It's commendable that colleges are stepping up to change their approach sexual assault, but they should be sure to center students in the process.
Under increasing pressure from the White House, colleges and universities have been making changes in their approach to sexual assault. Following the release of an investigative report, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault was formed to prevent violence, increase transparency, and share best practices. In May, the U.S. Department of Education released a list of 55 colleges and universities under investigation for potential violations of Title IX, the law that prohibits sex discrimination in education.
The schools under scrutiny mishandled cases and made major violations, and with their reputations now in jeopardy, they’re attempting to correct their mistakes. While pressure from the Obama administration has been the impetus for many positive changes, it is important to make sure schools are acting in the best interests of their students – not just avoiding liability.
Harvard University, one of the 55 schools under investigation, made several changes to their sexual assault policy in July. Under the new policy, a centralized administrative body will investigate sexual assault claims, with expert investigators reporting to the school’s Title IX Coordinator. Harvard also lowered the burden of proof for sexual assault cases, switching to a “preponderance of evidence” standard that favors the testimony of the victim instead of making them provide “clear and convincing evidence” of an assault.
While this is a step in the right direction, some are saying Harvard still hasn’t done enough. Critics point out that Harvard’s new policies fail to include affirmative consent as a requirement, leaving the ambiguous “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” standard in place.
At Cornell University, administration recently “revamped” their sexual assault policies, priding themselves on the fact that they acted proactively, instead of waiting for a controversy to force their hand. According to one editorial, however, Cornell students had been advocating for change for years before the “revamp.”
Students are directly affected by any change in sexual assault policy and they have a lot to say about it. According to Alexandra Brodsky, founding co-director of Know Your IX, colleges and universities have plenty of work left to do, like providing amnesty to survivors who were drinking, using drugs, or violating other school codes at the time of the assault; contracting advocates for victims independent of the school; and making expulsion of the perpetrator the preferred action of the college.
Victims of sexual assault “are the ultimate experts,” Brodsky says, “And good policy comes from centering their voices.”
From Our Harvard Can Do Better to Dartmouth Change to the student-produced publication “It Happens Here” at Amherst College, students know what they want and they’re speaking up about it. It is the responsibility of colleges and universities to listen to them.
While the White House’s Not Alone initiative outlined many important elements for sexual assault policies, the report noted, “there is no one approach that suits every school.” And that makes sense. For sexual assault policies at universities and colleges to be effective, they have to reflect the circumstances, students, and resources of the individual school. Not every college will have the budget to hire a full team of investigators like Harvard, but effective solutions can be found for every school.
New policies put in place by colleges should put power into the hands of students, empowering them to prevent sexual assault from happening and to report it if it does. Some schools are already realizing that student input is an important resource.
In 2013, the Council on Sexual Violence Prevention was formed at Cornell University, bringing together students, administration, and faculty to improve the school’s sexual assault prevention and response strategies.
A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators introduced legislation last week that would require colleges and universities to conduct campus climate surveys and publicly release the survey results. These anonymous surveys would help campuses determine what changes in their sexual assault policies need to be made and provide a more accurate look into a crime that is grossly underreported.
Mishandled campus sexual assault cases and recent White House efforts to combat violations have been covered extensively in the news and have garnered national attention. While this snowball effect has spurred colleges to make changes and rethink their policies, we have to make sure this isn’t just a quick fix. School administrations need to work collaboratively to create policies that matter to students and survivors, and will produce long-term change.
Hayley Brundige is the Roosevelt Institute Communications Intern and a 2014 Summer Academy Fellow. She is the Media Director of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville chapter of the Campus Network.