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Donation checks go unsigned in protest over campus sexual assault

Some former students withhold donations as a way of sending a message about campus sexual assault policies

In the fight against sexual assault on campus, alumni of prestigious colleges and universities have started campaigns to push for change. But some want to take their activism a step further and hit their schools where it would hurt the most: endowments.

Nearly 20 percent of women are sexually assaulted while they are college students, according to government statistics, and 55 colleges are under federal investigation for their handling of sexual assault complaints. Many activists say universities are not doing enough, and some think that withholding donations might help pressure schools to do more.

“At the moment, personally, I will not be writing a check,” said Lisa Paige, president of the alumnae group Harvard Women, who said she had been a donor for years.

Harvard University, one of the richest and most powerful educational institutions in the world, raised nearly $800 million from donors last year — the second most among U.S. universities. It is aiming for $6.5 billion in the next four years — the largest fundraising drive in the history of higher education, according The Harvard Crimson newspaper.

One person denying cash to the institution is unlikely to make much of a dent. But those keeping their checkbooks closed hope that doing so will at least send a clear message to administrators that the current response to campus assault is inadequate.

“We know that there are disaffected Harvard alumni who do not wish to contribute to this campaign,” Paige told Al Jazeera. She said her organization would not discourage alumni from making donations — but if they want to direct their money elsewhere to protest their alma mater’s policies, her group will provide a list of alternatives, such as nonprofit organizations that fight sexual assault.

“Right now, we’re about dialogue,” she said. “Yet there’s an issue here that we cannot remain silent about.”

That point was echoed at other campuses across the country.

Susy Struble, a Dartmouth College alumna, co-founded Dartmouth Change — a coalition of students, faculty, alumni and community members that advocates for more effective action against sexual violence on campus. She told Al Jazeera that the issue of withholding donations is fraught with conflicting interests.

“Influencing donations is a very attractive action, but it’s very complex,” Struble said. “Donations to colleges directly help students, and we are acting out of care and concern for students and colleges, so there’s some tension.”

“For many of these people, it’s a point of pride to be able to donate — a show of pride and a form of self-enhancement too. So it’s a complex dynamic,” she said, noting that some donors may not want to jeopardize their children’s prospects as legacy students. “It’s a very difficult thing to disrupt.”

But she said the fact that she receives about 12 emails a week from alumni who express their support for her campaign — and often wish to have nothing to do with their alma mater anymore — makes the topic one that “we discuss often.”

Dartmouth College did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Harvard Communications Director Jeff Neal said in a statement emailed to Al Jazeera that the school takes “the issue of sexual harassment and sexual violence extremely seriously” and “has taken a number of steps to foster prevention efforts and to support students who have experienced sexual misconduct.” These steps include the appointment of a first-ever university Title IX officer and the creation of a task force “that will recommend how we can better prevent sexual misconduct at Harvard.” Title IX is a federal law that bars gender discrimination in institutions that receive funds from the Department of Education.

Alumni at Occidental College call on the school’s president to act.
Juliet Suess / The Occidental Weekly

Some alumni from Los Angeles’ Occidental College, which has also recently drawn scrutiny over its handling of reported sexual assaults, are taking a more explicit approach to using donations as a lever for change.

“My wife and I have donated to Oxy [Occidental] just about every year since we graduated in ’83. But Oxy will not get one dime from us” until those responsible are fired and policies are changed, Larry Hogue posted on his alma mater’s Facebook page last year. He said he instead donated to the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition — a group of students, faculty and staff advocates — and would probably do the same this year. His post spurred a lively discussion in which Judy Lam, an alumna and a former member of the Occidental College Alumni Board of Governors, argued that such a tactic would deprive the school of resources and “only limit those we want to help.”

“It’s the student who we care about when we support the school,” she told Al Jazeera. “We need to get the facts straight first,” she added, and engage schools “in a way that’s positive and productive. Many feel like there’s been great progress.”

Elizabeth Amini, an Occidental alumna and a self-described point of contact for “a concerned group of alumni,” told Al Jazeera their talk of withholding donations and reducing the number of applications “isn’t an empty threat.”

“[We] are opting to give collaboration with the administration a try before escalating,” she wrote in an email to Al Jazeera. But she said that if school officials don’t take steps to make the campus safer before orientation in August, some alumni plan to contact all major donors and admissions counselors across the country. 

“[Their] job is to provide safety and education. And if [they] can’t, everything else — fundraising, school rankings — is secondary,” she said. 

Occidental’s President Jonathan Veitch said in an emailed statement that his goal is to “ensure the safety of all students.” Recent steps toward that outcome include hiring a Title IX coordinator, reviewing policies and procedures, launching a 24/7 hotline and doubling the resources directed to a student-run advocacy program, according to the statement.

Dear Harvard, you win?

Paige of Harvard Women said that by working with the alumnae organization to exert pressure on Harvard’s administration on the issue, “we feel like we will have more of a voice.”

She said a Harvard senior’s account of the alleged mishandling of her sexual assault case, titled “Dear Harvard, you win,” triggered a memory of the time that she was raped at the college. After a later incident of alleged harassment by a staff member, she said she tried to seek help from her resident tutor but received an answer that is all too familiar to many survivors of sexual assault on campus.

“He said, ‘Forget about it. You’re a senior. You’re not going to win.’ It affected the rest of my life.”

Dartmouth alumna Struble said the culture on many campuses has contributed to the problem. She said her alma mater was the last Ivy League school to go co-educational, “with a reputation of being a little bit on the conservative side and a very particular idea of masculinity.”

Critics say a frat culture led to insensitivity in the past.

Dartmouth’s mascots have included a Native American man, and when that was considered inappropriate in the 1970s, an anthropomorphic beer barrel called Keggy the Keg unofficially took his place.

Some students have formed grass-roots alliances with alumni across the country to address issues of gender-based violence. One group, Harvard Students Demand Respect, has representatives of nine graduate schools who work with the university’s task force against sexual assault on campus. At the University of Southern California the Student Coalition Against Rape works with survivors to advocate for better handling of cases. 

Numerous complaints filed by such student groups with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights led to the establishment in January of a White House task force, which issued recommendations last week to improve the handling and prevention of sexual assault on campus. On Thursday the Department of Education released the names of 55 colleges and universities that are under investigation for violating Title IX. The department issued a statement saying the move was meant to “bring more transparency to our enforcement work and to foster better public awareness of civil rights.”

The problem has reached staggering proportions.

The White House Council on Women and Girls says that nearly 1 in 5 college women is sexually assaulted by the time she graduates, with just 12 percent of them reporting the assaults — a much lower rate than the estimated 40 percent of assaults that are reported by the general population, according to the Department of Justice.

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