Colleges and universities are grappling -- urgently, constantly and necessarily -- with the problem of campus sexual assault. While higher education administrators are focusing, rightly, on what happens on campuses, in our classrooms and dorms and disciplinary meetings, this year’s presidential campaign has made clear (if it was not already) that the problem of sexual harassment, sexual assault and their enabling antecedents are widespread throughout American society.
That reality must inflect the way we approach Title IX concerns at our institutions. Given that sexual violence, harassment and misogyny are such pervasive problems, addressing them at a college level must take a similarly broad-based approach -- including the ways we educate students about everything, not just gender.
In the wake of the leak of the now-infamous Access Hollywood tape of Donald Trump describing his behavior toward women -- which Trump tried to dismiss as “locker room talk” -- women of all ages, stages and walks of life have been testifying to their experience of sexual harassment and assault. In response to the leaked tape, hundreds of thousands flooded Twitter with their stories of sexual assault. The effect has been breathtaking, both for the sheer number of people speaking out -- the disgusting and terrifying accounts, the horrifyingly quotidian nature of so much of the harassment -- and for the fact that they took place at all stages of people’s lives, when they were children, teenagers, middle-aged, senior citizens and college students.
To recognize that fact is certainly not to absolve institutions of higher education of the responsibility of making sure that the way we approach the problem is as just and effective as possible. That should be our utmost concern. But we would be naïve to think that we can extricate what happens on our campuses from the larger cultures and webs of experience that determine how our students think about, and react to, instances of harassment, misogyny and gendered violence.
As hard as we try, four years of sexual assault prevention programs during college will not, on their own, change that landscape. On the contrary, the kinds of education that we need to order to undo centuries of acculturation must start as early as preschool, when children are starting to pick up information about gender expectations and roles, and continue in robust and age-appropriate sex ed programs as early as elementary school.
It also means that we in higher education have to consider our role in ways that exceed traditional sexual assault prevention programs. We must think beyond a model that puts the onus entirely on student life programs, even excellent ones, toward a more holistic one that foregrounds the structural inequalities that shape our world. Our driving question must be: How do we give our students the tools they need to identify, analyze, engage and eventually dismantle those structures that may foster gender inequality (and the intersecting issues of race, sexuality, class, immigrant experience) -- both on their campuses, where they will spend four very important years of their lives, and in the world, where they will spend many more?
We simply can’t rely solely on student life counselors and Title IX officers to do this work -- although they have crucial roles to play. Rather, this work must happen both in and beyond the classroom, across disciplines -- in math and science as much as in gender studies -- and through myriad experiences so that we can be fully mindful of the ways in which gender informs all of our work and all of our thinking. If we are to fully grapple with the ways in which gender and racial inequalities are structural, we must examine every single structure -- not only within our colleges but also outside them. We must think about how knowledge is formed, how institutions are created and reproduced, and how resources are allocated -- so that when our students confront moments of injustice while they’re on campuses and after they leave them, they will have tools to grapple with such injustice and perhaps even undo it.
A key step is to design an educational model that shifts power from the institution to the students, so that they learn that knowledge is not only something the institution bestows on them, but something they, too, have the capacity to create. Students who imagine education as a matter of checking off requirements or passing tests -- as opposed to identifying urgent questions and amassing the information and resources they need to answer those questions -- are not being trained to change institutions but to fit into them.
For colleges to make a lasting and significant contribution to the problem of sexual assault and gender inequality, we must educate students that institutions are made by people and can be transformed by people. That means changing the way we educate from the bottom up.
Mariko Silver is the president of Bennington College. Previously, she was a senior adviser to the president of Arizona State University and held leadership roles at Columbia University, in the Obama administration and in the administration of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano.
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