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Donna Wick, Ed.D Headshot

Sexual Assault and U.S. News College Rankings: Did He Just Say That?

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Sexual assault and violence against women is all over the news these days, from Dartmouth College to Nigeria. Perhaps it was Nicholas Kristof's excellent Op-Ed piece that linked Boko Haram and college campuses in my mind, or perhaps it was my daughter. She came home from a Gender, Power & Consent workshop at her high school, questioning the role of binge drinking in sexual assault cases at college. Eagerly, I hastened to point out that it was her responsibility to make safe choices. Citing the recent Dartmouth rape case, I noted that heavy drinking had played a significant role in the accounts of both accuser and attacker. In conclusion, I assured her that she would be much safer at college (and everywhere else), if she refrained from drinking excessively.

At which point she asked if I wasn't blaming the victim. Stunned, I asked her what she meant. It turned out that she had a lot to say. To begin with, she told me that she can't believe she is expected to GO to college in a country where 55 colleges and universities are facing federal investigation for their handling of sexual assault cases, and one in five girls will be assaulted before graduation. As she said, half the colleges she is interested in are on that list. Did we really want her to attend one of these schools?

Well, ummm...

She then asked why everyone's solution to this national crisis is to advise girls to avoid binge drinking in college. She questioned why no one is cautioning boys to avoid sexual assault and violence against women. When I suggested that this seemed sort of obvious (do we really need to tell boys to avoid committing a crime?), she answered, "Apparently." She furthermore pointed out that when the prevailing dialogue about how to eradicate sexual assault involves the actions of women, not men, we are effectively blaming the victim, not the perpetrator.

I am a therapist and a writer. I spend most of my days listening for the underlying meaning in the language that people (and cultures) use to describe their experience. So I am surprised (and humbled) by the fact that my daughter had to point this out to me. But as a result, I read Kristof's article with a different ear today. In this essay, Kristof makes a persuasive case that educating and "unleashing" girls and women has proven to be powerfully effective in combating extremism in Pakistan and Oman. Countries where girls are educated but not empowered, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, remain "mired in backwardness."

All of which made me wonder which culture we are more like when it comes to violence against women; Oman or Iran? Bangladesh or Saudi Arabia? To be sure, as Kristof points out, things are "incomparably better" for girls in the U.S.. We certainly educate girls; they account for over 60% of all college graduates. But do we empower and unleash them? If so, why are they still making 77 cents for every dollar earned by men? And when it comes to sexual assault on college campuses, why has the solution always been couched in terms of girls making "safe choices?"

There is some evidence that this is beginning to change. Philip Hanlon, Dartmouth's new college president has held the school accountable for "Extreme behavior, sex assaults, and parties with racist and sexist undertones." He has publicly acknowledged a 14% drop in Dartmouth applications, the steepest in decades, and declared "enough is enough."

But for every voice like Philip Hanlon's, there is another preaching ignorance and denial. Brian Kelly, the editor of U.S. News & World Report, just announced that U.S. News will not include campus sexual-assault data in it's annual college ranking this year, despite pleas from 12 members of Congress, citing the "unreliable" and "inconsistent" nature of the data. Moreover, even if better data were available, U.S. News would not include sexual assault information because:

Campus safety is not among the factors that U.S. News believes is directly tied to academic quality.

I promise I am not making this up. And I have to tell you, as the mother of a high school junior, parents, schools and college counselors take the U.S. News & World Report rankings very seriously. They are a hugely influential factor in how millions of people make college decisions every year.

Educated and disempowered, and at what cost? Anyone else hear echoes of Iran?