COUNTERPOINT: Federal investigations finally put pressure on colleges to reform sexual assault policy
As colleges across the country, under increasing federal and public pressure, have begun to increase enforcement for sexual assault policy, some have questioned whether federal intervention is a net positive, given the red tape, strict requirements and harsh punishments it entails. But using federal investigations as a reason to pump the brakes on sexual assault — an issue which for so long has been ignored — dissolves accountability for universities, halting progress as a whole.
Unlike virtually every other issue, sexual assault prevention and enforcement policies receive almost universal bipartisan support federally. But curiously, while legislators don’t want to be seen as soft on sexual assault, some have introduced bills — named the Safe Campus Act and Fair Campus Act in a cruel twist of irony — that prohibit investigation of sexual assault cases until reported to police, introducing more barriers to enact justice for sexual assault survivors. So, while they still can, survivor advocates must seize the political momentum to create institutional objectives to eliminate sexual assault.
Without federal government intervention, universities go virtually unchecked by outside entities. It’s not that individual universities are inherently untrustworthy, but rather that their incentives require a closer evaluation of whether they will properly enforce sexual assault policies. Since full enforcement requires both financial and administrative resources and increases the chances of lawsuits — one which an expelled student accused of sexual assault has already won against USC — universities are disincentivized to crack down on sexual assault. Moreover, since comprehensive sexual assault reform requires having a frank discussion with students about the meaning of consent and the role of greek life, beginning the process of actually eliminating a sexually hostile environment brings negative publicity to potential applicants to universities by highlighting the sexual assault problem in the first place.
And considering that 55 universities — including USC — are under federal Title IX investigation for potentially mishandling sexual violence and harassment complaints as of May 2014, it’s safe to say that empirically, universities are not adequately addressing the issue of sexual assault on their own.
There are, admittedly, some faults within the scope of federal investigations. The civil rights office should provide technical assistance to colleges that request it and should more comprehensively examine individual sexual assault cases to prevent mislabeling — since current investigations are broad, not deep, in scope. But to peel back the power of federal investigations because of these flaws would do a deep disservice to the thousands of college students looking to take agency of their lives after experiencing assault.
At USC, the issue of sexual assault is its own beast. University officials are dealing with fallout from its Title IX investigation and getting flak from students for allowing the Greek system to foster a climate rife with sexual assault. The recently proposed diversity resolution includes adding another Title IX investigator, and students want more resources for the Center for Women and Men. But while it’s facing pressure to adopt more stringent policies when dealing with sexual assault, it’s also being ordered to reinstate a student expelled for sexual misconduct, and the threat of more costly lawsuits constantly looms in the future, as well as greater concerns for due process for the accused. So it’s almost as if the University can’t win.
The University is in a dilemma that colleges across the country find themselves in, stuck between competing incentives that seem to doom the administration regardless of the path taken. But now is the time that the University must put its students before itself and recommit to creating tangible changes to eliminate the predatory climate that has proven to pervade the University — which means making tough and controversial decisions to change the power dynamics of greek life which currently tip in favor of fraternities, expanding resources for survivors, streamlining the reporting and investigation process and increasing transparency for students. In doing so, the University could spin the story of a university grossly mishandling the grave issue of sexual assault to an institutional pioneer of sexual assault prevention.
Sonali Seth is a sophomore majoring in political science and policy, planning, and development. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Mondays.