Improved Sexual Misconduct Discourse Is a Must

Recent sexual misconduct data is alarming; the administration must increase dialogue with students so it is more effectively prevented.

By Sylvia Ebenbach

The University of Chicago needs to do more to prevent and respond to sexual misconduct that affects its student body. The presence of sexual misconduct within the UChicago community is why female students have to develop strategies to protect their friends from unwanted attention at parties. It is time for students to loudly demand that the University take an active and consistent role in communicating new methods for addressing sexual misconduct to the student body.

 This academic year began with news that women had been roofied with date-rape drugs at two events hosted by a fraternity. Then, data from the campus climate survey, to which 32 percent of the entire University population responded (encouraged by entry into raffles for Amazon gift cards) was released. It revealed that 39.8 percent of students have experienced at least one form of harassing behavior since coming to UChicago. 30.0 percent of undergraduate women and 29.8 percent of TGQN (transgender, gender queer, non-binary) students reported some type of nonconsensual sexual contact. According to the survey, most assaults occur in campus housing, followed by fraternity houses. In an email sent out to the student body, outgoing provost Daniel Diermeier described the results as “deeply troubling” and encouraged students to review the University’s Policy on Harassment, Discrimination, and Sexual Misconduct. This was followed by a presentation of the results on October 21 by the Title IX office and a town hall on October 30 hosted by Student Government (SG) to discuss sexual misconduct. While it is certainly a step in the right direction for the Title IX office to host a meeting to discuss the results of the survey, it was held during hours when many students were in class and could not attend. The SG town hall was held to compensate for that, allowing more people to discuss the results and question UChicago administrators. 

The Title IX office should prioritize conversation with students about sexual misconduct on campus and promoting safety, and this means facilitating dialogue that is as accessible as possible to everyone who wishes to participate. Furthermore, the office should have followed up the initial meeting and results with more information about how they plan to address the results in order to make UChicago safer. 

We may not have a method to effectively compare the prevalence of sexual misconduct at UChicago to that of other schools, but the sheer number of publicly reported instances on our campus is shameful. We cannot grow numb to the weight of sexual misconduct at this school with each new email, regardless of how we compare with other schools. 

On November 2, just three days after the SG town hall, a student reported a sexual assault by a male offender at an off-campus fraternity event. The email alerting the student body to this assault failed to mention that it occurred at a fraternity house, instead listing the house’s address. Language that is purposefully omissive should not be used to alert students to real threats in our community. Furthermore, although a statement was also made to UCPD, the Chicago Police Department is leading the investigation. The University dismisses Greek life by viewing it as off-campus, but these organizations exist within the context of UChicago, and to ignore this diminishes administrative responsibility.

Skeptics might wonder why the University administration should care about the prevalence of sexual misconduct beyond Title IX requirements. Some argue that the individual actions of students are out of the direct control of the University, an academic institution in which we just happen to live. The truth is that the University of Chicago engages in an ongoing economic relationship with its students. Students pay the University tuition and in return they provide the benefits of top-tier academics and an esteemed reputation. In addition to that cost, there are fees for housing and student life. Now that students are required to live in on-campus housing for at least two years, the importance of safety in dorms is more crucial than ever. UChicago has a duty to care for their students that includes preventing and then responding to sexual assault and harassment in a UChicago context. 

The University acknowledges that this responsibility includes adjudication in instances of sexual assault that occur off campus as well. However, the University does not recognize Greek life, despite the fact that a significant portion of the student body is involved in it and even more attend Greek events. Representatives have failed to fully answer why they choose not to officially acknowledge fraternities and sororities. At the SG town hall, Bridget Collier, the associate provost for Equal Opportunity Programs, was asked about this topic with regard to sexual misconduct. She responded, “As it relates to sexual misconduct, I do not see evidence that recognizing fraternities would reduce incidents or sexual assault. The residence halls are our number-one space [where assaults occur], and these are regulated spaces.” 

Frankly, this response skirts the responsibility this University has to its students. The University has never officially recognized Greek life, so there is no data as to whether this shift would have an effect within the specific context of the UChicago community. Greek life at UChicago is already distinct from other colleges in that sororities do not have houses and many members of Greek life report not being interested in joining before they arrived at the College. Three of the fraternity houses are located on South University Avenue, and one shares a wall with the Saieh Hall for Economics. 

It’s almost comical that the University will discuss fraternities with vocabulary like “off-campus,” given that the houses are often adjacent to academic and administrative buildings. If the University wants to claim that it is exploring all options, it needs officially recognize Greek life and change the perspective, vocabulary, and actions it takes when addressing sexual misconduct within the setting of Greek life, at least for a trial period to see whether positive change can be made. The emphasis placed on students’ ability to file complaints after the fact distracts from the necessity of greater preventative measures. The fact that more assaults occur in dorms than in fraternity houses does not diminish the issues at hand in either context. 

This is not to say that a blanket statement condemning Greek life is the correct response either. There are benefits to an organized social structure and the opportunity to make new friends within a large student body. Furthermore, though many people scoff at the philanthropy aspect of Greek life, the fact is that the philanthropic events hosted by Greek organizations at UChicago are successful. By acknowledging Greek life in its entirety, the University can work to encourage its positive impacts and prevent harm.

As students, we are owed an open and ongoing dialogue with University administrators about sexual misconduct. In the Campus Climate Survey, 18 percent of respondents reported that they perceived University officials as not at all concerned with their well-being. This evidence is an indication that great change in the relationship between the University and its students is needed. 

Diermeier wrote in his email, “Every member of our campus community has a role to play in helping to prevent misconduct. We must be resolute in our commitment to fostering a safe climate where people can participate in the life of the University free of unlawful harassment, discrimination, and sexual misconduct.” In order to ever hope of achieving this vision, UChicago needs to expand and fortify their role.