Policies and Conversation

Colleges need to focus not only on policies to prevent sexual assault, but on the importance of students talking openly about these issues, writes E. Gordon Gee.

April 2, 2015

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.



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