Protecting the university, failing rape survivors

October 2, 2014

Jen Roesch examines the scandalous record of university administrations in handling of sexual assault cases--and how activists are starting to hold their feet to the fire.

AFTER MORE than two years of rolling protests at dozens of colleges across the country, the prevalence of sexual assault on campus is getting national attention.

In April, the White House issued its first report on the subject, along with a series of recommendations--in September, it announced a public awareness campaign under the slogan "It's On Us."

But while the recommendations and campaign are largely unobjectionable in their content, they are completely inadequate to deal with the scope of the problem. More importantly, they don't substantially target or provide sanctions for the one group with the power to address this issue: university administrations.

With more and more students talking publicly about their experiences, university administrations have increasingly come under fire for incompetence, negligence and outright hostility to students who come forward with complaints. Currently, the government is investigating 79 schools for Title IX violations related to sexual misconduct--and this number does not include several schools where students only recently filed complaints. Several of the suits involve dozens of complainants.

Columbia students protest against sexual assault on campus
Columbia students protest against sexual assault on campus (No Red Tape)

Administrators like to portray themselves as concerned, but largely helpless and overwhelmed in the face of an alcohol-fueled hook-up culture and a maze of federal regulations. Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, had this to say during a PBS Newshour segment about the problem of sexual assault on campus:

I think it's important to remember that the sexual assault problem that we're seeing doesn't occur in a vacuum, and it in large part is because of a lack of academic seriousness on our college campuses, whether it's curricula that are anything-goes, heavy drinking that we see, binge drinking that we hear about a lot, the fact that many students start school on Tuesdays and end school on Thursdays. Is it any wonder that we have a drinking problem and the sexual assault that comes with it?

Unsurprisingly, Neal is opposed even to the inadequate White House recommendations. Indeed, most universities have balked at the idea of conducting the campus-wide, anonymous surveys that have been recommended as a first step in identifying the scope and scale of the problem.

A SERIOUS look at how campuses typically handle sexual assault complaints reveals patterns that are deeply ingrained--and unlikely to be changed by nonbinding recommendations that fail to address the institutionalized biases which govern most administrations.

While official campus statements and guidelines express a desire to support victims of sexual assault, most actual proceedings show a pattern of ignorance, hostility and a primary concern with the school's reputation and donors, rather than the needs of sexual assault survivors. Failed campus responses run the gamut from victim-blaming, to retaliation against students who report, to the failure to levy sanctions against men found responsible for assault.

The victim-blaming can be subtle, but it is shocking just how often it is direct and overt. For example, when Annie Clark was raped by another student at the University of North Carolina, she says an administrator told her, "Rape is like football, and when you look back at the game, what would you have done differently in that situation."

When Anna, a student at Hobart and William Smith College in New York, was raped by three football players, it should have been one of the easier cases. There was a witness to the rape, a trained sexual assault nurse who confirmed blunt-force trauma consistent with rape, and a record of terrified and desperate text messages from Anna calling a friend for help.

However, the witness was also a player on the football team and declined to testify after being pulled into a closed-door meeting with the football coach and the accused players.

More shockingly, the administrator who convened the sexual assault panel chose not to disclose the medical report from Anna's rape kit with the other two panelists. Instead, according to the New York Times, "the panel asked what Anna had drunk, who she may have kissed and how she had danced." All three players were cleared.

Victim-blaming is just one aspect of campus hearings that are often marked by incompetence and ignorance.

Emma Sulkowicz, who has become nationally known for carrying their mattress around the Columbia University campus as a protest as long as their rapist remains at the school, describes just such a process. They say administrators took incomplete notes during the hearing, and that one described them as "tipsy" even after they said they had not been drinking. Worse, one university adjudicator asked Emma, who had been anally raped, how it was even possible to have anal sex without lubricant first.

While such questions betray a real ignorance of sexual assault, they can also be deeply traumatizing for survivors who go through the process. This would seem to indicate a need for training for anyone asked to serve on such panels. However, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill did a study of 440 schools and found that one-third had failed to properly train officials adjudicating claims.

UNFORTUNATELY, IGNORANCE is not the only problem in the way campuses handle sexual assault complaints. Much more disturbing is a consistent pattern of hostility and retaliation against women who come forward--particularly those who are seen as uncooperative or a potential liability to the school.

Angie Epifano made national headlines and helped spark the latest movement when she came forward under her own name to talk about how she was treated at Amherst College. She described a nightmare process in which she was institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital after talking to counselors at the school about her experience of sexual assault. She was later forced to go on leave, refused the ability to study abroad and ended up withdrawing from school.

While Angie's story is particularly horrifying, it is not unusual. Rosie, a student at Columbia, describes a situation that is all too familiar to many students struggling with the aftermath of their rapes.

Rosie was raped during an orientation event in her first week of school. She says she felt overwhelmed and depressed, and had difficulty coping. When she e-mailed administrators to ask for help because she was having trouble in class, she found herself placed on medical leave without appeal.

Rather than making accommodations and providing support for students in these situations, many campuses find it easier to encourage them to take leaves, which are typically isolating and difficult to return from.

