By Richard Pérez-Peña And Kate Taylor (New York Times)
May 3, 2014
Emma Sulkowicz said she knew it would be awful to go before a disciplinary panel and describe being raped by a fellow student, but nothing prepared her for what came next. She said one of the two women on the panel, a university official, asked her, repeatedly, how the painful sex act she described was physically possible.
Already anxious and queasy, Ms. Sulkowicz, a junior at Columbia University, said she felt her body freeze up and her heart race as she tried to answer questions that seemed to her to reveal not just skepticism about her story, but also disturbing ignorance in someone who had supposedly been trained for this role.
“The fact that I had to tell an embarrassing story and then teach them an embarrassing subject on top of that felt really gross,” she recalled in an interview. Worse still, for her, was the outcome: The panel dismissed her accusation — the same result, she said, from sexual assault complaints against the same man that year by two other students.
Ms. Sulkowicz was one of a group of women, identified then only by pseudonyms — she had not yet decided to go fully public — who became the talk of Columbia this past winter, when an article in a student magazine, The Blue and White, described in detail their accounts of being sexually assaulted, and their frustrated searches for aid and justice from the university.
Heated discussions broke out on web pages and in dorm rooms and dining halls, and students demanded changes and staged protests. The university promised to overhaul its policies and held campus meetings. And, most recently, 23 students filed a complaint with the federal government, saying that Columbia’s handling of sexual misconduct violated federal law.
Increasingly, stories like this are playing out at colleges across the country, as more victims go public, more of them file formal federal complaints, a new network of activists makes shrewd use of the law and the media, and the Obama administration steps up pressure on colleges. Last week, a White House task force recommended a set of practices for measuring the problem, educating students and treating both accuser and accused.
While there is scant evidence that sexual assault is more or less prevalent than in the past — or of how Columbia compares with others — the storm of attention has forced university administrators to pay more attention to a largely unfamiliar set of duties, more akin to social work and criminal justice than to education.
And it has exposed what many administrators and experts now say is all too clear, that while the world has been changing, higher education has done a poor job of understanding the shifts and responding to them.
Some experts say women’s participation in the culture of college binge drinking has made them more vulnerable, but advocates say it is a short walk from that to blaming victims.
“It just hasn’t been on most university administrators’ agendas; they don’t know how to approach it, and they just haven’t taken the time to be informed,” said Bonnie S. Fisher, a professor at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Criminal Justice and an author of some of the largest studies of campus sex crimes. “It’s just another issue on their desks that they’re hoping doesn’t cause a loss of students or bad media attention.”
Today dozens of universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Florida State and Ohio State, are under federal investigation for their handling of sexual assault.
The Parental Role
During the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, colleges abandoned their traditional in loco parentis role, complete with rules limiting contact between sexes, for a laissez-faire treatment of students. After that, concerns about sexual conduct primarily addressed contact between faculty members and students, said Nicholas B. Dirks, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley — one of 55 colleges and universities currently under investigation by the Department of Education for their handling of sexual violence — and a former Columbia administrator.
“I worry that, effectively, we forgot about the extent to which we’re dealing with young people who go away from home, and under the name of giving them the space to be adults, we don’t necessarily think hard enough about how we should make sure it’s a safe environment in every possible way,” he said.
Dr. Dirks said some aspects of the problem defied easy responses, like balancing a student’s desire for anonymity against her request that the university enforce physical separation between her and the person she accuses. But he also mentioned flaws he said Berkeley had recently corrected or set out to correct — confusing directions online about where and how to file a misconduct report or get counseling, too few workers in the office handling those issues, inadequate training for the people involved, and a process that steered people toward informal mediation and away from formal complaints.
And some agree that improvements have been made. Colby Bruno, a lawyer at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston who works on campus sexual assault cases, said, “We regularly see schools actually holding attackers responsible, even expelling them, which we just didn’t see just three or four years ago.”
But compliance with federal rules remains in dispute. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 states that no person shall, “on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination” in an educational program supported by the federal government.
Universities have increasingly been told that this means they are required to protect students from sexual harassment and assault. In 2011, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights sent a letter to colleges, putting them on notice that it saw many of them as mishandling sexual assault cases, and that it would use a new, stricter interpretation of their duties under Title IX.
That helped fuel a jump in Title IX complaints filed with the Office for Civil Rights by students against colleges, specifically about their responses to sexual violence — from 11 in the 2009-10 fiscal year to 31 in 2012-13 and 37 in the first eight months of the current year.
At the same time, the Clery Act requires federally financed colleges and universities to disclose the number of cases of sexual assault reported on or near their campuses each year.
Four years ago, a student at Tufts University alleged that the university had delayed investigating her complaint of assault and had not protected her from her assailant. In a long-running investigation, the Department of Education acknowledged progress the university had made, but insisted on harsher terms than it has imposed on other schools, including a finding that Tufts had violated the law under Title IX. Tufts initially said it would agree to the resolution, and then, last week, it refused, setting up a showdown that could, in theory, lead to its being stripped of federal funding.
