Why do universities persistently fail to address sexual violence?

The now infamous Miss Pinkham #SweaterDay video brought international attention to Simon Fraser University (SFU) in a way that undermines the hard work that has gone into building SFU’s reputation as a world-class university. This may be about to happen all over again.

Earlier this spring the provincial government ordered all universities in British Columbia to develop a stand-alone Sexual Violence policy. Recent events at the University of British Columbia have amply demonstrated the need for clear and meaningful policies.

Now, before I go any further I have to say that universities are unique places when it comes to sexual violence against students (and I’m limiting my comments to this issue alone). People (usually women but not only) who are raped, assaulted, or harassed by someone on campus or, worse yet, someone in their dormitory, will likely have to find new housing, perhaps drop out of a class (and there is no guarantee that they will not get an F as a result), and sometimes, if the campus is too small or the mere possibility of seeing the person who assaulted them is too unbearable (and why wouldn’t it be?), or if they suffer trauma, they will have little choice but to drop out of school entirely. In Canada, employers are required by law to provide a safe work environment and can be sued if they fail to do so; such is not the case on university campuses.

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, when universities are forced to deal with sexual violence, assault, and harassment, they often do so poorly; sometimes they do nothing at all. (Don’t believe me?  See this Maclean’s story.) There is not enough time to get into all of the reasons why, but certainly one of them is the plain fact that women are not often believed, and that the rights of the accused are protected while complainants do not usually have rights to be protected. Add to this the fact that universities are keen to protect their reputation. No one wants to be known as “Rape U.”

"In 2014 Emma Sulkowics decided to bring light to the important topic of sexual abuse – specifically rape – by carrying around the very mattress on which she was raped on two years prior. This performance would require her to carry the mattress everywhere she went until the school took action regarding her case and the alleged perpetrator was removed from campus forcing Sulkowics to literally carry the weight of the trauma that a rape victim faces while also stripping her of her anonymity and identity as someone more than a ‘victim of rape’. Sulkowics made this work her senior thesis and, with no action taken from the university, continued on to carry the mattress all the way until her graduation." From http://cp.art.cmu.edu/mattress-performance-carry-that-weight-2014-2015-emma-sulkowicz-reference-7/
In 2014 Columbia University student Emma Sulkowics [centre right] drew attention to the important topic of sexual violence by carrying around the very mattress on which she was raped in her dorm room two years prior. She would carry the mattress everywhere she went until the school took action regarding her case and the alleged perpetrator was removed from campus. Sulkowics carried the mattress all the way until her graduation. Photo by Adam Sherman.
 Today Simon Fraser University launches its community consultation process for developing a policy on Sexual Violence and Misconduct. The invitation to participate in today’s open forum explains that:

“The process will result in SFU having a stand-alone policy on Sexual Violence and Misconduct that conforms to recently proposed provincial legislation, but also considers the university community’s distinctive circumstances and perspectives.”

What could possibly be “distinctive” about the “circumstances and perspectives” at SFU regarding sexual violence and misconduct? Are there circumstances on campus that make the issue of sexual violence somehow different than when it occurs off-campus? Is SFU’s perspective on sexual violence distinctive from the perspective of Canadian law or provincial legislation?

This is just one of the red flags in the brief 341-word email announcement about the university-wide process to develop a new Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy.

Another is the method for gathering input to develop the draft policy.

The consultation process is happening over the summer when the least number of people are on campus. In September when the campus population returns to normal numbers, SFU community members will be presented with a draft policy to comment on, so, the consultation process will not be over completely, but a draft of the policy will be done, and it will have been done in the absence of the majority of the campus population. It’s kind of like undertaking in July a study of the habits of snow boarders. No scholarly journal would publish findings collected in such a manner, which begs the question, why would a scholarly institution fail to follow the most basic rules of sound research methods?

As a member of faculty I really want to understand why, twenty-five years after protesting these very same issues [remember when the Canadian Federation of Students’ national “No Means No” date rape awareness campaign posters were defaced at Queen’s University to read “No Means Down on Your Knees, Bitch”? Yeah, that time], sexual violence and assault are still are so poorly handled.

As a member of faculty, I want to walk into my classroom confident that I teach at an institution where sexual assault is not only taken seriously, but handled with extraordinary thoughtfulness according to the best known practices out there, where proper research methods and ethical standards are undertaken to make sure we are doing the best possible job to get there, and that the appropriate resources are committed to the issue. (See the important work being done at Oregon State University, which has very near the same number of students at SFU, and has two Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners on staff. SFU does not have any staff dedicated to handling sexual assault and harassment for students, staff, or faculty.)

Just yesterday I found out that well-known scholar Sara Ahmed did the unthinkable: she resigned from her prestigious position at Goldsmiths “in protest against the failure to address the problem of sexual harassment. I have resigned because the costs of doing this work have been too high.” Yes, universities are distinctive. They are distinctive in their resistance to developing meaningful responses to sexual violence, assault and harassment. But why?

Seriously, why?

“Resignation is a feminist issue,” writes Ahmed. She has yet to detail her experience at Goldsmiths, but I suspect it’s much the same as what’s happening at most institutions of higher learning. (Search “sexual assault” on the Inside Higher Education website.)

Today is Day One of the Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy consultation process, and already I am feeling deeply pessimistic, sadly disappointed, and uncertain of what more I can do.

Text of the announcement:

This message is being sent on behalf of the Office of the Vice-President, Academic. Please direct any inquiries by email to: input@sfu.ca

Simon Fraser University has launched a university-wide process to develop a new Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy.

“Sexual violence and misconduct are completely unacceptable,” said SFU President and Vice Chancellor Andrew Petter. “The fact that they remain a reality on university campuses is deeply disturbing, and obliges us to redouble our efforts to improve our policies and practices.”

Jon Driver, Vice President, Academic, will oversee the policy development process. Driver will collaborate with a small working group to review legislation, examine practices across Canada, gather input from the university community and write a draft policy. Dr. Driver recently asked for nominations from the university community to an advisory committee, which will provide advice to the working group throughout the process.

The process will result in SFU having a stand-alone policy on Sexual Violence and Misconduct that conforms to recently proposed provincial legislation, but also considers the university community’s distinctive circumstances and perspectives. The first stage of the community consultation process will begin in May, with the goal of having a draft policy to share for further input by Fall 2016, and a new policy in place before the end of the year.

In keeping with SFU’s commitment to be an engaged university, President Andrew Petter is urging all members of the university community to participate in the dialogue, which starts with a Town Hall event on May 31.

Town Hall on Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy

May 31, 2016

2 – 4 p.m.

IRMACS Theatre, Burnaby

Room 5380, Surrey HC 1600, Vancouver

If you are not able to participate in person, please submit comments prior to the event by email: input@sfu.ca

All members of the SFU community are invited and encouraged to participate through the Town Hall event, dedicated email address and small stakeholder feedback sessions.

A new web page has been established for regular updates and ways to participate at http://www.sfu.ca/sexual-violence-misconduct-policy-review.

While this new policy is under development, SFU’s existing policies will continue to operate and enable the university to respond to any complaints or reports of sexual violence or misconduct.