The Way Colleges Handle Sexual Violence On Campus Is Like A How-To On Institutional Neglect

Schools move to protect themselves instead of to alter themselves.
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Sarah Seltzer
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Schools move to protect themselves instead of to alter themselves.

Me during my Harvard years. 

Me during my Harvard years. 

A decade ago I was in college at Harvard and a reporter for the Crimson, our daily student newspaper. My beat was to follow student activism, mostly on race, gender and sexuality issue -- and that included a big challenge from students to Harvard’s inadequate sexual assault policy. 

With my little flip-cover notebook in hand, I attended fraught protests, emotional Take Back the Night demonstrations full of tearful stories, and public hearings and meetings about assault policy. Many of these were a result of a disturbing rule newly introduced at the university, which required the introduction “corroborating evidence” for assault complaints to go forward. To many, this read as SVU-style physical evidence, a major deterrent for victims to speak up.

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An inevitable committee convened, thanks to the work of a dedicated band of young anti-rape activists, as ambitious and focused on making change as you’d expect at Harvard. Eventually the committee came up with some decent recommendations, which were largely adopted by the university. It all looked like progress. Soon thereafter, I studied abroad, moved off campus, and ceded the reporting on the issue to someone younger.

And that, of course, is part of the problem. I moved on and the activists I covered did too, for an obvious reason -- we graduated. I always figured that while the school would never be particularly kind to undergrads who suffered for any reason (not really Harvard’s m.o), it would at least no longer be abysmal on this particular issue, having been publicly shamed during my era. 

Then I read, a few weeks ago, the viral essay from an anonymous assault survivor in the school paper: “Dear Harvard, You Win.” She described the school’s response to her assault as compounding its effects: “being denied several requests that you think will help you heal—those things truly make you feel hopeless, powerless, betrayed, and worthless.”

Soon thereafter I saw that Harvard, along with 54 other schools, was being investigated for possible violations of Title IX, which forbids gender discrimination in educational institutions receiving federal funding, specifically because of alleged mishandling of campus assault. I also saw that a female professor at Harvard, Dr. Kimberley Theldon, claimed she was denied tenure because she criticized the university’s responsiveness to rape victims.

I was floored. Again, I expected mediocre -- but it actually seemed from these stories like the school was epically screwing up again and again. And so were its peers, from small local schools to huge state ones, all making the same mistakes over and over. “I actually know a current survivor and student at Tufts, and the same people who mishandled my case, they also mishandled his,” Wagatwe Wanjuki, an anti-rape activist with the group Know Your IX said in an interview on Democracy Now!

Tales of sexual violence followed by administrative bungling (or worse) at schools like Brown, Columbia, Tufts, Harvard and many other schools, read together like a how-to on institutional neglect. And I’d argue that what’s most appalling is not just the result of any particular case but rather what appears to be a pattern of seemingly ill-equipped, ignorant campus discipline boards asking intrusive questions, repeating victim-blaming tropes, and pushing survivors to “move on.”

Title IX investigations imply that schools, if they are failing survivors this way, are denying them equal access to education. Schools not complying risk losing federal funding, as well as donations from alumni. So why would schools take that gamble? 

Of course institutions always foolishly move to protect themselves instead of to alter themselves. But universities are unique in another way, as my story shows. The people who agitate for change and understand what’s wrong, and those who suffer the most from institutional ineptitude, even the braver faculty who stand on the side of students, they all move on. 

They are transient, and they take their complaints and momentum and experience and pain with them when they leave. Knowing upperclassmen are replaced by a new crop of vulnerable freshman, receiving requisite date rape training in their dorms and told that “school x” is there for them. The infrastructure for organizing has to be repeatedly shored up. This is only the beginning of the power differential. In every single way, students are at a disadvantage.

That’s why it’s so brilliant for activists to be using Title IX, and the power of the Federal Government, to shame and push universities and colleges into action. Many of the young women in Know Your IX and other advocacy groups who have pressed for change are keeping an eye on their alma maters, years after they’ve graduated or left, and amplifying the effect of campus activism by targeting national media and the government.

After the Title IX investigations were revealed, voices of alumna began to show up in the media, saying they were “proud” their alma maters were being investigated:  “Obviously, I’m not thrilled that the university is accused of mishandling rape cases. But I’m proud that students at Emerson expect the best from our school, and refuse to settle for less,” Jaclyn Friedman declared in TIME. “As a young alumnus, I feel a grim satisfaction at seeing my alma mater on the list,” Chloe Angyal wrote at CNN, speaking of Princeton. Add my voice, and many others, to this chorus.

Campuses seem idyllic, and the nature of college creates the illusion of a safe space. But not even the most beautiful campus is immune to broader societal patterns of sexual assault and victim-blaming -- colleges are part of the broader world steeped in rape culture. And police forces, with their historic and entrenched mistreatment of LGBT individuals, communities of color, and assault victims all, don’t provide a feasible solution. 

If I hadn’t grown in the decade since I left Harvard, I’d be seen as a failure. So why has my alma mater’s stasis been acceptable? Schools need to learn and adapt just as they expect students to. The only way they will is if alumni and the government help magnify student voices and demand action.