February 18, 2014

A call to action

Both students and administration can play a part in overdue sexual assault policy reform.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is currently conducting an investigation of the University’s sexual assault policy to determine any breaches of Title IX, which protects against sex-based discrimination. While federal involvement in the University’s sexual assault policy is recent, the student body’s attention to the issue is not. Based on research and work that several student groups have compiled, many specific areas of reform have already been raised to the administration by students and alumni over the past two decades. The administration has announced that it is creating a specialist-led disciplinary committee that will examine complaints of unlawful harassment from all divisions of the University. Students have been asking for a more centralized and specialized disciplinary process that would ensure consistency, improved care, and transparency since the 1990s, so the University’s recent actions are certainly a welcome development. But even these plans only acknowledge one concern with the University’s sexual assault policy; never has the administration addressed the issue comprehensively. The administration must do so now. Given the strict scrutiny that the University’s sexual assault policy is currently facing, now is also an opportune moment for students to press the administration to make concrete, significant changes immediately.

The University’s sexual assault policy has long received the attention of the student body, followed by minimal or slow response by the administration. In 1996 and 1997, students formed the Action for a Student Assault Policy and the Coalition Against Sexual Violence to address what they perceived to be an “urgent need for reform in how our university prevented and responded to sexual and other forms of assault,” according to an open letter that the Alumni for a Student Assault Policy (ASAP) sent to President Zimmer last week. From 2007 to 2010, the Working Group for Sexual Assault Policy and other student groups raised awareness of the issue, one effect of which was the implementation of sensitivity training for faculty where they had previously been none. The group’s efforts also culminated in a 2010 referendum to reform the sexual assault disciplinary process, which included centralization as one of its core objectives. After 78 percent of the student body voiced support of reform, Provost Thomas Rosenbaum set up a committee to review student concerns, which resulted in changes to the sexual assault disciplinary policy that reduced the potential for bias against the accuser. But it is only four years after the formation of this committee—and 20 years after this core concern was originally raised—that the administration is publicly acting on student requests for centralization of the disciplinary process.

Even with the steps that the administration has taken to address these issues, however, attention to problems with the sexual assault policy has been far from comprehensive. For one, the dean of students in the College’s role in mediating the complaint process has yet to be clarified, as suggested by the editorial board in December 2012. Additionally, Student Health Service’s sexual assault support group is currently exclusive to females, even though it could benefit survivors of all genders. These are two significant aspects of sexual assault policy that have been pushed aside in the absence of comprehensive reforms.

The recent federal investigation has undoubtedly brought the issue back into the spotlight, but based on the University’s track record, it is not necessarily enough to inspire immediate and large-scale change. Student-led action has resulted in the current federal investigation as well as the success of past campaigns, while contributing an invaluable perspective to the conversation on campus. Now, during such a pivotal moment in campus discourse, it is even more critical that students continue to vocalize their support for reform. In doing so, students also extend a gesture of solidarity toward fellow students who have been affected by sexual assault and are vulnerable to flaws in the current system.

While students have a responsibility to draw and maintain attention to the issue, this entire situation also demonstrates the administration’s pivotal role in policy reform, since students have inherently short tenures on campus. “As happens, we graduated and left the university. We were not there long enough, or with enough leverage, to see that those improvements were made,” the alumni wrote in their open letter to Zimmer. As students come and go, sexual assault will unfortunately continue to exist on campus. Slow response to an ongoing problem will only hurt the victims of sexual assault, who need to feel secure during an undoubtedly difficult process. Given the federal investigation, it is time for the administration to make the appropriate changes—as soon as possible.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.