The Department of Education (ED) made headlines on May 1 when they published a list of 55 colleges and universities under investigation for their handling of sexual violence on campus, a number that has since gone up to 63. This list has been profoundly misinterpreted by many. Instead of avoiding the schools on this list, parents should send their students to these institutions because this is where the conversation is taking place.
My four-part thesis for this post is simple:
(1) Every school has a sexual assault problem;
(2) While some schools handle it better than others, no school handles it well due to a lack of evidence-based best practices;
(3) Schools under investigation by the ED are forced to pay more attention to sexual assault than other schools; and
(4) Schools on the ED’s list are there because of student activism, activism that has put this issue on the national agenda.
Ignore the glossy brochures and passionate assurances from college presidents that students are safe on their particular campus. They are not. About 1-in-5 female and 1-in-33 male students at co-ed, residential schools will face an attempted or completed sexual assault or rape during their time at college. Going to college is a risk factor for rape, and the only way these statistics will change is if institutions orchestrate a drastic change in campus rape culture. No school has figured out how to effectively do this. If they had, it would have made headlines.
Virtually all campuses have a rape-prone culture, but no campus has a rape-free culture. The Campus SaVE Act that went into effect this year (!) is the first law that requires schools to actively prevent sexual assault/rape through programming and training. And while the weight of the Obama Administration is behind this issue, the first report from the White House Task Force reads more like a wish list for future research rather than a best practices manual. In other words, even though school administrators are now required to allocate resources and develop mechanisms to shift campus culture, they lack the knowledge and tools to do so. Bystander intervention programs are a good start, but they are not enough.
The other part of the campus safety equation is how schools respond to survivors after they report their experiences. The ED’s list is almost entirely the result of survivor activists filing federal complaints after experiencing issues with the reporting, adjudication, and sanctioning process at their school. Some of these cases are more egregious than others — especially those at the more politically powerful, brand-obsessed Ivies — but every school has issues handling these cases. Survivors from different institutions across the country report similar problems, and only a fraction of them have actually filed complaints. Campus sexual assault legislation has been on the books since 1990, but only one-third of schools are in compliance with federal law. A 2005 Department of Justice study found that fewer than 1% of schools had “promising practices” for addressing sexual assault/rape (based on a representative sample of schools, using a 29-point measure of “promising practices”).
Even the best case scenario of ample research funding, only a moderate backlash, and institutional commitment to student safety over brand preservation, still puts us about a decade away from having best practices in place. And the early signs are not promising. Many college presidents are retaining crisis management lawyers to institute cosmetic changes that look great in the glossy brochures instead of making hard changes to get to a rape-free campus. This is why it is so important to have a vocal student body and an active faculty to maintain internal pressure for change.
To sum up, the ED’s list of schools is not a “worst offenders” list. It is a list of schools where survivors are more active and vocal. Parents should know that every school has issues preventing and handling sexual assault/rape and that no school is forthcoming about their problems. If I were sending a daughter or son off the college, I would encourage them to select a school that is being closely scrutinized by the ED, where campus dialogue makes students more aware of the problem, and where survivors feel empowered to hold their institution accountable.
Dr. Heldman is the lead complainant on the Title IX complaint against Occidental College. She has previously written about the new anti-rape movement on college campuses.