Some Thoughts on Campus Sexual Assault and Campus Leadership

Martin D. Robbins believe schools need presidents and board members who see sexual assault for what it is: a criminal act.

Now long retired, I spent a good portion of my career as a senior administrator at several American universities and as a consultant to numerous institutions of higher learning. At most, if not all such institutions, sexual assault is an issue of latent concern, but seldom talked about and, when it does occur, often swept under the rug. That is, except when a public relations disaster hits.

When issues of campus sexual assaults become public, there is an apparent explosion of action by the very administrations that have tried hard to avoid the underlying issue of campus culture; witness the recent response of Amherst College to questions now being raised in public about the campus culture. There is apparently little wrong with the Amherst administrative response, but why did it take a looming public relations disaster to bring about administrative action?

From my experience, good leadership in the matter of sexual assault, as well as other matters of major public concern, must come from the top, from the governing board and the president. However, why is it that the pressure for leadership and change always seems to come from the bottom, from students, faculty and staff?

Leadership on dealing with campus sexual assault must come from board members and a president who recognize it for what it is, a criminal act.  And, criminal acts should never be swept under the rug.

I was fortunate in having worked for five wonderful presidents, true decent human beings, each with a genuine sense of right and wrong. Unfortunately, in the positions I held I did have to deal with issues such as campus rape and, in one case, the murder of a young woman by a campus security officer. Responding was never an easy task. But, the presidents for whom I worked never treated criminal acts such as sexual assault as anything other than what they were, criminal acts. Focus was always upon the victim and the victim’s family.

Each of these presidents was different in age, background and ethnicity (all were men). They had varying views on what a college or university should look like, how it should be governed and the role of faculty. These presidents were the leaders of both public and private universities.

What they did have in common was their belief that a president’s position included moral and ethical leadership, both on and off the campus.


As I said, I was fortunate. After a recent  family experience with campus sexual assault my regard for these presidents has only increased. They probably represent a dying breed of American college presidents: those with enough personal integrity and a sense of morality, to speak out publicly and to try to change a campus culture.

As we all know, cultures do not change overnight. Cultural change is a long, slow and difficult task. Change doesn’t happen by itself but only by the exercise of long-standing, committed leadership. It takes more than a change in policies and procedures after a public relations disaster hits a campus to change a culture.

Delving too deeply into higher education leadership and change is sort of like inside baseball: important for those involved but often a bore for those on the outside. So, let me just tackle one aspect of what these presidents brought to their institutions. They all believed in higher education as an ethical calling. In that sense they were “old school.”

They all had the courage to speak out about injustice, whether on campus or in the outside world. One president had the courage to defend the right of the Black Student Union to invite a notoriously anti-Semitic speaker to the campus, facing the wrath of the local Jewish community. Another took on his board on a critical issue to academic integrity in athletics.

In this politically charged world, how did they get away with it? One didn’t. He lost his job over the athletic issue. But he learned a great deal from that experience: his job was to lead the governing board on issues of critical importance to the institution.

I learned a great deal from him. There was never a day that went by that he was not in telephone contact with one or more board members; there was never a week that went by that he was not in face-to-face contact with one or more board members. He was leading the board on issues that mattered. He was dominating the board without being domineering.

If we want to change a campus culture, boards need to select presidents who have the moral integrity, staying power and grit that it takes to go public, to lead a board and a diverse campus community, and to speak out to the institution’s various stakeholder groups on what is right and what is wrong, whether that be in matters of sexual assault, race, or student and faculty honesty.

I no longer know how much weight current campus search committees give to these criteria. Perhaps this is where real change can start.

This article is a followup to “The Death of Innocence at Amherst College“. Mr. Robbin’s comment on that article, featured here, is worth reading and understanding in the context of this issue.



main image photo by mattjiggins / flickr


About Martin D. Robbins

Martin Robbins has spent much of his career working with higher education and nonprofit organizations, including service as a vice president at the University of Toledo and the Colorado School of Mines. He has worked in both the public and private sectors, including stints as an engineer, business journalist, research manager, federal government official and higher education administrator. He served in the Johnson administration where his efforts focused on technology and economic development. He holds degrees from Tufts University and MIT.


  1. Not buying it says:

    Mistake typing the year 2012, actually it should be ( 2011)for the stat but it did come out about couple of months ago in September 2012.

  2. wellokaythen says:

    Part of the problem is the enormous focus that administrations place on “branding” their colleges’ reputations. Push the press releases on all the great things the school is doing, the feathers in your cap, and all the great reasons as an alum to add to the endowment. When something is necessary but not very marketable, like creating a more effective anti-harassment policy, that just naturally doesn’t draw as much energy. You won’t get more applicants or more donors by celebrating a new policy against sexual harassment, so that’s not a high priority. In fact, it may draw more negative attention, because a) why didn’t you have a policy before this? or b) why are you having a problem with sexual harassment?

    On the list of things that applicants, students, students’ parents, and alumni are obsessed with, this is generally low on the list. That doesn’t make it right to ignore it, but it’s a function of the larger institutional culture. Things that are in “more demand” or “advance the mission” tend to get a higher priority than things that are just basic human decency. That’s a huge problem all across higher ed, and sexual harassment is just one of the more heinous examples.

    Another issue that cannot be ignored is the possibility that any new policy can be exploited for personal and political gain. Such a policy will always give more power to some people relative to others, and academic institutions tend to be very conservative about changing the power dynamics. Never underestimate how petty academic politics can be. Any administration has to face the possibility of false accusations or other kinds of legal liability. If the college is only thinking about the bottom line, people can sue over unfairness in either direction. There’s a risk of damaging lawsuits either way.

    In any event, it can take a lot of courage for a President or board of directors to take a more active step. At my undergrad institution, the governing board brought in a President who was essentially a drop-in hatchet man. His job was to create a clear, strict, anti-sexual harassment policy and a clear anti-drug policy, take all the flak and backlash because of it, and then leave. Everyone knew his term was meant to be temporary and he was there to push something through. It’s absurd looking back on it that the college actually had NO explicit policy against sexual harassment, and no stated policy against the use of illegal drugs. Just getting the administration and faculty to write down something really vague was like pulling teeth.


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