What about prevention?

Higher ed must adopt stronger policies and practices to prevent sexual assault

Recently, the White House Council on Women and Girls issued a report pledging to “make our campuses safer” from sexual assault.

According to their research, “1 in 5 women has been sexually assaulted while she’s in college,” a troubling statistic which the authors explain by “the dynamics of college life.” Female undergraduates, we are told, are abused while intoxicated by men whom they know in passing.

Colleges and universities must adopt better policies and practices to prevent these crimes and to respond more effectively when they happen. If we don’t, we are warned, we may go out of business.

At my institution, we rewrote the sexual misconduct policy and stepped up the mechanisms for hearing a case. We implemented a no-drop policy—so that the institution could go forward even if the victim backed out—and a third-party complainant option, which allowed the victim to take a backseat.

In the course of a semester, faculty went from being teachers to being mandatory reporters, while victims went from being drivers of the case to sometimes hostile witnesses.

Three problems

But, as we’ve scurried toward greater compliance, three problems have become apparent.

First, we’re being asked to prosecute cases that downtown courts have difficulty trying. As Peter Lake of Stetson University in Florida explained in a 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education piece, “We have been lured into doing something in a criminal justice model that the criminal-justice system itself hasn’t been able to deal with.”

We don’t have detectives trained to collect evidence and interview witnesses. We don’t have the resources to prepare for a charge that, outside the campus borders, would be considered a felony. And unless police broke up the party, a rare event in dormitories, there is no solid evidence of the level of intoxication, only the reports of other inebriated witnesses.

The second problem is that the enforcement model has made college unsafe for men. The assertion that one in five women are assaulted while in college can easily be misinterpreted to mean that one in five men must be rapists. There is no counter-argument that men should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The difficulty with this argument is that it perpetuates the notion that to be male is to want nonconsensual sex. In a misguided effort to change that culture, Hamilton College in New York sent their new male students to a program named “She Fears You,” presented by an expert on diversity. Women will continue to fear you, they were told, unless you change your “rape-supportive” beliefs.

While these programs may have educational merit in provoking young men to rethink their responsibilities to sexual partners, the prejudicial effect on disciplinary panels is problematic. Unless the accused can prove he was cured of his rapist tendencies, he is unlikely to be found innocent.

The third and most troubling aspect of this latest warning is that educational facilities are not just being asked to do something we’re no good at, but we are now being faulted for being reluctant extensions of law enforcement.

Rather than helping us deal with the first two problems, the lack of infrastructure and the need to protect the accused, the Obama Administration has increased its scrutiny, demanding “coordination among federal agencies to hold schools accountable if they do not confront sexual violence on their campuses.”

If male undergraduates are now presumed rapists, educational institutions are now presumed to be complicit in their violent deeds.

Wrong message

If attention was placed on prevention—rather than enforcement—teachers, administrators, and students might draw on their talents to dismantle the perceived benefits of hook-ups and binge drinking. Those of us who teach in the humanities would have much to offer a conversation on the responsibilities of by-standers or on how to be cultural workers, not cultural consumers.

If the Obama Administration focused as much on prevention as it does on enforcement, educational institutions might actually have something novel to contribute to the conversation about sexual assault on campuses. As it is, we’re starting to forget that we even have those talents, so aware are we of our inadequacies as prosecutors.

Meg Mott is a professor of political theory at Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vt.

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