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From left, the presidents of Dartmouth, Amherst, Montana, North Carolina, UCLA and Virginia speak at the University of Virginia's dialogue on sexual misconduct.

Dan Addison / University of Virginia

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- One of the lighter moments of a conference on campus sexual misconduct here at the University of Virginia on Monday followed a serious question from a student, who asked the six presidents on a much-anticipated panel how they were specifically assisting minority and low-income survivors, who are especially vulnerable to assault.

The presidents didn't get a chance to answer -- Association of American Universities President Hunter Rawlings, who moderated the panel, cut in to ask the student whether he had any suggestions.

"Oh, you wanted advice?" the student said, clearly in surprise, as the audience broke into laughter. "I can give you advice!"

He and another half-dozen or so students -- as many as time permitted -- offered up idea after idea after idea, and they weren't shy about expressing gratitude for the opportunity. They were speaking to presidents from campuses that have dealt with some of the most publicly scrutinized sexual assault issues in the country -- Carolyn (Biddy) Martin from Amherst College, for instance, Royce Engstrom of the University of Montana, and Carol Folt from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

One could tell that the students don't often get such a platform.

A few suggestions students made to presidents Monday:

  • Increasing bystander intervention training is good, but it's not enough.
  • Stop portraying party culture as the cause of assault.
  • Be careful about vocabulary and the message you send; e.g., "victims" should be called "survivors."
  • Have amnesty policies for intoxicated and undocumented students who fear that reporting a crime will get them in trouble.
  • Recognize that men are assaulted, too.
  • Make sure the first person a student reports an assault to knows everything about the process, so students aren't deterred.
  • Push district attorneys to prosecute cases where alcohol is involved.

Day one of the two-day conference was, as promised, a "dialogue." Where conversations like these are often one-way or glossed over, presidents, students and even the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights' head honcho spoke reasonably candidly about the extent of the problems and the colleges' response.

"It makes me feel an optimism today that I cannot say I felt five years ago," Folt said of the dialogue.

In an unusual confrontation, the Education Department's assistant secretary for civil rights, Catherine Lhamon, told the many administrators who've said they don't know how best to comply with Title IX that "it is not complicated, it is not hard, and the law is clear."

It didn't take long for a campus official to shoot back: "I love the way you've laid it out, but it's not easy when you're in the trenches."

Speakers agreed it's hard to imagine such an event taking place before OCR's 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter, which prompted many colleges to revisit and revise their policies. Since then, OCR has fielded a record number of Title IX complaints (there are currently 39 campus investigations pending), sparked in large part by a critical mass of students demanding that their campuses better prevent and respond to sexual violence.

UNC has been under a brighter spotlight than most, with three separate federal investigations there, though OCR launched them before Folt took over for Holden Thorp this year.

Amherst isn't under investigation, but has been very much under scrutiny since late 2012, when a student's op-ed prompted outrage and Martin appointed a task force to review campus policies. And at Montana, OCR recently signed off on one of the most extensive resolution agreements ever, after a grueling and widely watched process.

Linda Fairstein, a legal expert on violence against women who consults with campuses on the topic, said she was "stunned" when she was asked to speak at the event and learned about the presidential lineup. Usually, she said, the dialogue is limited to human resources, campus cops, advocates and the like.

"It's a very different thing to have these presidents," said Fairstein, a senior advisor at K2 Intelligence. "I think it's extraordinary."

The aforementioned presidents were joined by Gene Block of the University of California at Los Angeles, Philip Hanlon of Dartmouth College, and Teresa Sullivan of host Virginia. Dartmouth and Virginia are also facing federal investigations; UCLA is not, but is part of a state audit of sexual assault policies on California campuses.

Engstrom posited that student protest -- despite the bad PR it's wrought on numerous campuses since the Dear Colleague letter -- has made presidents more willing to speak about the issue because they realize it's not unique to their campuses.

"The value of this is coming together," Engstrom told Inside Higher Ed. "While it's a serious problem ... it's good in some ways," to have the public discussion.

Even President Obama is taking a stance on the issue. Last month, he appointed a Task Force on Protecting Students from Sexual Assault, which will recommend policies and best practices and then help colleges put them in place.

Martin, a scholar of women's studies, said it's "demoralizing" how little progress has been made in social norms and cultural biases over the last several decades, allowing sexual violence to continue, often with no accountability for the perpetrator. At one point, someone suggested that the oft-discussed "hook-up culture" might contribute to the problem.

"That can't be true because the problems existed when I was in college, and supposedly we didn't have hook-up culture," Martin said.

The presidents explored touchy topics, including a public perception that universities sweep crime statistics under the rug ("The Department of Education wouldn't have needed the Dear Colleague letter if we were doing this very well," Folt said), and that they are incapable of properly adjudicating sexual assault matters.

"I understand the argument, and it comes from a lot of people who don't really understand that we're legally obligated to deal with these cases and often ask, 'Why don't you just send them to law enforcement agencies?' " Martin said. "We're certainly amateurs if the expectation is that we're supposed to be courts.... We ought not to be amateurs when it comes to education and to a set of policies, processes and practices that can fairly assess responsibility for a range of things."

Dartmouth's Hanlon, though, acknowledged it's an imperfect system. (Dartmouth is hosting its own sexual violence "working conference" for universities July 13-17, which a spokesman said would build on the Virginia event.)

"The methods for adjudicating other kinds of issues just don't work that well for sexual assault," he said, noting that, for instance, students often don't want to speak about their case in front of judicial bodies including peers or faculty. "I think we really need to think hard about those processes."

One question from an attendee garnered snickers from many in the audience: What one thing would you tell OCR about this issue, given the chance? ("I can't wait for this one," Rawlings chimed in. "Royce, I think we can start with you.")

"I can't say that I particularly enjoyed the experience of working with DOJ or DOE," Engstrom said, before giving both credit for making the process a discussion rather than a decree.

"I think clarity is very important here. And there are also all kinds of complicated situations where probably nobody can give us adequate guidance in advance," Sullivan said. For example, how should a college respond when a student is assaulted on study abroad and is subject to a whole other set of laws? "There are situations like that that not all policies can anticipate."

One of the last students to speak asked the presidents to keep up the candor with, say, prospective students.

"Instead of saying, 'We are doing this, this, this and this, say, we are doing this, this, this and this, but" here are the obstacles, she said. "Everyone of you today are discussing limitations, and that's fantastic."

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