In the wake of negative media coverage for colleges and universities being sued under Title IX, a number of institutions of higher education are announcing new hires in sexual assault prevention. These hires are receiving media attention, and there is no doubt that it’s a positive step forward for campuses.
However, one hire, one press release, and one positive news story is a baby step in a much longer journey to transform campus culture so that sexual assault can be prevented, victims feel safe to come forward, and survivors are empowered to seek both healing and justice.
As you read stories and hear news about colleges and universities hiring people into positions related to sexual violence prevention, take a moment to analyze whether this hire reflects an authentic and genuine commitment to change. Having worked in higher education for many years, I learned that real change requires the participation of faculty, administrators, alumni donors, and students, and often needs to be supported by outside experts or agitators. Because of the tenure system, faculty members have a lot of independence and autonomy – they can be influenced, cajoled, and pressured, but rarely ordered. Students turn over every four years, which, in the life of a university that has been around for a century, is not a long time. Administrators, including the President, can find themselves stuck in the middle, with multiple constituents they are working to serve. I’ve also learned that publicity and media attention can be powerful motivators for all of these groups, if wielded skillfully.
Here are a few questions that you can ask your administrators that will provide more insight into the level of commitment your campus is making to sexual assault prevention:
- Who does the person report to? While the offices of student life and women’s centers may be popular for students, they aren’t necessarily the centers of power on campus. Furthermore, many campus departments don’t spend a lot of time together, and
- What power do they hold? Can they hire and fire staff? Can they impact faculty evaluations? Can they influence student disciplinary proceedings? Can they change policy? A job title is one thing, but whether the person is empowered to do their job is something else entirely.
- Do they have a staff and budget or are they expected to be a solo player? If a talented person is hired, but not provided with the human and financial resources they need, their hands are tied and actions are limited.
- Do they have an office? Where is it? On campuses, space can be tight, so it’s a sign of respect to have a good office in a good location. A basement office with no windows that is segregated from others with power is different than an office down the hall from the President, Provost, or other senior administrator.
- Can they effectively work with faculty, administrators, and students? Are they trained in prevention? To create change on campus, you need to be trained in prevention AND able to work with faculty, administrators, and students. It is unlikely that you will find these skills in a single person. As such, a single hire in a single department is one of several steps a campus ought to take.
- Are the people quoted in the press release actively involved in anti-sexual assault activities on campus? Do they walk the walk? Find out whether the people quoted in the press release serve on anti-sexual assault committees, attend events, and implement prevention recommendations for the campus.
Let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong seeking positive publicity for taking steps in the right direction, as long as it leads to real and lasting change. In fact, more news coverage of colleges and universities doing the right thing BEFORE a crisis hits – a public assault, a Title IX case, etc – is something we should demand and pursue. We can’t just punish the colleges and universities that have done wrong; we have to celebrate those who are doing right.