Verbum Ultimum: Too Quick to Congratulate

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 11/5/15 9:13pm

This past August, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened a second investigation into the College for alleged sex discrimination, which is prohibited by Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments. Administrators chose not to disclose this investigation to the public, leaving us to find out through third-party press reports. This silence stands out from the eager and occasionally self-congratulatory tone typically heard in administrators’ comments on the College’s plans to prevent sexual assault.

This is not to say that administrators could not have credible reasons to prefer keeping this quiet. We do not know the nature or specific details of this investigation, and privacy laws limit public access to such information at this time. College spokesperson Diana Lawrence asserted that the College considered the complaint meritless. Moreover, the Office for Civil Rights considers itself to be a “neutral fact-finder,” and officials themselves stress that opening an investigation does not reflect the complaint’s merits.

Whatever the complaint may be, a second Title IX investigation does not inspire confidence that the College is a leader in efforts to combat sexual assault on university campuses, as it claims.

Recent data from Dartmouth’s 2015 Annual Report on Campus Security and Fire Safety and the American Association of Universities sexual assault survey indicate that Dartmouth has higher reported rates of sex crimes than many other schools. Administrators have cited the link between greater awareness and higher reported prevalence of sexual assault on campus, yet we are not convinced that an increase in reporting can fully explain these discrepancies. The possibility that other colleges may be just as unsafe as ours should not invite complacency, nor does it somehow render decisive measures an overreaction. It makes little sense to postpone our alarm until sexual misconduct is also within plain sight at peer institutions.

Indeed, we have no way to verify that other schools currently have more unreported crimes than we do. Though the alternative, cynical hypothesis is that the reported rates of sexual assault just mean that biased respondents and false accusations are skewing the results, no quantitative proof backs up that assertion either. We are obliged to act based on the information that we do have. Violence and abuse among students pose a grave threat to the College’s educational mission and deserve urgent attention.

One might interject that the College’s revised sexual assault policy, which has been in effect since June 2014 and mandates expulsion for students found guilty of rape, proves administrative commitment and leadership on this issue. Yet the point of such rules is to act as a deterrent, and the changes to the policy are only commendable insofar as they are working. We have no data thus far on judicial outcomes under the new policy. We do know that the incidence of sexual assault must come down. That is unlikely to happen if there is no discernable change in outcomes compared to the previous policy. Stricter consequences do not change behaviours if they only exist in the abstract.

A commitment to raising awareness does not equate to a commitment to reducing assault. Actions speak louder than words, and awareness and discussion are ultimately the means to an end. If we are willing to settle for mere awareness as a positive step forward — even if in practice our candid attitudes about sexual assault do not improve the reality — then we settle for a new status quo in which we openly acknowledge the occurrence of sexual abuse but still hesitate from intervening and confronting perpetrators. Heightened awareness should have existed all along. In a community marred by a steady incidence of harmful behaviors, it is disquieting that many could have ever gone about their lives without a clue, if not in willful ignorance.

The College cannot fix the failures in our social norms, but it can minimize them by enforcing rules. Half measures will not work — the College’s vow to punish rape with expulsion must actually result in expulsions. To be certain, this approach has been contentious, and concerns about false accusations raised by critics of current sexual assault policies should not be dismissed out of hand. But we do not accept that we should set the bar low and be content with progress in dialogue. Few social ills have been fixed in the past by education and talking.