News stories identifying and exposing universities’ poor response to students’ disclosures of sexual harassment victimization gets major media coverage today. Why is it that Michigan State University did not immediately address the behaviors of Dr. Larry Nasser? Why didn’t Penn State University disclose the behavior of Coach Jerry Sandusky with young boys at university sponsored sports camps? Why didn’t the University of Michigan aggressively address the complaints of many football players relating to the assaults by team doctor Dr. Robert Anderson? Why do many universities across the country continue to ignore Title IX requirements for disclosure? The answer revolves around three words: ignorance, arrogance, and ultimately reputation.
It has been my experience that many university administrators across the country are completely unaware of the seriousness of sexual aggression. Perhaps these administrators are ignorant of the laws concerning sexual assault, harassment, stalking and partner violence as well as the realities of sexual aggression. Quite frequently university officials blame survivors, choosing to not believe disclosures, or they minimize the effects due to either a lack of knowledge of the true dynamics of sexual aggression or they arrogantly believe they can suppress the facts to protect the university.
Under-reporting incidents of sexual misconduct continues to be common, unfortunately
It is wrong and a violation of trust for colleges and universities to put the reputation of their institution above the well-being of their students. Underreporting and minimizing incidents are strategies some university administrators employ to keep numbers low. Why? There is a belief by many that high numbers of reported incidents of sexual aggression are bad, indicating an unsafe environment. Conversely the belief that low numbers of reports are good indicates a safer campus. Actually the opposite is true. We know sexual assault, harassment, stalking and partner violence happen at all colleges and universities. Generally speaking when reported numbers are high it means students feel a certain level of confidence disclosing what has happened to them, indicating the university has a student centered process and in fact cares. When students have a perception that the university discourages reporting and in fact ignores student concerns, students are much less likely to report. High numbers of reports indicates student trust in the system. Low numbers indicate a lack of faith in the system. Simple, but a concept some university administrators ignore.
Institutional loyalty on the part of arrogant administrators coupled with a misguided belief they know what is best for the university does harm to students and frequently results in irreparable harm to the university's reputation. For Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Penn State University to believe that not disclosing the real crimes that people within their university community have perpetrated, is self-serving and wrong. Driven by the desire to protect the university at the expense of students generally backfires to the point where the damage is far greater than if they had merely done the right thing and addressed issues up front.
What needs to be done by universities to address sexual aggression:
Replace arrogance with integrity. Having the integrity and courage to realize one may have the right to minimize and ignore disclosures, but understand it is not the right thing to do.
Educate decision makers about the realities of sexual aggression to give them tools to make decisions that respect students and the Title IX process.
Finally, make the well-being of the university community a priority, and its reputation will follow.
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