A Call for More Faculty Involvement in the Campus Rape Crisis

04/15/2015 12:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015

As a faculty survivor activist in the new campus anti-rape movement, it is unsettling to witness the "appalling silence of the good people," especially those who hold the greatest power to address the crisis: faculty members.

One-in-five female students and six percent of male students will experience sexual violence during their college years. Behind these alarming statistics are human beings whose lives have been shattered by violence. Sexual assault is a Title IX issue because it affects the academic experience in gender inequitable ways. In my work with survivors, about half end up transferring to another school, taking time away, or dropping out of college altogether. Campus rape compounded by institutional betrayal often dramatically changes the life and career trajectory of survivors.

Traumatized students exhibit signs that are easy for faculty to spot, including sudden social withdrawal in the classroom, missing classes, missing tests and assignments, and a rapid and significant decrease in work quality. Given our proximity to students and the trust they place in us, faculty are on the frontlines of the sexual assault crisis, and with awareness and training, we can identify the signs and respond to survivors in ways that help.

But faculty can and should do more than just support students after the fact. We are the most powerful entity on campus to truly change the way our school addresses sexual assault. Administrators spend an average of five years at a school, and they have perverse reputational and financial incentives to not address the problem, as confirmed in the shocking new documentary The Hunting Ground. The most crucial voices in the struggle -- students -- graduate after four years, and for years, administrators have relied on the fact that the most vocal agitators will soon be gone. On the other hand, faculty often spend their entire career at one institution, and despite efforts of bloated university administrations to diminish faculty power by expanding the adjunct workforce, tenured professors have an inordinate amount of power to solve the campus rape crisis.

Tenured faculty can assert their will if they act collectively, protected by academic freedom. Academic freedom is:

"The belief that the freedom of inquiry by faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy as well as the principles of academia, and that scholars should have freedom to teach or communicate ideas or facts (including those that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities) without being targeted for repression, job loss, or imprisonment."

Faculty activism around campus rape is certainly inconvenient to campus authorities, but it represents the very essence of academic freedom -- speaking truth to power on an issue that deeply affects the lives of our students.

The handful of faculty members who have publicly challenged their institution on sexual assault issues have faced retaliation from administrators. Most retaliation comes in subtle forms -- cuts to research and travel funds, undesirable committee assignments, not being nominated for awards, poor class times, damaging gossip, etc. -- but for some, it is more extreme. Harvard denied tenure to distinguished professor Kimberly Theidon after she spoke out about campus rape. The University of Connecticut fired Heather Turcotte after she was publicly vocal about the college's handling of a case. Officials at the University of Oregon retaliated against Jennifer Freyd after she spoke out about campus policies. Retaliation against faculty for exercising their academic freedom is surely one factor keeping so many silent, but this retaliation would mostly disappear if a critical mass of faculty were involved in the issue. It is easy to retaliate against one or a few faculty members, but difficult to retaliate against 40 faculty members on a campus who are holding administrators responsible for their actions. Furthermore, the Department of Education has explicitly condemned retaliation against students and faculty who work on campus sexual violence, and several laws strong laws are in place that prohibit faculty retaliation, including new whistleblower protections.

For college and university faculty, campus rape is the crisis of our time, and regardless of administrator's rhetoric, no campus is doing a good job addressing the crisis. Faculty involvement can change that. At the very least, every faculty member can educate themselves on best practices for assisting survivors. Faculty can also learn about best practices for prevention, policies and procedures, campus climate surveys, and shifting rape culture in order to evaluate their school's policies and compliance with Title IX and Clery laws. Faculty can also extend their research agenda to include sexual violence on campus. Additionally, they can become members of Faculty Against Rape to stay current on best practices, legislation, and faculty actions. April 16th is the National Faculty Day of Action where faculty can publicly show their support for survivors through film screenings, lectures, candlelight vigils, letters to the editor and other events.

Faculty must break their virtual silence on the campus rape crisis given our power as tenured faculty, our ethical obligation to fellow faculty who are experiencing retaliation and our responsibility to students to provide a safe and equitable learning environment.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about the NSVRC and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here.

Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.