The neatly dressed student sitting across from me was in her late teens, not a child and not yet an adult. Her voice was shaky, but her tone was strong. Her presence carried a confident resolve cultivated through years of playing competitive sports. However, Shelly did not come to discuss sports but instead to seek counsel as a survivor of collegiate sexual abuse.
Many schools tried recruiting Shelly, but she chose a private college near a large metropolitan area to take advantage of career opportunities available in an urban setting. Shelly was confident in her athletic ability and believed college would be filled with new social and academic adventures. Shelly’s mother, Rachel, was excited for her daughter but worried about Shelly’s safety, with hundreds of 17- to 21-year-olds studying and partying together with little to no supervision. Rachel’s concerns were not unwarranted.
The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (“RAINN”) reports that 26% of female and nearly 7% of male undergraduate students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation. Beyond the victims of sexual assault, these statistics are felt acutely by university administrators charged with preventing and responding to sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse in higher education can be viewed as a malady that thrives when conditions support its growth. To borrow a simplified example from the science of reoccurring infections, they will repeatedly attack a host if the infection is allowed to thrive due to failure to acknowledge the infection, address the root causes or ignore systemic defects in the body’s structure.
If viewed as a recurrent infection, collegiate sexual violence only thrives and will continue to challenge administrators who do not acknowledge this violence, treat the symptoms of sexual abuse or embrace structural change.
Acknowledge the existence of sexual violence
Over the years, we have watched outbreaks of sexual abuse surface across college campuses. In 2015, Texas’ Baylor University’s football players and coaches were implicated for the rape and sexual assault of several students. In 2011, Penn State faced an unspeakable wave of sexual abuse that crushed the lives of its victims, their families, students and university leaders, setting a new standard for sexual violence in higher education.
Most recently, national reports detailing physical and sexual abuse within Northwestern University’s athletic department offer a fresh reminder for administrators entering the 2023-2024 academic year that sexual abuse should not be ignored. Based on publicly available information, physical and sexual abuse at Northwestern University was a festering problem that administrators failed to acknowledge.
For generations, sexual abuse in America was normalized by culture, institutions, family and tradition. It is only within the last 20 years that sexual violence within large institutions, such as religious organizations and competitive sports, is finally being confronted. Historically, victims of sexual abuse rarely report abuse for fear of being discredited, the fear of retaliation and being subjected to blame. However, unlike the larger culture, college administrators must reject normalizing sexual abuse. Any university authority who believes campus sexual violence is inevitable should seek alternative employment.
Authority figures resigned to campus sexual assault do not possess the qualities necessary to combat this problem. Instead, with each new year, fresh eyes and ideas should review your school’s sexual abuse policies. A school’s sexual violence policies stagnate if not subjected to robust audits conducted to review weak provisions that do not directly acknowledge sexual violence and then directly address abuse. University administrators must employ best practices to support victims, advise the accused and confidentially address community concerns.
Treat the cause, not the symptoms
During the past two decades, I have interviewed numerous sexual abuse survivors assaulted at public and private institutions. A consistent theme among those survivors is that the severity of their injury could have been reduced had authority figures properly addressed early cases of abuse. Do not wait for the symptoms of sexual abuse to appear on your campus. Instead, address the root cause through education.
You are in the business of education. Education is undertaken to achieve specific goals. Education aims to disseminate information that dispels ignorance and faulty ideas and inspires truth-telling. Apply that goal to treat the cause of college sexual assault and not just the symptoms (i.e., non-consensual touching, rape, harassment, stalking). Each quarter, administrators should collaborate with student organizations and multicultural experts to sponsor programming that will challenge students’ notions of sexual consent, gender roles and the impact of sexual violence.
Embrace structural change
In the July 14, 2023, open letter written by Northwestern University professors addressing the football scandal, those instructors noted,
“This month’s revelations about the football and baseball teams echo the department’s failure to adequately address the cheer team’s complaints of racism and sexual harassment, an issue that came to a head in 2021…”
Those professors requested that university leaders engage in meaningful structural change. As alleged by those professors and an independent investigation, sexual misconduct at Northwestern University did not spring up overnight, and the abuse was not a one-time incident. Instead, it can reasonably be inferred that Northwestern’s authority figures were either intentionally or recklessly unwilling to disrupt systemic sexual misconduct. Colleges should never hire or retain abusive individuals; however, should one such individual slip through the cracks, the abuse will only flourish if leadership acquiesces to the conduct.
When there is tacit acceptance of sexual misconduct through an institution’s failure to discipline or separate from the abuser, the abuse will continue, and the entire institution will be weakened. University leadership that hushes abuse endangers students, welcomes scandal and ruins an institution’s reputation.
To avoid this pitfall, diversify the university’s pool of outside legal counsel and independent investigators. Create a distance between those who conduct investigations and provide legal counsel. Universities seeking structural change must not seek friendly counsel but instead truthful counsel.
Unfortunately, Shelly will now join the growing ranks of collegiate sexual assault survivors, but she can rely upon professionals and family to manage her injuries. Administrators can curb the upward trend in sexual misconduct on campus with tools already available. Acknowledge the existence of sexual abuse, educate the student body and reject leadership and systems that hide sexual abuse.