There was a time when colleges and universities addressed sexual assaults on their campuses quietly and behind the scenes — or ignored them altogether.
That is no longer the case, as many colleges and universities are rightly bringing those issues to light. The University of Texas is among those that are embracing transparency and taking steps to address sexual assaults involving students.
To that end, the University of Texas recently released the results of a survey on sexual violence and misconduct. The results are alarming:
• Fifteen percent of undergraduate women said they had been raped since being enrolled at the flagship campus.
• The majority of the incidents – 87 percent — occurred off campus.
• More than half — 54 percent — of perpetrators were fellow students.
• Forty-four percent of victims reported having “a close relationship” with their perpetrator.
The UT-Austin survey was part of a larger initiative paid for by the UT System Board of Regents, which surveyed 13 institutions in the UT System. It collected data from 26,417 students at UT academic and health institutions in fall 2015 and early 2016. At UT-Austin, 7,684 students participated.
The UT-Austin results are reflective of a troubling campus culture – and of a larger society issue — that fails to emphasize respect of self, others and boundaries. Still, the campus administration has a responsibility to make clear to students, staff and faculty that no type of aggression will be tolerated — on or off campus. To do that, university leaders should focus on improving existing programs on awareness and seek best practices some universities have put in place to dismantle a culture of sexual assaults.
Many universities, including UT-Austin, started openly confronting campus sexual assault since the Obama administration made cracking down on the issue a priority. For example, classes on healthy relationships and on how women and men can avoid being victims are now required courses at some institutions. Some universities are changing the way they investigate reports of sexual misconduct, while others are keeping tabs on fraternities.
It is a much-needed turn for many schools that have for too long tip-toed around the issue of sexual assault.
Similarly, the Texas Legislature is taking aim at ensuring that universities change their campus cultures.
In a bipartisan effort, state Sens. Kirk Watson, D-Austin and Joan Huffman, R-Houston, have filed a total of five bills that would make it harder for universities to cover up sexual assaults, while making it easier to report attacks involving students.
Huffman’s Senate Bill 576 — which was approved by the Texas Senate on Tuesday — would require employees of public and private universities to report allegations of sexual assault, harassment and dating violence to the school’s Title IX coordinator. Those who fail to report an allegation would be fired and could face up to 180 days in jail; employees found to have intentionally concealed a sexual assault could spend up to one year in jail.
Certainly, University of Texas System Regents were right to take a deeper look at what is happening on UT’s campuses instead of disregarding the problems in their midst — as, unfortunately, other universities have chosen to do. Ignoring the issue or sweeping it under the carpet only exacerbates a culture of sexual assault, as many students won’t take the matter seriously. That was a big part of the problem regarding the scandal at Baylor and other universities.
It’s important to note that the UT survey classified “rape” in broader terms than what is classified as sexual assault by the Texas Penal Code. In the survey rape was defined as a behavior involving either force, threat of force, incapacitation or other forms of coercion, such as lies and verbal pressure.
“This survey is a wake-up call to me, as it should be for every student, faculty member and staff member at UT-Austin,” University President Gregory L. Fenves said.
Fenves is right. And, as the UT survey shows, there’s plenty of work to be done.
For instance, most students had never told anyone about the incidents they experienced before taking the survey — and of those who did share their incident, only 6 percent told someone with university services. Those answers illustrate the need for greater transparency and an environment that encourages students to report such incidents. Tragically, when students don’t report sexual assault, the perpetrators are free to strike again — and victims don’t get the counseling and other services they need to cope.
Among the actions the survey recommends the institution take immediately are:
• Engage men in more meaningful ways through new initiatives and programming.
• Develop and implement survivor peer advocacy.
• Expand nonmandatory reporting to include student, faculty and staff ombuds.
• Create a centralized location or service, like a hotline, for reporting incidents, as well as for locating resources and information.
University of Texas leaders would be wise to monitor and follow through with those recommendations, though they must also look outside for solutions that protect victims and respect the due process rights of defendants.