Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

We're Number One!

It turns out that Brown is tied with UConn for the highest number of reported sexual assaults on campus in 2014. Since I work at one and pay taxes to support the other you may think I should be upset, but it's a bit more complicated than that.

We can't say for sure, but this is probably to the credit of both universities. From what I know of the efforts of the administration and faculty here, I think it is. This represents what we call ascertainment bias. At Brown, people are willing to come forward when they experience an assault. (The headline on the story says "rape" but the category is broader.) A university of this size that had few reports would be the one with the bigger problem.

On the other hand, just because we know we have a problem while others don't know it is obviously not where the story ends. We still need to fix our problem, as best we can. It's actually a few different problems.

One is sexual harassment and coercion of students and more junior personnel (such as post-docs, research assistants and junior faculty) by powerful faculty members. That's not pervasive -- and I actually haven't heard of any specific incidents here -- but in many stories from other universities that have become public recently, what we see is that prominent, tenured faculty have enjoyed years of impunity. That must end.

Second is the general male culture. I actually think, as do many others, that women are probably safer at most colleges than they are in most other settings, but that is obviously not safe enough. Students don't magically change when they cross the invisible borders of the campus. The young men bring with them the attitudes of objectification of women, of conquest as a mark of male accomplishment, of sexuality as predation. They are also immature and can't easily resist peer culture. So the peer culture has to change.

Third is the tendency of most institutions to support their hierarchies, suppress negative news, and avoid disruption. There are perceived costs ranging from bad publicity to loss of otherwise valuable human resources that come with acknowledging inappropriate behavior and it's just easier to sweep it under the rug. So that value equation has to be rebalanced.

Fourth, it takes a substantial investment to establish and maintain rules, guidelines, policies and systems to properly address fraught and contested interpersonal disputes. Universities are not historically well equipped to adjudicate sexual crimes; but they can't just refer these problems to the courts for many reasons. The criminal justice system does a terrible job of prosecuting them, and often puts victims on trial. Violations of appropriate norms, that seriously harm people, are not necessarily legal crimes. So there have to be internal mechanisms to deal with accusations, but we're still figuring out how to do it. Expelling students and firing employees are major injuries to those individuals and the accused have rights that must be protected. So it isn't easy.

So I want people to believe that we are sincerely trying. But keep up the pressure, it's necessary.


robin andrea said...

Thank you for writing this. It's one of the smartest and most thoughtful things I've read on the subject in quite a long time.

roger said...

well said. but depressing. the criminal justice system often fails the victims, and so does the campus justice system. still, i'm amazed that campus officials are not obliged to report an accusation of a felony.

Cervantes said...

Generally speaking, state laws require reporting only of abuse of minors. But I believe we would be a mandated reporter if a victim were under 18. It often surprises people, but there is no obligation for civilians to report a crime, under most circumstances. Of course it's not a bright line, you could be considered a co-conspirator or accessory if you took any active steps to cover up.