May 6, 2014

Reality over reputation

Title IX investigation takes UChicago’s identity out of admin’s hands, for the better.

There are a lot of big names on the list of schools under federal Title IX investigation for issues of sexual assault: Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Chicago—the list goes on. It covers institutions of every size and affiliation, spanning from Vermont to Hawaii, including many of the stock schools that University of Chicago students also apply to. Schools that vie for positions on the list of America’s Top Colleges; schools with carefully cultivated reputations. And now, these schools are facing heat for reaching the apparent conclusion that a good reputation means covering up sexual assault.

There’s power in reputation. I decided not to apply to Amherst after hearing horror stories of their treatment of sexual assault. But it seems that I misidentified the problem: Sexual assault isn’t an issue at one school, or even at 55 schools. It’s an issue at every university, and indeed everywhere beyond—but after the Department of Education released this list, we see it most clearly in schools that subsist strongly on their image and owe their existence to how effectively they attract the tuition of promising young scholars.

The University has a procedure for sexual assault. It has a Sexual Assault Dean-on-Call and a comprehensive website of advice and resources. On paper, the University looks organized and competent. The right words are in the right order—consent, support, resources, respect. And yet the University of Chicago is on the Department of Education’s list of ongoing Title IX investigations.

In terms of sexual assault, colleges in general are in a difficult position. Lacking the punitive power of the legal system, they are nonetheless expected to be accountable for the safety of their students. It’s a combination that often leads to accused assailants graduating free of charges or even consequences. In the well-known case of Olivia Ortiz here at our university, which resulted in investigations beginning last year, her name and position are disclosed and recognizable. Her assailant, however, remains anonymous. A rape case has lasting effects on your reputation, after all, and on the reputation of the college. In case after case across the country, those involved in sexual assault are encouraged to undergo unofficial mediation and avoid legal involvement. Universities seem to think that covering up the existence of sexual assault will protect their image, and this is true to some extent. No one wants a sexual assault case to show up when prospective students and parents google their school.

But the Department of Education’s list has made damage to the reputation of identified universities unavoidable, and this is a good thing. By forcing the issue into the open (the news of the investigation is one of the top Google search results from “University of Chicago”), perhaps we can move past the futile concern with a spotless record in favor of actually addressing points of crisis. From there, hopefully our school’s reputation can develop to the point where it depends on a transparent and effective system for handling sexual assault—even if that means acknowledging that sexual assault happens on our campus.

Presumably no one at the involved universities is defending sexual assault policies found to be in violation of Title IX. We don’t even have to go so far as to claim that the administrations under fire at our school and others had any malicious intent. But the idea that justice is compatible with laying a sexual assault case quietly to rest intersects very neatly with upholding a name, a brand, and a reputation.

It’s important to avoid vilifying the administration, faculty, or counseling services. Sexual assault is complicated, bureaucracy is complicated, and sometimes there isn’t a clear way forward. At the same time, that’s no excuse for placing the sustaining of an inaccurate reputation before the interests of students. Hopefully, the Title IX investigations will make schools realize that it is not the existence of sexual assault that most hurts their reputation, but the mismanagement of such cases.

Ellen Wiese is a first-year in the College.