Education Leaders Discuss Sexual Misconduct Issues

Feb 11, 2014

It’s been nearly three years since the federal government issued legal guidelines for universities facing an epidemic of sexual misconduct on campus.  This week, the of Virginia hosts the first conference of its kind – a two-day program for college presidents and other administrators struggling to understand and manage students in the age of hooking up. 


When University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan announced plans for a conference focused on sexual misconduct, she didn’t know what to expect, but 250 spaces for the program quickly filled and the school started a waiting list. 

“This is a genuine problem.  It’s not something we can sweep under the rug, and it seemed to me that every university was struggling on its own to try and figure out how to handle this problem.  If we at least share our ideas with each other, we’ve got a better chance of coming up with a good solution.”

Dealing with cases of sexual misconduct on campus is complex.  Former New York prosecutor Linda Fairstein says universities get involved, in part because law enforcement can’t always do the job.

“Many of these cases would not survive in the criminal justice system – especially if both parties have been using alcohol to the extent that they don’t have a clear memory of what happened the night before.”

And the pressure to deal with this problem is on.  Last month, the White House described an epidemic, with one in five women reporting an assault during her college years.  President Obama set up a task force to protect college students, and demanded a report in 90 days.  He sent a letter of support to the conference and asked Catherine Lhamon, asst. secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Dept. of Education, to spell out government concerns.

“We know that too many universities are still discouraging survivors from filing complaints.  They are still delaying investigations for months or longer.  They are still retaliating against students for speaking out about their assaults.”

Pressure is also coming from students themselves, according to Princeton Vice Provost Michelle Minter:

“Victims have not been taken seriously, and I think  they’re finally just tired of it.  Social media has made it much easier for them to connect and build networks, so I think that’s really been a big part of why it’s accelerating fast.”

And it may be that a growing number of women in high-level university administration has meant more attention to the issue.  Again, UVA President Teresa Sullivan.

“Some of us might have a greater receptivity to the issue.  Students might feel that there should be more sympathy from us, but I think that maybe a bigger impact has been the number of high profile cases that have occurred at a number of universities.”

The conference offered sessions on training students to intervene when they see trouble coming.  There were talks about alcohol, drugs and sexual behavior, and a crash course on how imprecise terminology can cause problems. 

“I attended a session this morning on hooking up.  The nature of the term is that it’s vague, and that vagueness and in fact issues around communications, around clarity and obviously around consent in relationships was one of the issues that was highlighted in that session," says Georgetown's VP for Student Affairs, Todd Olson.

The meeting also welcomed student leaders to advise administrators and share success stories.  UVA student body president Eric McDaniel, who hails from Richmond, said fraternities in Charlottesville had taken this issue to heart.

“As the rush and recruitment process was going on, they hung banners outside with the handprints of all the fraternity men, saying that they wouldn’t be by-standers and would stand up against sexual violence and sexual misconduct.  Over the last four years I’ve certainly noticed the issue become less and less stigmatized.  People are very comfortable talking about this as a problem, and something they care very much about and would like to see an end to.”

The meeting ended with plans for more discussion, as Dartmouth announced a follow-up conference in July.