Most faculty members aren’t trained counselors, but they may find themselves on the front lines of the campus sexual assault problem anyway. Based on course content, a personal connection, or a feeling that they have nowhere else to turn, students sometimes disclose their experiences with assault or harassment to trusted professors who want to help but aren’t sure how. Other faculty members who don't have students confiding in them may still want to do more to curb sexual violence on their campuses. And others have been outspoken about the issue and faced pushback from fellow faculty members or administrators.
A new national organization, Faculty Against Rape, or FAR, aims to help professors obtain resources on campus sexual assault and to build a sense of community and protection among like-minded peers (FAR’s website tagline is “Protect your academic freedom”).
Bill Flack, an associate professor of psychology at Bucknell University whose research centers on traumatology and campus sexual assault, is a FAR staff member. He said he wanted to get involved primarily because “students need our support.”
“In my experience, many faculty are not aware of the high prevalence rates of campus sexual assault, and even those who do know about it are sometimes unsure about how to support student survivors,” he said. “So helping faculty to support students who've been assaulted is a big part of what FAR is trying to do.”
Simona Sharoni, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh and FAR staff member, said she sees faculty members as “first responders” who need to break their relative “silence” about campus rape.
“Students pay tuition to get a degree and gain an education,” she said via email. “The main people responsible for helping the students achieve their academic goals are faculty. When a student is assaulted or raped, their academic journey is almost always impacted, whether they report the crime or not.”
Beyond providing students who disclose assaults with accurate and information about resources and reporting options, Sharoni said, professors should act as “watchdogs.” That means following up with students and helping them stay on track academically – and following up with officials about how perpetrators will be held accountable, if a report is filed.
Such an active position involves some “risk” for professors, she said, “so ideally there will be tenured faculty willing to step up to the challenge and play an active and visible role in holding campus authorities accountable.”
She added: “My vision is for faculty to pressure their administrations to have visible posters with a clear message: There is zero tolerance for rape on this campus.”
FAR’s website offers a list of classroom and advocacy resources for professors. There’s a link to Pennsylvania State University’s extensive Anti-Sexual Misconduct Toolkit for educators and Oberlin College’s Sexual Offense Resource Guide, for example, along with the American Association of University Women’s suggestions for fighting sexual violence. There’s also information on how to file Title IX and Clery Act complaints, about campus sex discrimination and reporting of violence, respectively.
Flack also said the group was a way for concerned faculty members to protect each other from professional retaliation for speaking out.
“I've done research on campus sexual assault for over a decade, and have experienced some pretty unpleasant reactions to that work from some colleagues,” he said. Flack believes his own research involving Bucknell students made some on campus so uncomfortable that they criticized the rigor of his work, despite the fact that he used standard research methods.
A spokesman for Bucknell said it was university policy not to comment on individual personnel matters. But he said the "safety of our students is paramount, and Bucknell takes very seriously issues of sexual violence on campus. While our work is far from done, the university has invested significant time, energy and other resources to addressing sexual misconduct and related issues." Recent efforts include hiring a full-time interpersonal violence prevention coordinator and requiring mandatory awareness training for all incoming students.
Jennifer Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and a founding member of FAR, said it appeared she was retaliated against for her activism and research on sexual assault. Earlier this year, the university rejected her proposal to conduct a campus climate survey to obtain data about sexual assault. Freyd asked the university for $30,000 to pay 1,000 participants for their time and for student email addresses to distribute the survey, and she said the administration initially was enthusiastic. She and several graduate students would have completed the project over the summer for free, to meet an internal reporting deadline for a faculty body and in response to recent calls from the White House for colleges and universities to collect such data.
But in June the university rejected her proposal, saying it wanted such a survey to be carried out by a third party. Robin Holmes, vice president for student affairs, was quoted in a local newspaper, The Register-Guard, saying she worried that Freyd’s survey could produce “confirmation bias in the results."
Freyd, whose research deals with institutional betrayal, said the vice president’s comments undermined her academic integrity and long, successful history at the institution, and ignored the fact that her survey tool was similar to the one recommended by the White House’s Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. She said it appeared the college was punishing her for speaking out against how it handled a high-profile sexual assault case involving student athletes, and for filing a federal complaint about it.
Freyd said she’s lucky in that her fellow professors at Oregon have been supportive of her and of the cause in general. But she said many professors at other campuses aren’t as lucky, and need the kind of network FAR aims to become.
“When faculty members say they’re the only one on their campus wanting to address this issue, the only one who perceives that he or she is willing to talk about it, that’s very isolating,” she said.
Beyond that, Freyd said she hopes to help individual faculty members feel more empowered and informed about sexual assault. Many colleges treat faculty training as a “check-the-box” responsibility, using online slide shows or other, less-than-interactive or effective means of education, she said. At Oregon, for example, according to a preliminary study of 557 professors, staff and graduate assistants Freyd conducted this year, employees could only identify various rights as being guaranteed by Title IX 60 percent of the time. Despite their confusion about Title IX, employees rated those rights as highly important.
Some 16 percent of participants in the Oregon study said a student had disclosed an experience with sexual assault, and 37 percent of those respondents said they had had more information for the student. The study also found that those employees who had received university training about sexual assault didn’t know any more about Title IX than those who had not received the training.
Julie Brown, a spokeswoman for Oregon, said via email that it introduced required online training for its permanent employees last fall. She said university leaders also are working with University Senate to “improve the provision of information about Title IX obligations and resources to all faculty and staff.”
Freyd said FAR can help colleges organize engaging discussions or lectures about sexual assault, and encouraging students, faculty members and especially administrators to attend by capitalizing on the current, national spotlight on the issue.
“In some way, this is our moment, and we should seize it and make some fundamental improvements,” Freyd said, “building a sort of critical mass.”