Colleges Must Confront Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Head On


In the past month the National Science Foundation and a bipartisan group of US senators both introduced measures that would require higher education leaders to review and report cases of sexual assault and harassment on their campuses.

While these initiatives represent a good first step, they do not go far enough to eliminate the problem. That goal falls to college and university leaders who have the will to rid their campuses of the long-standing problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

As experienced university administrators, faculty and practitioners of sexual assault prevention, we believe now is the perfect opportunity for universities and colleges to lead the way. The roadmap to success lies in the tenets of the mission of colleges and universities: research the problems, use the findings to educate others and engage communities to make change.

Staggering Statistics
Statistics on sexual assault and harassment on campus show the need for change. For instance, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college [link removed: no longer active]. For graduate students, 38 percent of females and nearly 1 in 4 males reported sexual harassment from faculty or staff. Roughly half of all such instances included multiple victims of the same faculty member.

About 40 percent of female faculty members and 30 percent of female non-faculty staff members experience sexual harassment.

Colleges and universities have tried to confront the problem, but there is so much more to do. These gaps lead to costly consequences. Sexual harassment and assault drive talented faculty, staff and students away from colleges and universities.

Promising Solutions
Based on our collective experience dealing with the issue of sexual assault and harassment in academia, we believe the following things can help turn things around:

  • Openly define the challenges
Those who run college campuses must be willing to share their own uncomfortable truths concerning sexual assault and harassment. But colleges and universities have been reluctant to do so because of the highly competitive environment in which they seek to recruit top faculty, students and athletes.

If all campuses shared more information about their experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault in a public forum, such as on the US Department of Education’s Campus Safety and Security websitethe true scope of the challenges would be better defined on each campus, and the stigma of acknowledging them would be removed.

  • Redeploy effective approaches
Rather than starting from scratch, colleges and universities can adopt effective strategies and avoid those that have been found ineffective on other campuses — something that isn’t always done in higher education.
To proactively stop sexual harassment and assault, colleges can change their training for faculty, staff and students to longer, interactive and in-person sessions, which have been proven to increase their effectiveness.
  • Collaborate to find innovative solutions

In addition to addressing known contributors to sexual harassment and assault, college and university leaders must find ways to innovate.

People at all levels of an organization have ideas on how to address the issues they face, but they aren’t always asked to share what they know. In order to tackle tough problems such as sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus, faculty, staff and students can be empowered to identify ideas to shift the culture that allows harassment and assault to exist, and the top ideas can be selected by a campus-wide vote.
Culture change requires not only new approaches but also the resources to implement them. Colleges can demonstrate their commitment by ensuring that the number of survivor advocates and Title IX investigators is adequate for the size of the student population. Statistics suggest that a ratio of 1 each per 7,500 students would give each a caseload of 450 victims, which is consistent with standards for academic advising. They should also fund off-campus, trauma-informed training for these professionals ensure impartialityand reward units that improve their workplace climate with increased university resources.

A Matter of Will
Effective change requires the resolve to weather hazards that are sure to come: negative press, withdrawn donor support and a focus on placing blame. Lasting change in workplace climate is also a notoriously difficult thing to achieve. Nevertheless, the safety and well-being of students, faculty and staff is too important not to keep trying.

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