunities for engagement where student learning occurs best -- across campus in an environment that connects classroom and cocurricular learning. We’ve heard complaints about the skills gaps of our graduates and are focused on preparing our current students to be successful in their first and their most impactful jobs.

We want to present our work and be held accountable for what we do. Student affairs officers should be encouraged to share their metrics and examples of student engagement and success. Our student affairs colleagues are utilizing increasingly sophisticated tools to collect and share data and can offer concrete examples of how they contribute to the strategic initiatives of the institution.

We understand the pressure our leaders face to offer up compelling student outcomes, job placement rates and other indicators of degree value, and we welcome the opportunity to provide the qualitative and quantitative measures of our success that bolster these metrics.  

Student affairs team members are more than just party planners and shoulders for students to cry on -- ask to hear how they are meeting the complex social, emotional and -- in conjunction with the faculty -- academic needs of today’s students.

The lines between student and academic affairs are blurring, and we welcome our role in supporting and enhancing the work being done in the classroom. Chief student affairs officers oversee the learning opportunities that complement, support and enhance the classroom environment. They play a vital role in retaining students and giving them the opportunities and skills that ultimately make them employable.

And, of course, we cover those topics that induce heartburn in campus leaders. Work is being done on difficult and serious topics by student affairs teams in conjunction with presidents, legal counsel, government affairs, academic affairs, budget and finance and other offices on campus to prepare for potential challenges to our institutions. As we all know, it is rare that an institution faces a unique challenge; we are learning from the experiences of others and applying the guidance of experts to refine our approaches.

It is the responsibility of the chief student affairs officer and the student affairs team to provide students with healthy and productive experiences on campus to prepare them to contribute to society and the workplace. Ask us about our entire portfolio of work, not just the work most similar to the headlines of greatest concern.

Kevin Kruger is president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Documentary on campus sexual assault drops claim that 35 colleges declined interviews

The film originally claimed that the "presidents or chancellors of UNC, Harvard, Notre Dame, Florida State, Berkeley, Occidental and more than 35 other schools all declined to be interviewed." It's no longer making that claim.

Students criticize Columbia's new sexual assault prevention efforts

Columbia is introducing a new "sexual respect" education program -- said to include writing poetry and reflection papers -- but activists say the program will do little to prevent sexual assault.

Essay on need for colleges to take more seriously the issue of harassment by faculty members of students

When Inside Higher Ed’s Carl Straumsheim broke details of the Walter Lewin affair at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he moved institutions into unprecedented territory in the battle to cope with sexual misconduct on campus. But his article accomplished more than that -- it also serves as a reminder that after decades of vacillating institutional, public and media interest in sexual abuse by collegians, solutions to the equally disturbing and more complex problem of professorial misconduct still elude institutions.

The increase in student demonstrations over assault is not surprising. As much as we would like to believe the campus environment has undergone substantial change since the 1970s, sexual harassment and violence have remained serious challenges, and student anger over mishandling of complaints should come as no shock.

A new generation has had enough of institutional indifference and manipulation and, like characters in the classic film Network, they have decided to send a message: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

But dealing with the power imbalance inherent in student-professor sexual experiences can be even more challenging, as the Inside Higher Ed article demonstrates in depicting the struggle and courage students need to cope before moving on to closure.

Straumsheim recounts the story of Faïza Harbi, 32-year-old MOOC student, who exposed online sexual misconduct by internationally renowned MIT physics professor Lewin. After a year of investigation and corroboration of Harbi’s charges by several other women, the university severed relations with Lewin, revoked his emeritus status and removed his courses from OpenCourseWare. (He never responded to Inside Higher Ed's questions about the case.)

Nevertheless, its announcement of severe reprimands for the already retired 79-year-old have to date been accompanied by only the vaguest details of Lewin’s offensive behaviors. An explanation for that silence and details of further investigation into Lewin’s past behavior may be yet to come, but it was Harbi, a former sex abuse victim, who agreed to reveal them when she reached out to Inside Higher Ed.

Like witnesses whose identities she protected, Harbi told of being manipulated into sexual role-playing, providing Lewin with naked pictures and videos, and his use of sexually explicit language. Reminded of previous abuse, she said she began self-mutilating until a psychiatrist encouraged her to come forward. She said she did so out of fear the case would be forgotten.

Unfortunately, despite the new legal ground and institutional challenge it may -- and should open -- Harbi might be right. History is abundant with stories of sexual harassment and abuse that more often than not never reach the public arena, and the extraordinary few that do are usually forgotten.

There is, for example, the century-old case of William Slocum, president of Colorado College in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I first learned about the clergyman turned academic a few years ago when The Great Plains Quarterly asked me to review an article by Converse College’s historian, Joe P. Dunn.

