Ben Murray

When schools put their brands before assaulted students

As colleges go corporate, strategies for dealing with sexual violence focus on risk management, not justice

June 10, 2014 12:30AM ET

Avoid mistakes: Congressional investigations bring collateral risks, such as litigation or regulatory risks, public relations risks and reputational harm. Remember: What will play well on TV?

That’s the advice that a top education lobby group presented to colleges and universities on how to respond to a survey that Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., distributed in April to assess schools’ handling of sexual violence on their campuses. McCaskill, who championed reform of the military’s response to sexual assaults in its ranks, is now tackling campus rape. In addition to the survey, which went out to 350 schools, she has held two congressional round tables to take stock of campus policies. She is expected to introduce legislation on the issue later this month.

The American Council on Education’s (ACE) presentation — which was obtained by McCaskill’s office last week and “troubled” her “extremely” — doles out advice on how to deal with the survey but fails to mention either sexual assault victims’ needs or possible solutions. It exemplifies everything that’s wrong with schools’ responses to one of today’s most significant safety and civil rights challenges.

ACE’s exaggerated concern for universities’ reputations and bottom lines is part and parcel of the growing corporatization of higher education. Colleges pour dollars and energy into marketing their particular brands to the nation’s students (and their parents), competing for top spots on U.S. News and World Report’s best colleges list. Reputation, not education, is the goal. As schools model themselves after corporations, they are increasingly adopting the bureaucratic administrative structures and risk management strategies of the corporate world. In the last decade, administrative influence has grown, with administrative spending skyrocketing 36 percent while faculty spending increased only 22 percent. Universities have hired personnel committed exclusively to brand management and the mitigation of reputational risk. According to a 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education report, membership in the University Risk Management and Insurance Association doubled in the last decade; according to its website, the ACE represents some 1,800 higher-ed institutions.

To universities seeking to protect their brand, the potential hazards are great: Hazing, academic cheating, student suicide and sexual violence have all become risks that must be managed and mitigated. An entire legal-PR apparatus has developed around campus rape, with law firms and the education lobby profiting off universities’ fear (and by extension, students’ assaults). One particularly popular firm, the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management (NCHERM), provides advice to its client schools on how to avoid investigation by the Office for Civil Rights for anti-discrimination violations, in a guide (PDF) titled “Twenty Steps to OCR-Proof Your Campus on Title IX.” (Of the 61 colleges and universities currently under investigation for sexual-assault-related Title IX violations, NCHERM lists a majority as current or former clients.)

It couldn’t be clearer how success here is measured: in terms of the reduction of harm to universities, not to students.

McCaskill has a critical opportunity to shift the balance back in students’ favor, away from the lobbyists that would have us believe the pocketbook comes before the student.

When campus rape is treated as a PR problem, survivors become liabilities to be controlled, silenced and swept away. Enrolled at institutions that host holiday dinners and fireside chats with their presidents, victims who come forward about their assaults might expect to be heard and protected; instead they too often find the pretense of familial love stripped away as they are placed under school-instituted gag orders, encouraged to take time off from their educations, retaliated against, suspended, expelled or even forcibly institutionalized. Researchers have found that this institutional betrayal (PDF) worsens the psychological and physical effects of sexual violence, exacerbating anxiety, dissociation and other symptoms. Some victims call their institution’s betrayal worse than the assault itself.

Universities, under the guidance of risk management firms, are increasingly taking merely performative steps — constructing highly visible but limitedly helpful blue light systems on their campuses, creating confidentiality policies that do more to shield schools than support survivors and implementing consent education programming that scarcely discusses consent at all. At Yale, administrators have hosted pie-baking contests to encourage healthy interaction, and at my alma mater, Amherst College, a campus committee has suggested outdoor movies to do the same. These efforts are little more than window dressing. They symbolize a professed attention to compliance but do little to meaningfully address violence on campus.

What will it take for universities to stop pantomiming compliance and start protecting students on the ground? For one, survivor activists are stepping forward with their experiences and turning to the media in the hopes of using schools’ prevailing risk analyses against them, by making it more costly to mistreat survivors (and suffer on the front page of The New York Times for it) than to protect them.

But it shouldn’t fall on survivors’ shoulders to fight to stay in school and keep their peers safe; the Department of Education (DOE) needs to take responsibility. Title IX, the landmark anti-violence legislation that requires schools to protect survivors and prevent sex discrimination in education, has been on the books for more than 40 years now, but the DOE has not once sanctioned a university for sexual-assault-related violations of the law. Part of the reason is that the tool explicitly available to the DOE — cutting all federal funding from noncompliant institutions — is too blunt an instrument, one that would devastate students right alongside their universities.

Yet Congress has the power to provide the DOE with the authority to levy fines against noncompliant colleges, an action small enough not to hurt students but significant enough to inflict substantial reputational damage on schools. McCaskill has a critical opportunity to shift the balance back in students’ favor, away from the law firms and lobbyists that would have us believe the pocketbook comes before the student, the brand before safety and the corporation before the civil right to education.

Dana Bolger is a founding co-director of Know Your IX, a national anti-violence legal education campaign. She graduated in May from Amherst College.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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