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A Stunted Revolution

News & Features | October 5, 2014

On September 19th, President Obama unveiled a new public service campaign aimed at combatting sexual assault on college campuses. The initiative, titled “It’s on Us,” aims to motivate young people to take greater action and responsibility in the fight to end sexual assault amongst college students. Obama challenged Americans to “fundamentally shift the way [they] think about sexual assault,” calling upon major pop figures like Jon Hamm, Kerry Washington and Questlove—all featured in a 30-second video debuted at the event—to communicate his message to the millennial generation.

“The campaign is building on the momentum that’s already being generated on college campuses,” Obama said, referring to the highly publicized student protests that erupted last spring following the release of a list of 55 colleges and universities being investigated by the Department of Education for their mishandling of sexual assault cases.

The idea of making the process through which the government and schools address sexual violence on campus more transparent has been a recurring theme in recent political discourse surrounding the issue. Last spring, the White House launched NotAlone.gov, which coincided with its release of a series of new guidelines designed to put pressure on schools to address sexual misconduct on campus. In addition to providing students and schools with information on how to respond to and prevent sexual violence on college campuses, the site also tracks the enforcement activity of school-level sexual violence policies. The site’s interactive map tracks schools that have resolved issues regarding their enforcement of sexual assault response policies on campus.

But is the revitalized national conversation surrounding sexual assault on college campuses being limited only to the ivory tower arena of elite, liberal schools?

The “School-by-School Enforcement Map” from NotAlone.gov reveals that a majority of the schools with resolved cases are clustered around the northeast region of the United States, particularly in New England. This region of the US is home to many of the country’s “elite” universities. Additionally, this region is largely Democratic and liberal. Of the 55 schools being investigated for potential mishandling of sexual misconduct cases, 37 are located in Democratic states. Nineteen are located in the northeast—the smallest geographic region in the country, and the most represented region on the list.

Moreover, of the 55 schools under federal investigation, 17 of them—approximately one-third—rank among the 35 top national universities, as determined by U.S. News and World Report, which categorizes their admissions standards as being “most selective.”

But the schools on the list may not be the ones with the worst policies. In an interview with The Washington Post, Ada Meloy, from the general counsel of the American Council on Education, expressed a need for caution when interpreting the list and the types of schools that comprise it. Meloy suggested that the list isn’t necessarily indicative of the schools with the worst policy standards regarding sexual assault, but instead signifies “what the level of [the government’s] workload is in this area at the moment.”

Amanda Hess, a commentator for Slate, also took note of the distribution of schools represented on the list of 55, which she wrote was “dominated by some of the most prestigious (and costly) colleges in the country.” Citing the “embarrassment and scrutiny” that victims of sexual assault must often face when speaking out about their experiences, Hess claimed that federal inquiries into college sexual misconduct policy are more likely to target schools where there is less stigma against speaking out about sexual violence and “where students have more support from parents or professors to pursue these claims, and where students are plugged in to media networks that help raise awareness for their struggles.” This type of school environment, Hess suggests, is more common in the “elite” institutions that regularly top the U.S. News rankings.

But Hess is not the first to suggest a possible correlation between college rankings and which schools might become more engaged in the revolution of how sexual violence on campus is addressed.

In April, 12 House members requested that U.S. News incorporate sexual misconduct and prevention information into its yearly college rankings. “The issue has not been taken seriously enough,” said Representative Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who is leading the initiative. “I think when it starts to affect your rankings on the U.S. News and World Report ‘bible,’ as it’s received by both universities and parents evaluating colleges with their kids, then we’ll see things change.”

In a piece for The Atlantic, however, journalist Sarah Mimms warned that this practice, if adopted, could “unfairly prejudice prospective students against universities that have a strong record of reporting rapes.” Tara Culp Ressler, Health Editor for ThinkProgress, echoed a similar sentiment in April, noting that “college administrators don’t want to do anything to communicate to prospective students that their school is an unsafe place to attend, and many of them worry that publicizing efforts to reform the way they handle rape will send that message.”

Others, however, like sexual assault prevention coordinator Daniel Rappaport, remain positive that increased transparency will actually motivate schools to take action in sexual misconduct prevention. “Colleges taking a stand on it won’t be saying ‘we have a problem’—rather, they’ll be one of many voices, coming from the federal government down, saying that we want to do this better,” said Rappaport. “It gives them a unified opportunity to avoid that bad press and really frame this in a positive way.”

It should be noted, however, that while the movement to address college sexual violence seems to predominantly surround elite universities, a wide spectrum of schools have fallen under the spotlight of the federal investigation launched last spring. Among the schools included on the list of Title IX violators were Ivy League institutions like Dartmouth, Princeton and Harvard; other elite universities like the University of Chicago, the University of Southern California, and Tufts; and also schools like the University of Kentucky and Eastern Michigan University.
Additionally, reputation and prestige seemed to play little role in the punishment the targeted schools received as result of failing to abide by proper sexual-misconduct policy. While Yale University was fined $165,000 for failing to disclose several sexual assault offenses, Eastern Michigan University was fined $350,000 for failing to send out a campus alert when a student was not only sexually assaulted, but killed. The Department of Education also reached a significant settlement with the University of Montana at Missoula after their sexual misconduct policies were deemed insufficient. Thus, all spheres of the higher education world, regardless of prestige or political affiliation, are ultimately susceptible to the heightening standards of sexual misconduct policy.

Still, it remains to be seen how and if “It’s on Us” will engage the broad scope of schools and student populations affected by sexual assault as it gains traction in its quest to motivate millennials in the fight against sexual violence on campus. Will the newly revitalized national conversation surrounding sexual assault on campus—still building momentum—engage only with America’s most elite, or will it extend beyond the walls of the ivory tower?