Recently, the chancellor of the University of Texas (UT) system—retired four-star Navy admiral William H. McRaven—announced the launch of a $1.7 million, multiyear study of sexual assault at thirteen UT campuses in the 217,000-student system. Recognizing that sexual assault on campus is somehow tied to a culture of sexual entitlement, binge drinking, secrecy and shame, UT administrators are making a bold and much-needed attempt to fix the problems. The study, consisting of student questionnaires, multi-constituency focus groups, and calculations of impact, is one of the most ambitious examinations of sexual violence on campus to date.
It’s about time.
Way back in 2007, researchers in the Justice Department estimated that about one in five women are sexually violated in college. That is a stunningly high figure. And yet, very little is known about the dynamics of campus sexual assault. What are the victimization patterns? What are the economic and emotional losses accrued by victims of assault? Are there effective prevention efforts? What is the role of collegiate and pre-collegiate culture in the perpetuation of sexual assault?
A big part of the problem is that universities have been in denial. In April, the 2015 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Presidents (conducted by Gallup), revealed that, while nearly a third of college presidents believed that sexual assault is prevalent on college campuses nationwide, only 6 percent believed that the same prevalence existed at their own institution. Chancellor McRaven’s commitment of UT money and resources, along with his willingness to address these issues publicly as they relate to his university, is a welcome change from the actions of other prestigious colleges and universities that shroud the reality of sexual assault on their campuses with opaque language of damage control spun by public relations fixers and corporate-caliber marketers.
Such an expensive, time-consuming, and much-needed study cannot simply act as a symbol of university commitment. It also needs to produce new information, and most importantly, lead to evidence-based solutions. As the plans for the UT study continue to develop, the university community ought to approach both the research process and the results with a commitment in mind: to do everything possible to protect its students from sexual assault, and to safeguard the process of attending a university so that we continue to send conscientious, fruitful, and confident alumni out into the world to serve society.
Here are four points for the leadership in the UT system and the larger university community to keep in mind as the study progresses:
- Lack of data is not an excuse for lack of action. The UT study is designed as a multiyear effort, and while it will collect important information, the mere existence of the study is not action unto itself. Researchers with notepads and recording devices will not shield against rape; excellent data sets cannot stop a stalker.
Student activists should encourage UT officials to remember that research progress, however great, does not equate with results on the ground; as university leadership waits for comprehensive conclusions, students on campus will continue to experience sexual assault. As this much-needed data is collected, researchers ought not to bury the stories of assault survivors underneath the numbers; instead, the leading edge of this research effort should be used to continuously inform UT administrators in their fight against campus sexual assault.
- Remember the role and importance of intersectionality. Activism around sexual assault and Title IX processes typically center on the protection of cis-gendered women from cis-gendered men. However, relationship and sexual abuse is not simply a one-way problem.
Researchers should pay attention to the prevalence of assault within the LGBTQ+ community, recognizing that assaults occurring, for example, between persons of the same sex may unfortunately carry an additional stigma or secrecy that depresses rates of reporting or treatment seeking. Moreover, researchers should be careful to note the role that culture, stereotype, racial power dynamics, wealth, and influence shape how assault is perpetuated, prevented, and treated.
- The truth should be pursued even in the face of damaging or difficult data. The Washington Post quoted the director of UT Austin’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Noel Busch-Armendariz as saying “Let’s tell ourselves the truth along the way.”
This wonderful sentiment only increases in importance after all the study is over, after the focus groups subside—when the hard choices begin. How far is a school willing to go in order to correct this problem? If the study reveals that assaults are most likely to occur at the hands of fraternity men, will the university implement stricter party or pledging policies? Will they go so far as to disband fraternities, even amongst inevitable alumni and political resistance? If the study shows that survivors do not report because campus police officers are often dismissive, slow moving, or insensitive, will more police training really resolve this, or is there a need for something more dramatic?
At least one sociologist claims that serial predators on college campus share the characteristics of motive (a sense of entitlement and resentment toward women), opportunity to commit crime, access to hypersexualized spaces, and the support of peers or larger organizations that adhere to a culture of silence. If the data at UT confirms this hypothesis, will the university be willing to implement solutions that will likely require fundamental changes to culture, rather than superficial adjustments to processes?
- The university community at large should be careful not to overgeneralize the results. Certainly, UT is providing a service to other colleges and universities—many of whom cannot or will not spend $1.7 million of endowment money to expose the details of their own rape cultures. But college life is not some monolithic entity. Schools who seek to gain information from this study need to make their own observations and draw connections to their own colleges. The details of UT’s diagnoses and prescriptions may not match other schools page for page. The biggest lesson that other schools ought to learn from UT is the importance of knowing which data to collect, and setting the infrastructure to do it.
The UT system’s initiative—as commendable as it is—is merely a first step in what ought to be an ongoing process and conversation about creating and maintaining campuses that are safe from gender and sexual violence. At the moment, it seems that the research undertaken by UT will be comprehensive and methodologically sound enough to diagnose a real problem. My hope is that the university leadership—both in the UT system and at any other universities that see themselves in aspects of UT’s findings—are willing and prepared to swallow what might be a bitter pill in order to make themselves better.
Photo Credit: Flickr, Wolfram Burner, Rape Awareness II 2013, http://bit.ly/1ODa0t4.