It’s time for college administrators to rethink sexual assault – James Hitchcock

Rape and sexual assault are ubiquitous at Williams. Not the acts themselves, I pray, but a stroll through any building on campus yields a thousand different posters politely reminding you to get consent before proceeding with other evening activities.  Students regularly flock to events like Take Back the Night. All freshmen undergo sessions of RASAN talks as part of the small handful of student organizations afforded official time-slots among the First Days rituals. Sexual assault awareness is tightly woven into the more general fabric of Williams culture, and every year, it’s increasingly the case.

But that unifying, rah-rah spirit that brings together all corners of campus in nearly unanimous support doesn’t extend in quite the same way to the administrative level. This isn’t to say that those over at Hopkins Hall take sexual assault any less seriously than they should (or than the rest of campus does)–the reality is quite to the contrary, in fact. But despite the constant, well-meaning, and sometimes effective fine-tuning they’ve committed to the program, there exist enormous sources of basic contention in sexual assault policy that’ll haunt Williams and other administrations so long as they remain in place.

College rulebooks typically follow a relatively predictable and logical pattern: for most small, relatively insignificant transgressions, things get handled in-house. You slap people on the wrist if they’re caught drinking underage, haze underclassmen, or if they commit the cardinal sin of storing a coffeemaker in their dorm. But there’s also a threshold at which all college administrations have to invoke a higher power. If someone is caught smoking marijuana, call the police; if there’s a hate crime on campus, the FBI gets brought in; if a student were to get killed, there’s a healthy chance a lawyer or two will pay a visit to campus.

Sexual assault is different.  One would expect that, as a crime, it would fall in the same category of severity of the aforementioned cases, but this isn’t the case when it comes down to policy. Why the difference? One argument frequently tossed around is that keeping things in-house represents a more humane, comfortable means of handling an inevitably horrible process. If you go to the deans, you’re working with people who are part of your community–you won’t have to deal with cold, clinical, and seemingly unsympathetic legal trials like using a rape kit or answering potentially traumatizing questions from defense attorneys. We can furthermore expect that many college administrations would argue that the law is out-of-date and fails to jive with today’s more liberal standards of what constitutes rape. That’s fair.

But by keeping sexual assault investigations in-house, college administrations strip any decisions they make of the critical gravitas that comes with a legal judgment. The result is a sort of populist “justice” that polarizes communities around high-profile cases and makes public what may be extraordinarily personal matters. Popular opinion reigns supreme as the arbiter of who’s right and who’s wrong. In my admittedly anecdotal experience, the vast majority of opinions I’ve encountered on campus about the Williams case publicized last semester indicate one thing: that the accuser in question was mentally unbalanced and a compulsive liar–that she represented a threat to Williams, Our Community, and she should be judged accordingly. Ask people outside the Purple Bubble who’ve read the well-circulated WBUR article, though, and chances are that you’ll hear a perspective significantly less sympathetic to the College.

The fault lines of public opinion fall differently sometimes; looking at the Columbia sexual assault case-turned-senior thesis, “Carry That Weight,” provides an example of another administrative decision in which the purported survivor has not only been dissatisfied with the school’s in-house treatment of the case but also has been able to set the narrative and command popular understanding of the incident. Lacking any sort of legal judgment and with diminished faith in college administrations’ abilities to handle these things fairly, how else are people supposed to find the truth of the matter?

Part of the shift represents a rapidly growing trend: as administrations have effectively begun to take the law into their own hands, they’ve lowered standards for finding someone guilty of sexual assault. Abandoning the bedrock legal principle of innocence until demonstration of guilt, many administrations across the U.S. have demoted the burden of proof to a simple “preponderance of evidence.” Although that standard sometimes carries over to issues beyond sexual misconduct, its application to the latter is a more recent development for many schools such as Princeton, which, amid much controversy, was two weeks ago the last Ivy to migrate away from the “clear and persuasive” standard.

