Curbing Campus Sexual Assault is Not About the Money

Aug 19, 2014Hannah Zhang

The cost of sexual assault on college campuses far outweighs that of implementing bipartisan, comprehensive reform.  

On August 13, I stood with Senator Gillibrand, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and survivors, among others, at the Senator’s New York press conference on the Campus Accountability and Safety Act (CASA). Currently co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of Senators, eight Democratic and seven Republican, this bill represents a tough but common sense reform. It requires universities to designate Confidential Advisors as a resource for survivors, provide a minimum standard of training to personnel processing sexual assault cases, and conduct an annual survey of all students on sexual violence. For schools that do not comply with these requirements, this bill increases the initial financial penalty to up to one percent of their operating budgets and $150,000 (previously $35,000) for each subsequent violation.

As a student attending a university that struggles to combat sexual assault, I hope that this bill will hold my school accountable in the future. As an advocate for progressive change, I was proud to stand with the Senator on this bill that focuses reforms on survivors. 

While increasing financial penalties is a common sense solution, the seemingly common sense objection is that CASA provides no funding for colleges to implement surveys and hire personnel. This much is true, but is financial cost really an issue compared to the cost that sexual assault imposes upon young women?

In introducing CASA, Senator Gillibrand repeats a powerful tagline—“The price of a college education should not include a 1-in-5 chance of being sexually assaulted,” a statistic from the White House Report on campus sexual assault.

This cost far outweighs a fine that constitutes one percent of a university’s massive total budget or funds set aside to hire staff. For instance, Stanford University’s operating budget of $4.8 billion is more than the national GDPs of Cape Verde and Bhutan combined. While public universities arguably have fewer resources than these private institutions, Chancellor Nancy Zimpher gave the bill her full support on behalf of the SUNY system.

One critic argues that the fines and expenses of compliance would take money away from academic programs. Lawmakers, another critic writes, have stated that the costs would “compromise the education of a college’s entire student body.” These statements neglect the sad truth that campus sexual assault has already compromised the education of countless students. Stopping sexual assault helps campuses to focus on academics, rather than hindering them from doing so.

Talking about money misses the point. The goal of CASA isn’t to fine universities. It’s to incentivize compliance. By investing in the resources now, universities create a safer educational environment for current and prospective students.

Curbing sexual assault should be a priority for our universities for yet another reason. Sexual assault on campuses exists as part of a larger, global problem – violence against women, which remains a significant barrier to full gender equality.

Charlotte Bunch, founder of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership and speaker at the upcoming Women and Girls Rising Conference, said it best in 1997, “Violence against women and girls is the most pervasive violation of human rights in the world today.” Bunch pioneered the inclusion of gender violence in the larger fight for human rights. Her words remain true in today’s world, where almost a third of all women have experienced physical or sexual violence (or both) perpetrated by an intimate partner.

The U.S. has taken action on this issue in the past, most recently reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act in 2013. We tend not to associate the U.S. with developing countries where wife beating is condoned and women are raped as casualties of war. Yet the evidence that 20 percent of women who step foot on U.S. college campuses face sexual violence proves that our work is far from over. To stand as a global leader in gender equality, the U.S. must start by fixing problems at home.

Hannah Zhang is the Campus Network's External Engagement Coordinator for the Northeast, and a member of the Columbia University chapter. 

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