Is Your University’s Programming Complicit, Compliant, or Comprehensive?
By Dale Thomas Vaughn
A dozen years ago I stepped into a triage unit of a war zone, the front lines of a tragic conflict where survivors were very likely to have been targets of sexual assault and other violence, where the only answer to their trauma was a silent, hidden healing process fraught with ostracization, where the systems around them failed to prevent the dangerous situations and rarely, if ever to bring perpetrators to justice.
This triage unit was a dorm room at one of the top private universities in the geographic middle of the United States.
I realized after a few years counseling survivors and working to help the healing process that I wanted to be more than a band-aid. I went looking to find a cure… a vaccine for this illness among men. We don’t have one yet; but over the years we’ve developed some valuable prevention tools that have been shown to reduce sexual coercion and violence.
One of the keys to prevention is what’s broadly called Bystander Intervention, and it goes hand in hand with any given culture’s understanding of healthy masculinity.
I’ve spent a decade working at the front lines of the social masculinities trying to end pandemic sexual violence, including consulting school administrators and fraternity leaders on prevention programming and building cultures of healthy masculinity.
Along the way I’ve seen the consistent roadblocks that administrators encounter while attempting to make real change. If you are trying to bring effective change to your campus, here are the pitfalls you will need to navigate.
Every administrator, faculty or staff member at a college runs into one or many of these problems when trying to build sexual assault prevention programming:
- Diffuse Responsibility. At this point in time, the research is inarguable. Everyone acknowledges there is a serious problem with sexism and sexual violence on campus. This ubiquitous awareness of this ubiquitous crime creates a vast diffusion of responsibility, resulting in a fully aware yet totally complicit culture of sexual violence. Everybody knows, everybody turns their heads. Interestingly this is also called the “Bystander Effect” – made famous by the Kitty Genovese case when 38 people witnessed a woman being raped and murdered and did not intervene.
- Compassionate Complacency. You want desperately to fix the problem, but don’t know how, so you expect someone else to fix it or tell you how to fix it. This is the helpless feeling of waiting for some kind of hero or leader to emerge and offer the easy solution to the problem.
- Siloed Power. Who’s in charge? The Title IX coordinator? The Student Life leadership? The Residence Life leadership? The Gender/Women’s Center? The Counseling Center? Once upon a time there was a faculty member called the “Dean of Men” who might have addressed this. Who now? Task forces have been formed to help solve this issue, but who has the ability to pull the trigger on the cost of what amounts to a campus-wide, annually-ongoing peer education program that requires research, frequent management, PR, and legal counsel involvement? Which leads to…
- Siloed Responses. The messages from residence life don’t match those of the counseling center, the women’s center, the athletics department, PR, or the legal counsel… so who controls the message?
- Siloed Information. Who is gathering the reports of sexual violence? And who is gathering reports of situational risk? And who is gathering reports of sexual crime? And who is gathering the reports of survivors of sexual violence? And who is gathering the reports of bystanders? This information is decentralized and creates confusion. Thus the multiple siloed responses.
- Siloed Funds. When multiple departments (including athletics and Greek life) are involved, where should the money come from? Does this come out of the student fund (commonly used to invest in programs, workshops, or public speakers)? The total investment in sexual assault prevention needs to be collected into a single fund on campus, with a governing committee.
- Changing Compliance Requirements.Which guidelines do you need to use, and how do you know you are meeting them? Since Title IX, the DCL, Clery, and now Obama’s involvement, this compliance level has been moving… which list of guidelines is comprehensive and how do you know you’re being fully compliant? Do you need an on-campus coordinator for each list? Without choosing a set of guidelines, you will continue to experience the fog of war.
- Unclear Programming Marketplace. Even if you had all of your ducks in a row internally, which program should you use to do prevention? Should you make your own? The market is swelling with practitioners, few of whom have a verifiable track record of statistical success with prevention. You need help determining who is effective.
- Investment vs. PR/Legal Cost Savings. The budget only covers programming so far as is “compliant.” After this level, any investment has to be weighed against “legal cost prevention” or “PR crises averted” – which presupposes that rape must already exist and be prosecuted to the fullest extent in order for the university to see the “value” of investment. You are fighting the ghost of a future lawsuit, and you need to help other administrators see the value of prevention before it’s too late. You need another method for measuring bottom line cost to the campus.
- Indefinite Timelines. Since 2/3 of incidents of sexual violence involve a first-year student victim, you are going to need to do this type of programming every year, indefinitely. The good news is that excellent prevention programming has been proven to decrease unwanted sexual incidents by as much as 40-50%. These effects compound over time, and your investment in prevention programming changes your entire campus culture to create and sustain this momentum.
There are ways to avoid and quickly overcome these roadblocks, mostly starting with organization, leadership, and political will power. If you are willing to move forward, consider these roadblocks and what you will do in order to overcome them.
There are millions of future survivors of sexual violence who depend on you.
Photo by Flickr/ngader