KNAYSI: Ahead of the curve

The University is making admirable and extensive efforts to address the problem of sexual misconduct

Recently, The Cavalier Daily published an editorial discussing President Obama’s task force on college sexual assault, which he announced almost two weeks ago. The editorial argues that in order to address the roots of sexual misconduct, we need to focus on its complex causes, not just the appropriate methods of response. While the editorial offers a fair critique of the task force’s strengths and limitations, I suggest the solution is nearer to us than the managing board suspects. The University’s upcoming national conference on sexual misconduct exemplifies a new standard of dialogue on this complex issue.

The goals of Obama’s task force include providing colleges with practices for preventing and responding to sexual assault, as well as making sure these institutions fulfill their legal obligations. Other objectives include raising the level of federal transparency in these matters and fostering teamwork among federal agencies addressing campus sexual violence.

But sexual misconduct is a complex, emotionally charged issue; its causes and effects expand beyond perpetrators and victims. We have to do more than ensure that University officials and law enforcement are responding to sexual misconduct in a proper manner; we must also examine the social and cultural features of the college environment that make sexual assault such a widespread problem.

Months before Obama’s task force was announced, University President Teresa Sullivan and Vice President for Student Affairs Pat Lampkin began planning a national conference focused on sexual assault on college campuses: “Dialogue at U.Va.: Sexual Misconduct Among College Students” will take place in mid-February. It will include more than 200 legal specialists, student affairs professionals, student leaders and college presidents, among others.

The goal of the conference, Sullivan wrote on the its website, is to “launch a national discussion among higher education communities on the complexities surrounding sexual misconduct among college students” using a “multifaceted lens, including individual, cultural, social, and legal perspectives.”

The conference promises to address the problem of campus sexual assault with the kind of multidisciplinary approach the managing board called for in its editorial. An array of experts — including lawyers, administrators, psychiatrists, anthropologists and artists — will introduce different viewpoints into one conference. This enables participants not only to think more holistically about the aftermath of sexual misconduct but to uncover the psychological and sociocultural factors that make a college community vulnerable to sexual assault. But such efforts must not limit themselves to dry academic or legal exercises. To be effective, they must engage multiple levels of the University community — students as well as professors and administrators.

The conference will accomplish this goal in an unprecedented manner and encourage college presidents to take more responsibility for the sexual misconduct that occurs on campuses across the U.S. Its “Panel of Presidents” will include the presidents of Amherst College, University of California at Los Angeles, Dartmouth College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to name a few. Such high-profile figures speaking on the issue at the same conference as the University’s own student leaders encourages a more open and productive exchange.

Sullivan says she believes college presidents should lead the way in reforming campus social norms surrounding sexual misconduct. Her insistence is striking given recent criticism over the way colleges and universities handle sexual assault. In the last three years, several high-profile universities have faced accusations that their officials have tried to cover up sexual misconduct at the schools. The University’s conference moves to restore some of this damaged trust.

Sexual misconduct is often shrouded in stigma. Campus sex crimes — which often degenerate into questions of “he said, she said” — are especially difficult to prevent, address and litigate. The upcoming conference offers a new legitimacy to sexual crimes. The event’s scope demonstrates that higher-education leaders across the U.S. take campus sexual assault seriously. While sexual misconduct is by no means a new issue in college communities, the quality and degree of acknowledgement is unprecedented. The conference promises to be more than a symbolic act. It seems poised to raise the standards for how students and administrators discuss campus sexual assault.

George Knaysi is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Tuesdays.

Published February 4, 2014 in Opinion

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