THE BLOG

College Presidents Must Lead on Sexual Assault

09/01/2014 11:16 am ET | Updated Nov 01, 2014

College presidents, usually a verbose bunch, have been remarkably silent in the media on the topic of campus sexual assault and remedies for this plague. Why the silence? Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of this issue; every single president I know agrees that sexual assault is appalling and we must do all in our power to stop it. But with the intense media glare on horrific cases and thunderous righteous pounding on universities by legislators and regulators, we are also concerned that any appearance of disagreement on tactics will be construed as coddling criminals.

Into this breach now comes Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, President Emeritus of George Washington University and University Professor of Public Service at that esteemed institution. For better or worse, Trachtenberg shattered the silence recently by saying on NPR's The Diane Rehm Show in response to the host's question about sexual misconduct and fraternities:

"Without making the victims responsible for what happens, one of the groups that have to be trained not to drink in excess are women. They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave. And so part of the problem is you have men who take advantage of women who drink too much and there are women who drink too much. And we need to educate our daughters and our children in that regard."

Well, thank you, President Emeritus Trachtenberg, for breaking the silence! In the social media frenzy that has ensued, the controversy generally aligns according to those who take the "appalling trogdolyte" view of what he said, and the "yo, bro, you rock!" school of thought --- extremes that illustrate the polarization of the issues without adding any useful ideas to solving the problem.

Trachtenberg's comments are simply wrong in three ways: blaming women for the sexual assault problem; failing to hold perpetrators accountable for crimes; and reinforcing the perception that college presidents are obtuse, irresponsible and out of touch.

Singling out women as those who have to solve the problem of their own sexual abuse utterly ignores the central role of the perpetrator, who is usually male, and blames women who drink to excess for their own degradation. This point of view lets the rapists off the hook, excuses away their criminal behavior as some kind of understandable response to a woman's inebriation.

Sure, alcohol is a serious problem on many campuses and is a contributing factor in too many sexual assaults. Trachtenberg could have saved himself a world of hurt by saying that both women and men in college should be responsible about drinking. But by singling out women for his paternalistic advice, he perpetrates the pernicious belief --- held fast in some quarters, still after all these years --- that women deserve what they get. Surely, Trachtenberg did not mean that at all --- and he clarified his comments in subsequent statements just to be clear --- but anyone who has been in a position of collegiate responsibility today must know that sexual assault is a tinderbox requiring great care in the choice of language.

Trachtenberg's paternalistic view summons quaint images of women as delicate maidens reading poetry in their rooms while the men wave tankards as they raucously bellow "Gaudeamus Igitur" in their manly fortresses. His comments take us back to the 19th century screeds against the whole idea of women going to college lest these delicate creatures suffer mental and physical collapse under the weight of the collegiate curriculum and culture.

Haven't we fought for several centuries to overcome such disempowering stereotypes about the inherent fragility of women in college?

Of course college women should not drink to excess, any more than college men should and both men and women in college should do their homework every night, never cheat, show up on time for class, and turn off their cellphones without rolling their eyes when asked to do so. But failing to observe these rules is not license for a criminal to commit the worst possible act short of murder against another human being.

College students do get drunk, and the only appropriate response is to get them help --- friends, bystanders and college staff must be ready to intervene and help the student in distress. In the same way, friends, bystanders and staff must be ready to intervene to prevent sexual assault from occurring, standing up to the potential perpetrators, separating them from the situation, calling the police immediately if warranted.

Trachtenberg's additional piece of advice to college women --- that they should stay sober so they can "punch the guys in the nose" sounds like a Popeye cartoon. That comment is woefully ignorant of the sheer physical terror of women crushed in the embrace of larger, stronger men. No woman should have to pack brass knuckles along with her laptop when she sets off for college.

This leads to the larger problem with Trachtenberg's comments: what about the men? Why aren't we focusing more intensively on the perpetrators of these crimes, most of whom are men? Who is identifying the pathologies that cause young men to assault and rape college women in startling numbers? Where is the paternalistic advice for them? Why aren't their names in lights? Why don't we demand to know the names of the parents of these criminals, their pastors, their coaches, their high school teachers and principals? The men who commit these crimes in college did not just suddenly become heinous actors when they moved into the dorm. Somewhere along the line, the moral education of some young men has failed, failed utterly. No regulatory scheme imposed on colleges and universities can undo the damage of failed parenting.

In an ironic parallel to Trachtenberg's sentiments, the federal regulatory scheme also tends to fix blame in the wrong place, impose paternalistic solutions, and assume that college leaders are amoral buffoons. Most of the massive and complex legislative and regulatory scheme designed to address campus sexual assault fails to hold the perpetrators of these crimes accountable while imposing extraordinary liabilities on colleges and universities to create procedures and services that largely deal with the aftermath of crimes.