There’s also a distinct ambiguity in the way college administrations dish out “justice” after reaching a conclusion on a particular case. What does it mean, for example, if a student accused of rape is suspended for a year? Does that indicate an inherent presumption of guilt, as one might assume? If so, is the rest of the community simply to believe that those semesters away from campus will effect some much needed development on a student so he or she knows not to rape again? If not, why suspend the student in the first place?

As the President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) Greg Lukianoff puts it, “No one is happy with the way campuses currently deal with sexual harassment, sexual violence, and rape—not victims, not the accused, not parents or loved ones, not administrators, not university counsel, not defense attorneys, not civil liberties advocates, and not the general public.” Procedural reform vis-a-vis sexual assault is chief on many schools’ lists of priorities, and with good reason. Yet administrators need to recognize that a piecemeal strategy–refining rules, slight tweaking here and there–fails to engage the root of the problem. It’s unclear who actually benefits from the present system. I don’t have an end-all solution, but until administrators begin to reevaluate what the fundamental role of a college is in resolving sexual assault cases, news headlines will continue to be dominated by stories of students revolting against their schools’ inadequate, poorly designed support systems.

9 thoughts on “It’s time for college administrators to rethink sexual assault – James Hitchcock

  1. I really like this article. It is well researched and clearly articulates a significant problem. However, I have a few questions that are less criticisms and more legitimate probes into your opinions on the subject. The big one is, even if the police to get involved, what role, if any, should colleges have in disciplining the alleged assailant? Given the length of time needed to complete a criminal trial, wouldn’t the college still be responsible for taking some sort of action in the interim, which requires an evaluation of guilt? Further, if a victim does not feel comfortable subjecting to the legal process, do they forfeit the right to any sort of punitive action? Would the college only be allowed to take protective measures that affect the victim, such as moving them to alternative housing upon request? Might this void in action be viewed as a step backward by many? It’s a tough situation for sure, and one of the reasons I’m a fan of the seemingly midway-point policy that Williams now employs where they bring in an outside investigation team to evaluate the evidence. But what do you think about the questions I’ve raised?

  2. Dean Bolton explains her reasoning behind this at basically every talk she ever gives about the campus sexual assault policy. I’m surprised that James wrote this article questioning the college’s reasoning without seeming to know what that reasoning is.

    I personally would not have reported had I known I would have had to explain what happened to the police, gone to a trial, and lost the anonymity of reporting that the college provides (a deeply important right seeing the campus reaction to someone who did make her case public).

    • Hey–thanks for the response. I actually am aware of the stated rationale for the present system and address that in the fourth paragraph, but as always, of course, I’m looking to learn more on the subject.

      Obviously, the system serves some better than others; for those who place enough faith in their college administrations to make the right calls and decisively act on those judgments, the kind of shroud of anonymity that remaining in-house provides may be compelling enough to do so. However, I’d contend that many of the cited cases (i.e., last year at Williams, Sulkowicz at Columbia) shed light on a growing statistic: students who don’t to the same degree trust their schools’ judgments and feel instead that they’ve been failed by that system.

      Thanks again for the comment.

      -jh

    • Thanks for the comment, Meg.

      “‘I don’t see it as a threat to our system of justice,’ Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless said of the college disciplinary process. ‘As long as it’s done properly and students are not steered toward it or coerced into it.'”

      I’d sincerely be curious to hear from some of those most critical about their experiences with college administrations with regards to the second sentence in District Attorney Capeless’s quotation. Thanks again for the response and link.

      -jh

  3. And once again, Meg is here to save the day! Please share another article about yourself, Meg, and keep addressing student concerns in a standoffish, know it all, kind of way. Props!

    • One of the things I know is that the comments section of an op-ed piece doesn’t really lend itself to nuanced conversations about a complex topic. I understood James to be concerned with the Williams policy in comparison to the Berkshire County DA’s criminal process. If you have other concerns that didn’t come up here, we can certainly talk more about those.

      My office hours in Hopkins 210D are Tuesdays from 2-3:30, and I’m always happy to set up other times by email. My unix is meb9.

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