Stopping Campus Sex Assaults
Dartmouth Summit Draws 50 Colleges
Jackson Katz, Ph.D., speaks with Leslie Gomez, left, an attorney from Philidelphia who focuses her practice on the institutional response to sexual misconduct, and Sarah Kathryn Bryan, an undergraduate student and activist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill before Katz's talk at Spaulding Auditorium during the Sexual Assault Summit at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on July 14, 2014. Katz, who is a cofounder of the Mentors in Violence Prevention program, spoke on the role of media in promoting a 'rape culture.'
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A mix of students, educators, and professionals from around the country listened as Dr. David Lisak, a researcher and forensic consultant, speaks on sexual abuse and rape on campuses at Spaulding Auditorium during the Sexual Assault Summit at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on July 14, 2014.
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Hanover — A leading researcher on sexual violence on Monday said that Dartmouth College, in its National Summit on Sexual Assault, had initiated an uncomfortable but necessary conversation.
“The activists who are shaking their fists at you are not your enemies,” David Lisak, a former professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said.
Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon spoke at the beginning of the day to thank Lisak, who had first asked the college to host and fund the conference. In his 27 years studying interpersonal violence, Lisak has been a consultant to universities, law enforcement and the U.S. military.
On the second day of the summit, organized in collaboration with Dartmouth to examine the causes of sexual assault on campus and what can be done to combat it, speakers emphasized the progress that had been made — if only in their ability to hold such a conference and to be taken seriously — but reminded the listeners that much work remained ahead.
“The huge, huge change is that I’m no longer alone,” Jean Kilbourne, an early scholar of how women are depicted in advertising, said to audience members from more than 50 colleges in the Hopkins Center’s Spaulding Auditorium. “When I started out talking about these issues 40 years ago, people thought I was crazy.”
Since then, advocates have attempted to correct what they see as a “normalization” of violence against women in contemporary culture. The first night of the conference Sunday, Gail Stern, who studies rape in the military, outlined how rape jokes “trivialize” the offense in popular consciousness and allow perpetrators to go unpunished. On Monday, Kilbourne and other speakers identified conventions that objectify women in music, television, movies and advertising and connected them to sexual assault.
The advocates came from a wide variety of backgrounds. Stern said she came to her profession when as a young college administrator she began to notice that startling numbers of sexual assault reports were ignored. Lisak met the issue through personal experience.
“I was raped repeatedly when I was 5 years old, and so I know in my mind, my heart, my body and the depths of my soul what it means to be raped,” he said.
In their comments, the experts emphasized the importance of concrete action from university leadership.
“If there was a college president somewhere that said, ‘I’m going to take this seriously,’ I am convinced that college will change the peer culture around us within four years,” speaker Sut Jhally, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said.
Lisak encouraged university leaders to eschew “the usual corporate self-protective tactics,” in part by collecting and disseminating more data on sexual assault occurring on their campuses. Branches of the armed services have done so for years, he added.
In Congress, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-M.O., recently released a report that criticized American higher education for failing to investigate complaints of sexual assault. McCaskill is also drafting legislation to improve college adjudication standards with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. — a Dartmouth alumna — and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Officials from the federal Department of Education and Department of Justice were also present at the conference and answered questions from the audience. While they recognized McCaskill’s call to action, Anurima Bhargava, from the Justice Department, and Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, said they were happy with the tools that federal statutes, including the Clery Act and Title IX, gave them to ensure students’ safety. These include the ability to withdraw federal funds from educational institutions in violation of the law, a threat powerful enough that they had not yet needed to use it, Lhamon said.
“From the carrot and stick perspective, that’s a pretty big stick to carry,” she said.
After the talks, the conference attendees, among them many university administrators, adjourned to smaller workshops to discuss the specifics of their institutions and potential strategies they could employ on their campuses.
Dartmouth College is one of 55 others facing federal investigation under the Clery Act. The college this year is weighing other suggestions on its problems with high-risk drinking and sexual assault, contributed by its students, faculty and alumni through its Presidential Steering Committee.
U.S. Rep Annie Kuster, a Democrat and a 1978 Dartmouth graduate, spoke at the conference on Sunday. Kuster saw sexual violence from multiple perspectives, including as a legislator, an alumna of the college and the mother of two Dartmouth students, she said. She likened Dartmouth’s insular campus culture to that of the military, but reminded the auditorium that the problem was “not unique to Dartmouth College.”
Hanlon echoed her on Monday.
“They bedevil every community across the nation,” he said. “Our best hope lies in collaboration.”
Rob Wolfe can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3242.