Verbum Ultimum: Time's Up for Dartmouth

We must eliminate sexual misconduct on campus from the bottom up.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 1/12/18 12:45am

Last year, three professors of psychology and brain sciences were placed on paid leave amid investigations of sexual misconduct allegations. The investigations are ongoing, and no findings have been disclosed but the initial allegations — which are not public — have been expanded upon anonymously by 15 current and former students and by two other academics, Jennifer Groh and Simine Vazire. These allegations came during a time of extreme upheaval across industries and society, with numerous powerful male figures coming under fire and facing professional, personal and, at times, legal repercussions for patterns and behaviors of sexual abuse, misconduct and assault.

For some, the allegations against the three psychology professors reinforce the painful reality that at Dartmouth, like many other institutions and organizations, sexual assault and misconduct are not uncommon. Dartmouth has among the most reported rapes on any campus in the country, ranking second nationally in 2014 with 42 reports. This was followed with a dip to 17 in 2015 and a slight increase to 18 in 2016. And the problem goes well beyond rape. Last May, a burglary was reported at Kappa Delta Epsilon sorority and an obscene and misogynistic threat was written on the sorority’s property. More recently, a crowdsourced survey of sexual harassment in academia circulated since December includes at least three instances of alleged sexual impropriety at Dartmouth.

Many students believe that Dartmouth inadequately addresses sexual misconduct and assault. But it bears repeating: Dartmouth is not safe for many community members, and real changes are needed to curb sexual misconduct. The College can be at the forefront of assertive, reasonable and fair measures to reduce sexual harassment.

Reporting is one important step in addressing sexual assault and misconduct. Only around one-fifth of sexual assaults of female college-aged students are reported to law enforcement; overall, more than 90 percent of sexual assaults on college campuses are not reported. Current reporting processes, as well as social stigma and the psychological toll of assault, makes reporting difficult for victims. Yet we cannot ignore that sexual violence is prevalent across a range of genders and sexualities. Over 46 percent of gay women, 74 percent of bisexual women, 43 percent of heterosexual women, 40 percent of gay men, 47 percent of bisexual men and 20 percent of heterosexual men report sexual violence in their lifetimes. In this climate, where most assaults, rapes and incidents of misconduct are not investigated, reporting is critical. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, we can hope reporting rates rise sharply as more survivors feel safe enough to identify perpetrators, a vital step in addressing sexual misconduct.

The Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault’s 2017 recommendations provide a good framework. The committee hopes to increase participation rate for the Dartmouth Bystander Initiative from 64.5 percent of students to 75 percent and participation in Movement Against Violence training from 90 percent of Greek organization members to 100 percent. These goals can be met and furthered by mandating both trainings for all students.

Broader cultural initiatives will be critical to ending sexual violence at Dartmouth in the long term. Ultimately, no administrative policy imposed from the top down will take root if students do not evaluate their own behaviors. The current social system at the College creates an environment where sexual assault is possible, and even common, through unsafe behaviors like binge drinking and a hookup culture that can often blur the lines of consent. Some social groups have made strides in tackling sexual misconduct. The V-February program, which includes the “Vagina Monologues” and “Voices” performances, is a premier example of student-led cultural change aimed at combating sexual misconduct on campus, and we can hope that more attend this year’s performances — and yet more the next year. Even so, many organizations can still do more.

Students should actively boycott any organization, including Greek houses, that fails to take decisive action against members who have engaged in sexual misconduct. Producers who fired actor Kevin Spacey from the film “All the Money in the World” after he admitted to sexual contact with an underage man should serve as an example for campus organizations.

Criticism of the internal disciplinary systems at colleges and universities has come both from those claiming schools are not harsh enough on sexual predators and from those who argue that the rights of the accused to due process are being systematically violated. Both sides have compelling arguments. Colleges, themselves an involved party to any sexual misconduct allegations on their campuses, are not fit to be judge, jury and prosecutor. They are questionably fit to be arbiters of sexual misconduct allegations, yet necessity demands it of them. The College should work with legal experts and other schools to develop a system that will respect due process, potentially holding an avenue for cross-examination, and take a hard stand against sexual misconduct, with mandated expulsion for sexual assault or rape.

Bottom-up cultural change by students and more effective institutional measures are both necessary if Dartmouth is to substantially curtail — and eventually eliminate — sexual misconduct and assault in our community. Mandating DBI and MAV training for all students is a critical first step, and increased focus on anti-sexual violence by student groups will also be essential. Holding accountable social spaces that protect those who commit acts of sexual violence, through cultivated bottom-up change, will be pivotal if we are to change the College’s culture meaningfully. And administrators can support survivors — and be fair to the accused — through reforms of the College’s adjudication system.

In this moment when sexual harassment and assault are in the national spotlight, sunlight, as many have said, is the best disinfectant. With all lights trained on this issue, Dartmouth can set out to be a model for the country and tackle it head-on without fear or secrecy. We should be tough on sexual misconduct and tough on the causes of sexual misconduct. We should be fair and respect due process, a goal not incompatible with an effort to clean this campus of perpetrators and those who shield them. Together, we can make a better Dartmouth.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, the associate opinion editor, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.

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