September 26, 2014
Special Advisor Update on the first annual Report on Gender-Based Misconduct Prevention and Response, Sept. 26
Suzanne B. Goldberg
Special Advisor to President Bollinger on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response
The University has embraced our community’s attention to our campus climate and, in particular, to issues of sexual violence and other gender-based misconduct as an opportunity for meaningful discussion and action. Indeed, Columbia’s first annual Report on Gender-Based Misconduct Prevention and Response solicits this participation:
“The Report’s central aim is to engage the full University community—students, faculty, administrators, and staff—in creating a climate where all can study, work, and live free from gender-based misconduct, including sexual violence.”
The new Report joins a large array of University actions in recent months—including the adoption of a Gender-Based Misconduct Policy that is one of the best in the nation; the expansion of staff and a second location for our Sexual Violence Response/Anti-Violence and Rape Crisis Center; and the creation of an expanded Gender-Based Misconduct Office with added case managers and highly specialized, highly trained investigators. With these resources—and much more—Columbia provides an extensive network of resources that offers prevention education and support for sexual violence survivors, one that puts the University in a leadership role in the broader movement to address gender-based misconduct on college and university campuses.
Because Columbia, like all colleges and universities, is part of a world in which sexual violence does occur, the University has a special responsibility to communicate to the members of our campus community that sexual violence and other forms of gender-based misconduct are fundamentally contrary to the University’s core values and community standards. Since the start of this academic year, the University has made these expectations clear in numerous ways in addition to the new Report, including President Bollinger’s announcement of the new Gender-Based Misconduct Policy; the reiteration of that policy to all students by the deans; and the expansion of specialized, intensive training in bystander intervention, consent, and sexual violence response in this year’s new student orientation.
Achieving our goals requires a collective effort by our community. Both Columbia’s own “Step Up!” campaign and the White House’s new “It’s On Us” campaign against sexual violence on campus encourage each of us to step up to help change the campus climate, to share information about the University’s resources, and to provide support if sexual violence occurs. To the extent some students still believe there are barriers to accessing the extensive network of confidential counseling, support, and medical services as well as the formal disciplinary process, the University will continue to do all it can to educate community members about these resources.
Here are a few additional thoughts in response to questions that have been raised in connection with the new Report. I encourage you to read the Report yourself, if you haven’t already; much of what I say here you can also find in the Report itself.
Why doesn’t the Report provide information about which sanctions were imposed on students found responsible for various violations or about the schools where respondents were found responsible?
There are several reasons for this approach. Most important is that the University wants students to be able to engage the disciplinary process without fear that the University will publicly disclose their individual case, either now or in the future.
As readers of the Report will see, during the 2013-14 academic year, in each category of offense there are fewer than 10 respondents (i.e. students accused of violating the policy) in formal disciplinary proceedings involving a student accused of any form of gender-based misconduct. You can find this in Tables 3 and 4 on pages 11-12.
Given these small numbers, the University cannot release information about specific sanctions or respondents’ schools without potentially exposing the identity of these students and violating both the strong mandate of the President’s Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault (PACSA) and its own commitment not to speak publicly about individual students involved in disciplinary proceedings.
The data in the Report thus are presented with this “delicate balancing of confidentiality and transparency,” as President Bollinger has said. For these reasons, the Report is not—and cannot be—an accounting of facts in individual cases, but instead is an additional contribution to the important discussion of how we can best prevent and address all forms of gender-based misconduct, including sexual assault, in our community.
Why doesn’t the Report indicate when a respondent has been accused of gender-based misconduct by multiple complainants?
The student confidentiality concerns are similar here. The University wants to encourage all students who experience sexual violence to seek help. It is vital that students not be discouraged or dissuaded from accessing resources, including the disciplinary process, out of concern that the University might some day comment publicly or release information that would identify their complaint. Given the small numbers of disciplinary proceedings, including those for sexual assault, the likelihood is very high that further detail about identities could be used to expose complainants, respondents, or both.
Consider, for example, the number of disciplinary proceedings for Sexual Assault-Non-Consensual Intercourse: 8 in all. To identify which cases involved the same respondent, if any, runs a high risk of exposing individual students. Nevertheless, the Report does provide specific information about the respondents’ status: three were suspended for violating interim measures or are not currently enrolled at the University; four complaints are in the midst of investigation and disciplinary proceedings that have yet to reach conclusion; and one respondent was found not responsible by a hearing panel. (See Table 3 on p. 11).
Finally, while some of the academic literature shows that a small number of students deliberately commit serial offenses at their college or university, my own view is that it is a mistake to think this small group is responsible for all of the sexual violence that occurs on any college or university campus. Instead, as clinical psychologists and other confidential counselors indicate, the array of factors that result in individuals perpetrating sexual assault and other non-consensual sexual contact is complex. This is not to say that serial perpetrators do not exist; rather, the point is that even if a campus, or a broader society, could remove those perpetrators from a community, sexual assault and other forms of gender-based misconduct would not cease to occur. (On this point, a future post to the Sexual Respect website will address issues related to perpetrators of sexual violence in greater depth.)
Why are the reported numbers so low?
As is well known, sexual assault is significantly under-reported both to law enforcement and to colleges and universities. For this reason, too, more detailed information about a small number of individual respondents would not create an accurate picture of any college or university campus, or any surrounding community, for that matter.
The Report addresses some of the reasons for this under-reporting:
“There are many reasons students may choose not to pursue disciplinary action within the University. For some, the trauma leaves them feeling unready to engage in an investigation and disciplinary process that requires further conversation with an investigator and possibly a hearing panel. Others believe they will heal from their experience more quickly if they devote their energy to counseling and/or pursuing a complaint in the criminal justice process. Still others are concerned about the degree to which engaging in a formal disciplinary process will distract their attention from their studies or other campus activities. Some students also indicate that they do not want the other student involved to be subjected to University discipline. While students will and should choose among these alternatives, the University remains committed to providing a supportive, sensitive, and fair process to all parties, so no student need feel dissuaded from reporting violations.”
How does the University try to remove barriers to reporting sexual violence and other forms of gender-based misconduct?
In addition to the many resources noted above, as well as listed on the Sexual Respect website and within the Gender-Based Misconduct Policy, the University takes multiple steps to try to make it as comfortable as possible for students to engage the disciplinary process, including:
- An assurance, as discussed above, that the University will not comment on individual cases
- Case managers within the Gender-Based Misconduct Office who provide personalized guidance for students engaged with the disciplinary process
- No time limits for the filing of reports so that students who have experienced sexual violence or other gender-based misconduct need not feel pressured to file a formal complaint before they are ready. Of course, there is no requirement that students file a formal complaint at any point, and students also receive support from the University if they choose to report their experience to law enforcement
Sexual assault and other forms of gender-based misconduct can be emotionally charged and challenging to talk about for individuals, for our society and across college and university campuses today. What I hope all students and others will take away from this week’s Report and from the wide range of actions that the University has taken—and will continue in the year ahead—is that Columbia continues to listen, act, and work to improve both prevention and response. The University’s commitment to a learning community where everyone can fully participate is fundamental. And it is the members of this community—students, administrators, faculty, and staff—who, together, can make realization of this shared commitment possible.