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.