President's Column

A Perspective on Campus Assault

They can be first-year students, discovering boundaries for their own zones of personal responsibility — with ample room to do so, and without parental oversight. They can be acquaintances, even friends. Both are likely to have been drinking, perhaps excessively.

Among the realities encountered by students on campuses today — and experienced specifically in several cases at Bates last spring — are the all-too-frequent and devastating experiences of “date rape” or “acquaintance assault.” These experiences — far more frequent on our campuses than assaults by strangers — are reprehensible, yet they are fraught with ambiguity. In cases of date rape or acquaintance assault, there is often confusion, even among participants, regarding what happened, whether consent was extended, and the intent of those involved. Indeed, they reflect complex human interaction and the sexual practices of young people in our society.

Today, more than ever before, our colleges and universities are being asked to acknowledge the pervasive reality and the harm of these troubling experiences. We are also becoming the venues for addressing them.

Nationwide, it is estimated that nearly 30 percent of women students have experienced acquaintance assault on our campuses, or earlier as secondary school students. For the individuals involved, as well as for the institutions, it is important that the full spectrum of these assaults be acknowledged, and that their nature and extent, their cause and their consequences, be given greater educational attention. Ironically, the institutions in our society that have led the way in encouraging victims to find their voices, to come forward, to identify the assaulting behavior, and to seek redress have been our nation’s military as well as colleges and universities — not the criminal-justice system or society at large.

We, at colleges and universities, accept the responsibility to make clear the connection of these matters to the educational aspect of our institutional mission. But we should be both encouraged and helped to do so. Social benefits are accrued when colleges help young people consider appropriate limits to their sexual exchanges, how individual integrity is involved, and how to counter patterns of casual sexual behavior that are otherwise reinforced throughout our culture. A sense of personal responsibility must be the cornerstone of our efforts. As Naylor and Willimon point out in their book Abandoned Generation, the evidence suggests that colleges and universities may have responded to the consuming expectations of students — both male and female — their families, and the culture at large, not only to keep them safe, but to keep them free of responsibility. If true, we need to change that.

Here is a set of prescriptions that could result in colleges and universities taking on the issues. I would propose that at our colleges we begin to do the following:

  • Insist that there is no tolerance of sexual assault.
  • Reinforce patterns that ask students to hold themselves responsible. Introduce honor codes and other means of lodging with students the authority and control over aspects of their own lives with the appreciation of how responsible actions carry specific consequences.
  • Confirm that the internal procedures governing conduct are as clear as possible. Private colleges and universities, especially those residential campuses intent on building a community supportive of learning, establish codes of conduct for their students. Not only do private colleges and universities have a responsibility to establish such codes, with regard to sexual assault they have a federal mandate to do so. Federal regulations require that institutions receiving any form of assistance (including federally supported financial aid loans) have explicit formulations of sexual-assault descriptions and a working procedure for how charges can be brought within the internal structures of the institution, as well as how sanctions are to be administered. On our campuses we must ensure that these internal structures are frequently presented and discussed within the institution and that the community concentrates on how all elements of the procedures are implemented consistently. The extent and nature of the procedures should also be shared with the local community and the public at large — with an emphasis on why the institution has such a code, and that it is consistent with, but separate from, the public criminal code.
  • Enjoin the campus community to understand that sexual assault and other behaviors that are antithetical to individual worth have direct connection to abusive uses of alcohol. Show the coercive role such abuse plays in defining social interaction. Leadership on this issue must be an institutional priority.
  • While maintaining confidentiality and not discussing the particulars of any case, the institution can take the principled role of speaking publicly — frequently and forcefully — regarding its obligation to safeguard the rights and responsibilities of both students and the institution, the importance of preserving confidentiality, protecting the rights of those involved (both accusing and accused) and how the college offers explicit attention to fairness as part of the procedures used when there is alleged a violation of the institution’s code of conduct.
  • As educational institutions, colleges and universities can develop the information and support needed by their students.For example, orientation sessions on our campuses should address sexual assault, individual responsibilities, and the challenge of new freedoms. These sessions can be explicit, frequent, and repeated throughout the student’s first year. In addition, ongoing consideration of what it means to be “responsible for oneself” and to “care for a friend or acquaintance” needs to be intentional elements of curricular and cocurricular experiences. We must, as educators, help our students develop the language that allows them to express and understand the nature of such responsibilities.Colleges and universities must consider how to help students critically assess their attitudes and behaviors in the area of sexual behavior. Our students often hide their own clumsy or ill-informed assessments of sexual behavior with presumptions of sophistication and casualness. Peer pressure then allows such behavior to be exempt from commitment.Our institutions can also place greater energy on encouraging and assisting students to pursue criminal-justice avenues in cases of sexual assault, rather than only internal processes. We can work with local authorities to dispel misunderstandings and confusion regarding the nature of the criminal process.
  • On our campuses, we can institute and strengthen the role of student judicial advisers and of rape or assault counseling groups. Student organizations and support offices can each reinforce the importance of acknowledging the reality of assault, the collective judgment that it is unacceptable — and the encouragement of victims to pursue external justice system charges, as well as internal processes.
  • Our obligation is to respond as educators. We bring to these matters our institutional commitment not only to the well-being of the members of our communities, but to providing educational and ethical leadership. The issues call for no less.