When student survivors stand up to what they describe as insensitive and incompetent administrations, the response can quickly become overtly hostile and retaliatory. Landen Gambell, a student at the University of North Carolina, discovered this when she decided to speak out publicly about her own experience and that of other campus survivors. Even though she never named her assailant, she was found guilty of violating the school's honor code and was expelled.

Faculty members who choose to advocate for their students have also become targets of the administration. At Occidental College, which now faces 50 Title IX complaints about sexual assault, several faculty members say they were harassed by the school--several had their cell phones and laptops seized by the administration.

Meanwhile, Harvard Profressor Kimberly Theidon was in the end stages of her tenure process when she began speaking out on behalf of student survivors. She says that the chair of her tenure committee advised her to stop speaking up, as it was a "delicate time" in her review process. She refused to stay silent and was eventually denied tenure.

PERHAPS THE most damning indictment of these administrations is that even when student survivors manage to navigate their processes and obtain a finding in their favor, the sanctions for the perpetrators are absurdly minimal.

Take James Madison University in Virginia as an example. When three students were found guilty of assaulting a student, capturing it on video and circulating it around campus, their punishment was expulsion after graduation. Two of the students were able to graduate on time, while the third remains on campus, along with his victim, during this academic year. An administrator explained the significance of this sanction: the guilty students would not be allowed to return after graduation for tailgating parties.

At Stanford University, a student found guilty of forcible sexual assault received a one-year suspension to be served after graduation and before attending Stanford's graduate school, where he had already been accepted.

Meanwhile, at Kansas University, a student who admitted to sexually assaulting a woman received a sanction of probation, temporary removal from student housing and instructions to write a four-page reflective paper. When one administrator suggested community service, the university rejected this as "too punitive." When the woman appealed this sanction, the lawyer for the male student wrote: "While no one other than [the female student] can know of her intent, her decision to bring and subsequently take her birth control pill provides at least some indication that she intended to have consensual sex that night."

These mild penalties--if they can be called penalties at all--are far from rare. A study by the Center for Public Integrity found that in cases where a student is found guilty of assault, only 10 to 25 percent ended up permanently removed from campus.

This isn't an accident, either. The Association for Student Conduct Administration standards maintain that "the primary role of student conduct administrators is that of educator," and most campuses use this assumption to guide their disciplinary decisions. But this fails to take account of the educational needs and rights of survivors on campus. Indeed, the same research study also found that most women who faced discouragement from their administrations ended up transferring or withdrawing.

This is certainly true for many of the women involved in the cases described here. The student at James Madison found her grades slipping, lost her financial aid and ended up withdrawing--while one of her assailants remains on campus. Anna, at Hobart and William Smith, took a semester's leave. Rosie, at Columbia, has taken multiple leaves and is currently in danger of expulsion for failing grades.

WITH STORIES like these finally making it into the news, campus administrators have scrambled to "reform" their policies. But their reforms have most frequently been aimed at protecting their image rather a genuine attempt to create a safe and supportive environment for students. Universities are now spending thousands of dollars on consultants like the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management. What they rarely do is actually collaborate with students.

For example, Columbia sexual assault activists were surprised to return to campus this fall and find out that administration policies had been overhauled over the summer without the promised student input. Unsurprisingly, students aren't satisfied with the results.

The students cite one particularly egregious example of how administration policies focus on image rather than substance: Columbia unilaterally decided to cancel a popular start-of-the-semester campus-wide party. The assumption that it is parties rather than perpetrators that are responsible for rape is particularly galling to student activists.

While campus administrations are now forced to pay lip service to the problem of sexual assault on campus, behind the scenes, they show a dismissiveness towards student concerns.

When students at Columbia sent an e-mail to a Title IX administrator asking for direct input on the processes under review, that administrator accidentally sent a student an e-mail meant for a fellow administrator, which read: "Wow, again? Direct contact with decision makers, not just us? Anything else!?!"

At Occidental College, the college's chief counsel was even more direct in his response towards sexual assault activists. He told a group of male athletes: "Fuck 'em!"

The real bottom line for campus administrators is to protect their images, their sports teams and their endowments. But student activists are beginning to expose these connections with their campaigns.

At Columbia, students have challenged the role of academic deans in the disciplinary process, on the basis that their prime concern is to protect the legitimacy of their departments. At Hobart and William Smith Colleges, the chief administrator in charge of fundraising was also centrally involved in handling sexual assault cases until just a year ago. Again at Columbia, one student discovered that the semester her assailant was suspended, his parents donated between $10,000 and $25,000 to the university.

While some administrations are making surface modifications to their existing systems, others are pushing back against the new movement to demand campus accountability. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is leading the attack--and in the process revealing the institutional roots of administrative negligence. A Council statement complains that the new guidelines will raise university costs by forcing them to "employ a vast new cadre of bureaucrats--sexual violence counselors, sex offender treatment programmers, Title IX coordinators, specialized trauma trainers."

Universities have little difficulty spending great sums of money to build new sports stadiums, expand their real estate holdings or pay administrators and trustees exorbitant salaries. But apparently, support for survivors of sexual assault is just too expensive.

The eruption of protest in the last several years has brought welcome attention, including at the federal level, to the problem of sexual assault on campus. But the current White House recommendations are little match for the institutionally embedded bias of universities. To disrupt that, students will need to continue organizing and protesting to hold administrations directly responsible.

Luckily, this new generation of activists shows no sign of backing down.

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