Imagine you’re a university president, and a group of sexual assault survivors bring a civil rights complaint against your administration alleging that victims have routinely been ignored, belittled, doubted, and had their motivations called into question — all while their abusers suffered little to no real punishment. Obviously, you wouldn’t respond to this by shaming, doubting, or calling into question the motivations of the complainants, right?
Wrong. “I cannot speak to the motivations of people who have suggested this,” University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst said in reaction to the Title IX complaint a group of students have brought to the federal Department of Education alleging that the university wasn’t doing enough to protect its students. Herbst went on to suggest, according to the Hartford Courant, that the complaint was “astonishingly misguided” and “demonstrably untrue.”
This struck me as a disappointingly defensive reaction to a complaint that has the potential to shake up how universities are dealing with the prevalence of rape culture on campuses nationwide. Now, I know Herbst has to report to the trustees, and she almost certainly feels the need to be as firm as possible about UConn being a safe place for all students, but this kind of reaction sadly seems more like a reinforcement of rape culture than the kind of refutation that’s so sorely needed.
Sexual assault on campus is a frighteningly widespread problem, and as recent studies have shown, it’s a problem that college and university administrations have largely turned a blind eye toward. Worse, victims often face disbelief or outright scorn while trying to report attacks or bring their attackers to justice, while their attackers often face light or no penalties.
This is the heart of the UConn complaint. Four of the seven students bringing the complaint told their stories of officials not taking them seriously, police openly disbelieving them, and abusers walking free around campus while the victims’ grades and mental health suffered. It’s an all-too-familiar story.
Lately, though, sexual assault survivors have been organizing to fight back. An Amherst College student’s 2011 account of being raped, and then callously ignored by the administration, sparked both outcry and soul-searching. New policies were put into place and reforms made. Other colleges have, haltingly, followed suit while victims continue to demand justice.
The UConn complaint is part of a national movement to fight back against rape culture, which is a social environment that makes rape normal, expected, and excusable — and punishes victims for speaking out. It’s the kind of culture where writers, instead of encouraging parents to teach their sons not to rape, instead suggest girls not get so drunk. And it’s the sort of culture where reports of sexual assault in high school lead to bullying and harassment — for the victims.
This is what makes Herbst’s response so disappointing. This is the kind of complaint that should be taken very, very seriously rather than dismissed out of hand. I appreciate that Herbst is in a difficult situation, and that she wants to do her best to make the university look good. I also appreciate that UConn has plenty of programs in place, but students are saying that these are not enough. Herbst should listen.
Sexual assault on college campuses is a huge problem, and it deserves serious, honest examination. There is no university or college in the country that is free of this plague, and each and every single institution of higher education owes it to themselves and their students to take bold steps to create safe environments for everyone. Victims should be taken seriously. Offenders should be punished appropriately and kept away from their victims. This doesn’t seem like so much to ask.
Of course, whether UConn is still failing victims remains to be proven — that’s why there is a complaint process. The Department of Education may not even hear it. But the complaint already is making waves around the country as well as here at home. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Republican leaders are both calling for hearings into the matter. Malloy said he would be “outraged” if he learned the university was not living up to its promise to “keep our young people safe.” These hearings should go forward.
President Herbst is in the unique position of being able to do a lot to further this cause. She should join those wanting to know the truth, and she should at the very least listen to the voices of her students. To do otherwise is to look the other way — again.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.