A strained environment: tackling sexual violence and harassment in US colleges

In October 2019, the American Association of Universities (AAU), made up of 65 of the most prestigious research institutions in North America, released the findings of its second survey on sexual assault and misconduct on campus, administered at 33 institutions, including my employer, Vanderbilt University.

Sobering reading

A quarter of undergraduate cisgender women at these institutions report having been subject to sexual assault (defined in the survey as “nonconsensual sexual contact involving physical force or inability to consent or stop what was happening”) at some point during their undergraduate career.

Almost half of these experienced penetration during these assaults. The survey documents comparable prevalence of incidents for transgender students. Although the picture was less bleak for cisgender men and postgraduate students, nonetheless ten per cent of postgraduate women reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact in similar circumstances.

Equally alarming, 42 per cent of all students (undergraduate and postgraduate) report having been subject to sexually harassing behaviour (defined as crude or offensive jokes or comments or repeated, unwanted propositioning) while enrolled at their university. A surprising finding here, for a subject usually seen as a “women’s issue”, was that 36 per cent of undergraduate men and 23 per cent of postgraduate men reported experiencing sexually harassing behaviour (compared to 60 per cent of undergraduate women and 37 per cent of postgraduate women). While most perpetrators of sexually harassing behaviours were other students, in a significant proportion of the cases involving postgraduate students – 24 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men – the perpetrator was a faculty member.

AAU first conducted such a survey in 2015, with 27 institutions participating. There was little change in prevalence of sexual assault and misconduct found between 2015 and 2019, but there was a significant increase in student awareness, training, and familiarity with their universities’ procedures for handling such cases.

That AAU would administer a national survey on such a sensitive topic, and that over 20 per cent of students at the participating institutions would complete what was not only an optional but also a very long and explicit instrument, is testimony to the significance of this issue on US campuses. This prominence pre-dates the #MeToo movement. In the 1990s, when I was a US undergraduate, Take Back the Night movements attempted to open up a discussion about sexual assault. However, the issue has gained national attention through high-profile cases on campuses, resulting in increased awareness and, notably, increased attention from government.

A national consensus under threat

In 2014, the Obama administration convened the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Interest was also heightened in Congress. It was at that time that AAU presidents and chancellors asked AAU to assist them in collecting data so they could better understand the experiences pertaining to sexual assault and misconduct on their campuses and amongst leading research universities.

US governmental involvement is linked to a section of federal legislation known as Title IX. This 1972 amendment is tied to the Higher Education Act – a piece of legislation, periodically revised and renewed, which determines what institutions must do to gain access to federal funds, including the federal financial aid which underpins the financial model of almost every institution. Title IX forbids sex discrimination at US educational institutions eligible for federal assistance. Historically, it has been best-known for requiring equal access to sporting opportunities for men and women, but court decisions and Department of Education guidance have over time explicitly brought issues of sexual harassment into its scope.

Following a series of cases where it was perceived that institutions attempted to sweep problems under the carpet, the Obama administration released supplemental Title IX guidance to promote rigorous investigation of complaints and protection for victims. As this guidance began to be administered, concerns were raised from all sectors of higher education that it undercut the process which should be allowed to the accused.

The Trump administration has sought to change these regulations, resulting in a further strained environment regarding investigations of sexual assault at US universities. Complaints on the process have come from both sides: accusers have argued that they were not taken seriously enough, and those accused have claimed that their rights were violated.

Since the #MeToo movement became prominent in 2017, there has been increased attention by universities on the impact of sexual harassment not just on students but also faculty and postdocs. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine released a major report last year about sexual harassment in the sciences and has now created an multi-institution Action Collaborative to facilitate concerted action to promote understanding and begin to change culture. Vanderbilt is a member of the Action Collaborative.

Institutions are foregrounding discussions on gender harassment and sexual assault and increasing investment in training and resources. Most students at AAU campuses receive explicit training on both regulations and also what they can do to protect each other, with many reporting having stepped in when they saw a risky incident unfolding. Data is critical, and Vanderbilt recently conducted its first survey about sexual harassment of faculty and post-docs, which it released alongside the student data.

Surveys like AAU’s will continue to provide important data, but this is only one step and most experts I have heard do not expect to see a marked decline in prevalence in the next few years. There are no short cuts to culture change. Instead, institutions need to continue to bring the topic out of the shadows; to provide resources, support, and training to students, faculty, and staff; and to ensure fair processes for both accusers and accused.

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