Changing Institutional Culture to Curb Sexual Assault

Changing Institutional Culture to Curb Sexual Assault

Karen Gross 02/01/2019 6

Last year, the New Yorker published a detailed study on sexual assault on campuses and what can enable change. I laud the researchers and their preliminary conclusions and look forward to the many papers they produce from their extensive data.

One of the key conclusions is that the campus environment and messaging matter -- they matter buckets. And, there are ways to enable change. That's positive. As someone who has spent decades on campuses (as a student, as a professor, as a president, as a speaker and advisor), I think many of us know the power of place and space and its messaging. Social norming is key. And social norming campaigns, which were in vogue some years ago, have value. Good to have research support instincts and observations.

But, here's a message I think come through this piece loud and clear: campuses have an obligation to self-reflect on the environment and messaging they themselves both create and tolerate. I am reminded of the horrific stories at St. Paul's School -- a topic on which I have written at some length (link provided). Graduating high school students were known to have sex with first year students as a tradition and then memorialize their quests through marks on a wall in the laundry room. This went on for years. Do you mean to tell me that no one knew on campus? Please. I wasn't born yesterday.

I am not excusing for one nano-second the behavior of the perpetrator -- Owen Labrie in this instance. Nor am I excusing any student on that campus. But, as with college campuses, what we see is often not shared or discussed. Silencing has a remarkable power to create amnesia in leaders.

Here's my final observation (and I hope folks will read these cited pieces). Not to be political but our President says it is treasonous for people not to stand for him at the SOTU. Really? Here's one thing that really is both treasonous and treacherous: institutions that are unwilling, unable or uncomfortable seeing what messaging and environment permeate their institutions and then fail to exhibit the courage to create change. Students have been and continue to be damaged by institutional failure. Yes, there is individual student aggressor behavior that is deeply damaging and must be punished. But stopping there is insufficient. Institutions: the ball is in your court (so to speak). Time to act. Now.

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  • Lee Marsden

    100% accurate

  • Jason Brown

    People should realise how important this article is, for both boys and girls. This happens to every kind of person.

  • Yu Sen

    Sexual assault is just wrong.

  • Justin Marshall

    We also need to understand that people can lie about sexual assault and interpret acts as sexual assault that are not sexual in nature. We also need to make a registry for false accusers like we have a registry for sex offenders. If an accusation does not result in conviction then then the accuser's name should automatically be added to the false accusers registry.

  • Victoria Kempe

    This helped me because this actually happened to me

  • Andrew Daley

    This could happen to anybody! A family member, A classmate, Or yourself!

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Karen Gross

Higher Education Expert

Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and  Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.


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