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.
main image photo by mattjiggins / flickr