The Obama administration has told universities they must use a “preponderance of the evidence” standard in deciding whether to hold an accused student responsible, not the stricter “clear and convincing” rule many used. Some civil libertarians have cried foul, and public universities have asked whether the rule could conflict with the due process rights they, as arms of the states, must give the accused.
And some conservatives have questioned the premise that sexual assault is a major campus problem. Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, recently wrote, “The reality on campuses is not a rape epidemic but a culture of drunken hookups with zero normative checks on promiscuous behavior.”
In surveys, a majority of the students who say they have been sexually assaulted say that they were under the influence of alcohol at the time, and often the assailants were, too. At Columbia last week, students expressed a range of opinions about the problem.
Shaun Abreu, 23, a senior, who was outside Low Memorial Library, said he thought sexual assault was a serious problem. But his friend, who declined to give his name, said he thought that women sometimes exaggerated.
“There’s bad decisions all around, and I think the biggest problem around this is alcohol,” the friend said. Just as a man might get too sexually aggressive when drunk, he said, a woman could also get more aggressive and a man might misinterpret that as meaning that she wanted to have sex. “The lines get really blurred,” he said.
Mr. Abreu and a third friend, who gave his name only as Charles, agreed that the university’s single effort to educate students about sexual consent — in a 50-minute session during freshman orientation — was woefully inadequate.
Another factor, college officials and students say, is that the stigma that has kept most rape victims silent, while still strong, has eased, leading to a sharp increase in the number of attacks reported to college officials.
“You can’t underestimate the importance of these people having the courage to come forward,” said Nancy Chi Cantalupo, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law School who has researched and written on campus sex crimes.
It was eight months before Ms. Sulkowicz of Columbia reported the alleged assault and an additional year before she went public.
In an interview last week, she said she had been assaulted at the beginning of her sophomore year in 2012. The accused, as is often the case in college, was someone she considered a friend, a man with whom she had had consensual sex twice the previous school year.
They went to her room. She said she had not been drinking. They started to have sex, she said, but then he began to choke her, slapped her face, pinned her arms and penetrated her anally. She said she had screamed for him to stop, but that he would not.
“It could take two minutes for it to stop, or he could have strangled me to death,” she said.
The university’s adjudication process, she said, left her feeling even more traumatized and unsafe. “I’ve never felt more shoved under the rug in my life,” she said.
She said that the university investigator had taken inaccurate and incomplete notes, that the man she had accused had been granted months of postponements and that she had been warned, repeatedly, that she could not discuss the case with anyone.
Legally, universities cannot bar students from talking about events they have experienced, or from discussing the outcome of a disciplinary case once it is finished. But many do prohibit talking about the proceedings, which are confidential. In fact, the only person disciplined by Columbia in Ms. Sulkowicz’s case was a friend overheard speaking about it and was required to write two essays, one from the point of view of Ms. Sulkowicz and the other from that of the alleged assailant, explaining how her breach had affected each of them.
When the hearing finally came last fall, Ms. Sulkowicz said, she struggled to respond to a panelist who seemed to believe that anal sex without lubrication is impossible. Then she heard the accused student testify that she had imagined that he had coerced her.
A week later, she got an email informing her that the panel had held the man “not responsible.”
“I didn’t even cry at first,” she said softly, recalling that moment. “I don’t know. Has anything ever happened to you that was just so bad that you felt like you became a shell of a human being?”
Asked to respond, Michael K. Dunn, Columbia’s deputy Title IX coordinator, said in an interview that he believed Columbia had a good process for handling sexual assault cases, but that the magazine article featuring Ms. Sulkowicz’s case nonetheless prompted soul-searching by the administration.
“My key takeaway was that, even if that picture didn’t match my experience, this is what students believed happened and this is what they experienced,” he said, adding, “If that’s the way students experience the process, then we have problems.”
The university declined to discuss Ms. Sulkowicz’s case or provide the panel’s rationale for its findings, saying that it was prohibited from doing so by federal law.
It is clear that many students have grown furious over the university’s handling of sexual assault cases. A campus meeting in March drew a raucous, overflow crowd. In early April, student activists with red tape over their mouths tried to enter an event for prospective freshmen, to hand out letters encouraging the students to press university officials for details about resources available to victims of sexual assault. The next day, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, visited Columbia to call for federal funding to improve handling of college sexual assault cases.
Columbia says it has changed some of its policies. Now two investigators, rather than one, carry out the initial interviews and take notes. The confidentiality policy has been eased to make it clear that accusers can seek support from friends and family. And the university is planning to beef up the consent education program for freshmen from 50 minutes to two hours and to add additional sessions throughout the year.
Ms. Sulkowicz has channeled some of her frustration into action, appearing with Senator Gillibrand last month to speak out, and joining in the federal complaint against Columbia.
Following what is becoming a well-worn path, the activists at Columbia have been advised by counterparts from around the country. Over the last few years, they have formed a national network of current and former students, spreading from campus to campus what they have learned about drafting complaints, dealing with administrators and appealing to the media. And they have disproportionately targeted prestigious universities where allegations draw the most attention.
For some, advocacy has become all but a full-time job.
“No school wanted to talk about this and scare away prospective students,” said one of those activists, Dana Bolger, who graduated in December from Amherst College. “We’ve hit them where it hurts: their reputations.”