By Elizabeth A. Armstrong
The media, activists, and the Department of Education continue to put pressure on universities to improve how they respond to sexual violence. Universities are engaged in a flurry of activities—hiring compliance officers, rolling out new educational programs, designing new web sites, hosting webinars for parents, rewriting student codes of conduct, creating hotlines for reporting sexual misconduct, and redesigning procedures for the investigation and adjudication of reported incidents. Some universities are working hard to be out in front of the issue. Others are struggling just to keep up. Some activists believe that this is a moment when real change might be possible. Others read university responses cynically, as just bureaucratic attempts to avoid legal liability.
My colleague Sandra Levitsky and have started a research project to document and explain university responses. The first question asked about this project is: “Why are universities involved at all? Shouldn’t the criminal justice system be adjudicating these crimes?”
“Title IX” is the short answer to this question. Universities are legally required to address sex discrimination on campus, which includes providing an educational environment free from sexual violence. It is a civil rights issue. The Department of Education toughened its stance in 2011 by releasing new guidance for universities to follow to prevent sexual violence from occurring and to respond to it if it does.
Attention to sexual violence as a violation of Title IX is new. But university regulation of student sexual conduct is not. Universities set expectations for student sexual conduct along with many other aspects of student behavior (e.g., vandalism, theft, cheating). Not regulating student sexual conduct would be inconsistent with both historical practice and how schools respond to other aspects of student behavior.
When sexual misconduct rises to the level of a criminal offense, it should ideally be handled as such in addition to being handled as a violation of a code of student conduct. The media sometimes suggest that universities try to prevent survivors from making criminal reports as a way to protect the university. This may happen at some schools, but our observations suggest that many universities are proactive about sharing information with police. In fact, some are concerned that universities are moving in the direction of being too enthusiastic about passing along information to police. If handled poorly, survivors may be re-victimized by losing control of sensitive information, without justice being served either on campus or in the criminal justice system. On the other hand, effective coordination between police and campus authorities has the potential to maximize the chance that perpetrators are held accountable by universities and convicted of criminal offenses. The bottom line is that universities committed to “getting it right” are not withholding information from police or discouraging criminal reports.
Universities also have a role to play because not all forms of sexual misconduct are criminal. However, these actions can still create a hostile educational environment. For example, a hostile climate could be created through repeatedly invading another’s personal space, posting slanderous material on social media, or drawing offensive images or words on a student’s whiteboard. In addition, the criminal justice system is not equipped to protect survivors against retaliation from the perpetrator or the perpetrator’s friends, or to provide accommodations to assist the survivor after an assault. The criminal justice system cannot work with professors to organize extensions for coursework or schedule modifications. These accommodations can help a survivor recover and succeed academically. Some accommodations can be made in advance of adjudicating a case, while others are only appropriate after a finding of responsibility, and thus require that universities adjudicate the case.
The process of overhauling college and university responses to sexual violence is still in its infancy. It will likely be years before it is possible to assess whether meaningful change has occurred, or whether this has just been another cycle of attention to a longstanding problem. Even if universities “get it right,” this does nothing to address the needs of those not in college when they are assaulted. Young people not enrolled in college may be more at risk of sexual or intimate partner more violence. Improving protections for college students might increase disparities between groups. This, combined with the fact expulsion is the most severe sanction universities can apply, suggests that pressure on universities to response more effectively to sexual violence should be accompanied by similar pressure on the criminal justice system.
More reading: here.
Elizabeth A. Armstrong is Professor of Sociology at University of Michigan. Her research interests include areas of sexuality, gender, culture, organizations, social movements, and higher education. Her 2013 book, with Laura T. Hamilton, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality can be found here. She is also an editorial board member for Gender & Society.