“Scandal on the Plains: William F. Slocum, Edward S. Parsons, and the Colorado College Controversies” recounts the powerful Slocum’s career, which, among other feats, included saving Colorado College from extinction. It describes in depth his harassment of numerous women during his long reign at the institution; one described, in the Victorian terminology of the time, being pressed against a wall and having Slocum “emphasize the pressure at the portion of his body and mine most calculated to arouse and satisfy physical passion.”

Trustees had successfully contained rumors of other alleged presidential misconduct until the harassment case became public and two of victims refused to recant their stories. Even so, Slocum retired quietly, while Edward Parsons, the dean who led the charge against the president, was subsequently forced out for what Dunn described as his “unpardonable sin in the board’s eyes (which) was that he had aired the institution’s dirty laundry in public.”

Parsons rescued his career and went on to become president of Marietta College but has long been forgotten by history. Slocum, on the other hand, is, with little to no mention of his offensive past, extolled as a pioneer in American education history.

Whether Walter Lewin’s intellectual and pedagogical brilliance will grant him a similar rescue from disgrace remains to be seen. But MIT’s legal vulnerability and the nationwide response to professorial misconduct on technology have become serious issues.

To its credit, the university did take a rare but courageous step when it conducted its 2014 Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault survey of 10,831 of its students. The 35 percent response rate was not overwhelming since only a portion of the student body was sampled and the majority of replies replicated national statistics. Nevertheless, it was an attempt at examining a reality most institutions choose to avoid. But the focus was on student harassment by other students -- not by faculty members like Lewin.

There’s no doubt that the public is now hearing much more than before about students who are sexually assaulted by fellow students. But when professors are accused, not so much.

The reasons are numerous. College educators enjoy enormous independence and freedom. Unlike schoolteachers, they have little to no supervision and multiple means of access to students. Most work in environments where personal eccentricity is tolerated and where too much interest in colleagues’ behaviors is regarded as inappropriate.

Insofar as institutions themselves are concerned, the unstated and perhaps unconscious view at many is that ignoring the issue is preferable to any action that might create discord and resistance from faculty members or students. As long as a proper cookie-cutter policy and some form of faux training exit, the safest course is to hope for the best and wait to respond until the worst occurs.

The problem is the worst is eventually bound to occur in one form or another. It happened at the University of Idaho after Katy Benoit broke off dating psychology professor Ernesto Bustamante, who shot her eleven times and then committed suicide. The university's then-president Duane Nellis, told reporters the institution had responded “immediately and decisively to protect Katy and to remove Bustamante.”

Perhaps not immediately enough, since records show Benoit had filed a complaint against Bustamante earlier and others had previously objected to his “erratic” classroom behavior and talk of shooting students. In an anonymous hotline call, one alleged he had coerced students into having sex orgies.

Benoit’s family eventually won an undisclosed settlement from the university. (For some reason, the amounts of institutional settlements are often or usually unrevealed.) Nevertheless, according to Nellis, the university suffered irrevocably as a result of her death. In a statement that was undoubtedly little consolation to her family, he said, "Since Katy's death, every person associated with the university has grappled with this tragedy. We're not over it. We'll never be over it.”

Or consider Paradise Valley Community College, which fired Michael Todd, a professor, after a student died of a drug overdose in his condominium. Todd lost his job, and the student, 19-year-old Andria Ziegler, her life.

In the shadowy world of possible employee misconduct, online training courses are popular methods institutions use to defend themselves against charges they failed to comply with federal law requiring education about the problem. They work as public relations strategies and are preferable to training done by human beings, because they are easy to schedule and eliminate undesirable discussion and debate. People can’t argue with computers, so harmony persists on campus.

In addition to ignoring problems until they become too serious to dismiss, another explanation for silence about professorial misconduct is the assumption that it’s easier to assume “kids will be kids,” and that trying to determine whether a drunken student actually said no to her equally inebriated partner is less difficult than risking a lawsuit by a guilty but contentious and gifted or popular professor.

For some, sexual misconduct might even seem the result of students’ own demands: they asked for the right to be treated like adults, for the demise of in loco parentis -- they have what they wanted, let them live with the outcomes. (Unless, of course, the student really did say no and is destined to live with the aftermath for the rest of her life.)

Clearly there are those like Harbi, Benoit and Ziegler who “consent” to behaviors and relationships that are seemingly inexplicable. Undoubtedly, the power discrepancy between professors and students is the basis for their decisions. But consent never occurs in a vacuum. Beyond the power dynamic, there are a million reasons we can never know what drives people to entangle themselves in hazardous circumstances.

One tactic institutions may use to silence students who complain about so-called “consenting” relationships is to convince them they are adults who made choices for themselves. Paul R. Abramson argues in Romance in the Ivory Tower that choice is inherent in amorous relations and professors have a Constitutional right to sex with students. This approach attempts to turns the power disparity argument on its head. Instead of the professor misusing his power to threaten or manipulate the student, she becomes the agent of control.

The only difficulty is that while academe promotes itself as a bastion of knowledge, it cannot place students in control of “consenting” relationships without disregarding evidence emanating from its own laboratories. A wealth of research has by now long demonstrated that postadolescent poor decision making and risk taking occur because the adult brain is not fully formed until at least the midtwenties. The professor is the adult. The student is not. 

When the “student consented” defense doesn’t work, some institutions defend their silence on professorial misbehavior behavior by assuming that the emotions of the young are malleable, that a 19-year-old will forget being used and eventually discarded by an authority figure. Considering the high rates of depression and attempted suicides among young women, that can be a perilous assumption. And the reality is that few, if any, targets -- male or female -- ever forget.

In her New York Magazine article “The Silent Treatment,” Naomi Wolf writes of her encounter with famed professor Harold Bloom, “Once you have been sexually encroached upon by a professor, your faith in your work corrodes. If the administration knew and did nothing -- because the teacher was valuable to them -- they had made a conscious calculation about his and our respective futures: It was okay to do nothing because I -- and other young women who could be expected to remain silent -- would never be worth what someone like Bloom was worth."

Like Harbi, she discovered that "keeping bad secrets hurts.... I have obviously survived. This is the argument often made against accusers in sexual-harassment cases: Look, no big deal, you’re fine. My career was fine; my soul was not fine.... Not one of the women [who have contacted me] had an outcome that was not worse for her than silence.”

Wolf also exposed one of best-kept institutional secrets in dealing with harassing or predatory professors. If faculty members are “valuable,” colleges and universities find ways to placate or discourage complainants so that reality becomes rumor and is forgotten over time, especially since students are merely transient residents on campus.

Findings of Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault (2014), an ongoing research project by University of Illinois Professor Kate Clancy and colleagues, did, however, offer valuable new information. Surveying 142 men and 516 women, researchers found that 64 percent of respondents reported having been sexually harassed and more than 20 percent described being victims of sexual assault when participating in scientific fieldwork.  

But this research was unique in that not only was it the first to assess the experiences of trainees in science fieldwork but that it found the vast majority of harassers and predators were “researchers who were superior to [trainees] in rank -- either more-established scientists working on the same sites, or leaders of the research.”

This is the type of information most colleges haven't sought out. The impact it could have on decision making by administrators and perpetrators is substantial, but for female students who are the primary targets of the unwanted behaviors, it serves as a mechanism to discourage their pursuing careers in the sciences.

When all is said and done, though, the fundamental motivation for institutional secrecy over sexual misconduct is probably not prejudice against women. It is, rather, fear. Beneath the indecision and inertia lie two fundamental concerns: anxiety about “having dirty laundry aired in public” and about loss of funding when scandal occurs.

Colleges and universities find themselves in unenviable positions when there is not clear and convincing evidence of sexual misconduct by employees. They then bear responsibility for protecting the rights of both student complainants and accused faculty members, as well as for guarding their own ivory tower images and economic well-being.

But while these are understandable concerns, they do not supersede higher education’s moral and legal responsibilities to students. Arguments over the efficacy of Yes Means Yes policies and the fairness of the federal government’s preponderance of evidence standard may never be totally resolved, but one reality is obvious: too many institutions do not take sexual misconduct by employee perpetrators seriously.

To their credit, many colleges and universities have chosen to say “enough” and to confront the complexities of dealing with sexual misconduct by employees. For instance, once considered impossible to enforce, prohibition policies on amorous relationships between faculty and students are increasing on campuses across the country.

But now the Walter Lewin/MOOC affair has added a layer of complexity to the challenge of professorial misconduct. In the race to extend educational opportunities and/or increase income, colleges and universities have been left totally unprepared for the professional and legal challenges that lie ahead.

One thing is certain. In cases like Lewin’s, silence will not so easily work. The evidence will always be accessible, and there will always be some enterprising reporter willing to take the story farther than institutions’ obligatory statements of regret.

And maybe, just maybe, the profession will recognize that Naomi Wolf was telling the truth when she wrote that her “soul was not fine” after a brief encounter with a lecherous professor and that, of the women who contacted her in response to her story, “not one... had an outcome that was not worse for her than silence.”

Billie Wright Dziech is a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati and coauthor of The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus.

Editorial Tags: 

New documentary suggests (incorrectly) that no college leaders would sit for on-camera interviews

New documentary on sex assault on campuses implies no college presidents would talk on camera. That's not true.

Law school reaches agreement with Education Department to do more to protect victims of sexual assault

Law school reaches agreement with Education Department to do more to protect victims of sexual assault.


Subscribe to RSS - Sexual assault
Back to Top