Surveys, training and education, sophisticated counseling and adjudication programs are all useful, but the actual relationship between these measures and truly stopping the crime of campus rape is unclear at best. We now have Title IX, the Clery Act, the Violence Against Women Act, and soon, Senator Claire McCaskill's Campus Accountability and Safety Act. All are well-intended. All create a labyrinthe of rules and procedures that seek to help victims, to improve investigations and adjudications, to educate and train faculty and staff to the signs of sexual assault among students. But the rules are complicated, fraught with legal conflicts, and expensive to implement --- and with little evidence that they will actually stop rapists.

These governmentally-imposed tactics purposefully restore "in loco parentis," a concept we railed against with gusto in the '60's and 70's as being unworthy of college students who are all legal adults. College boards agreed and removed most of the restrictive rules; now to our sorrow as the government imposes harsh obligations on institutions, perhaps made necessary in part because we have so few rules left to govern student behavior. But the majority of all undergraduates today are non-traditional students, working and raising families while going to school, often attending part-time, most not residing on campus, most not participating in the bacchanalian rites of football and frats. Most of the legislative and regulatory mandates about sexual assault assume the most traditional ideas about college students and campus life, in large part because the most notorious cases all have arisen on very traditional campuses. All institutions must comply with all aspects of the regulatory plan even if the rules are inappropriate for the student body.

As president of one of the nation's historic Catholic women's colleges, I certainly applaud protections for women and take great pains to be sure that my students --- most of whom are non-traditional --- have a safe, healthy and empowering environment. I fully subscribe to all reasonable efforts to combat campus sexual assault; the current national discussion is necessary and fruitful to help universities get a grip on these issues.

However, I reject the idea that a reasonable critique of the web of laws and regulations governing campus sexual assault is a repudiation of accountability. In fact, questioning whether government mandates can actually solve the problem, or whether other and more effective solutions might be found in private action, is part of my responsibility as a college president.

I am wary of laws and regulations that have the potential to strip women of their own power by treating them like children who need the awesome intervention of the federal and state governments to help them to negotiate life's relationships. Consent is certainly a very difficult issue, but women cannot be truly empowered if institutions and the government do all of their thinking for them. While ensuring rapid and effective responses that uphold the rights of victims, we also must be sure that our solutions do not further disempower women.

I have a hard time understanding how a federally mandated annual campus climate survey with very onerous penalties for failing to administer it properly, an idea in Senator McCaskill's proposal, will stop men intent on committing rape. Sure, we may be interested in the data, and the data may help to create some educational programs, but data is not the same as addressing the causes of rape in the uncontrolled, entitled behavior of the perpetrators.

I am equally wary of legislative and regulatory proposals that impose new unfunded mandates on colleges and universities for conducting forensic investigations and trial-like proceedings that we have no core competence to conduct when, in fact, we already have a law enforcement system that is supposed to arrest and prosecute criminals. Rather than trying to force colleges to build an investigatory and adjudication system for sexual offenses that runs parallel to the existing law enforcement system, Congress and the U.S. Department of Education should insist that colleges call the police and turn the case over to authorities whenever a sexual offense occurs on campus.

We would do that if we found a body in a room; why does the body have to be dead before we call the police? We do not expect campus disciplinary processes to manage other criminal cases; all are turned over to law enforcement. We should handle sexual assault cases exactly the same way.

We try to control our costs and keep our tuition price under control, but each new piece of legislation and regulation adds expectations for staffing, training, educational programs and even software --- to say nothing of potential fines, like the 1% of the college budget fine proposed in Senator McCaskill's bill. Someone has to pay for all of this, and it's quite likely that colleges will simply have to pass the costs along to students in tuition prices, surely an unintended consequence of good faith efforts to protect students. At Trinity in Washington, our campus security budget is four times the size of our library budget; each new regulatory requirement adds to that imbalance.

We presidents must hold each other accountable for the current mess. All of this has come about because some colleges and universities have failed in their obligations to protect students from harm, and these cases have become a national scandal blighting all of higher education. Colleges and universities should have zero tolerance for sexual misconduct. Shame on those who have waffled. Our policies and procedures should be swift and certain for these cases. Due process does not have to mean undue delays in getting perpetrators off campus and into jail.

College presidents need to exert far more leadership on these issues. More presidents of major universities should take on the problem directly and in public in the ways that Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon did in April. In calling for radical change in the culture of Greek Life, sports teams and other campus activities, he said:

"We can no longer allow this College to be held back by the few who wrongly hide harmful behaviors behind the illusion of youthful exuberance. Routinized excessive drinking, sexual misconduct, and blatant disregard of social norms have no place at Dartmouth. Enough is enough."

More college and university presidents need to read this kind of riot act to their campuses --- and then put teeth into the speech by taking swift and certain action to stop campus sexual assault before more crimes occur. Perps need to be on notice that they will be separated immediately from the campus, arrested and prosecuted, not protected. Due process should not be a shelter preventing action where the facts demand action.

Ultimately, ending campus sexual assault and creating a healthy, life-giving climate on campus for learning and intellectual growth is our responsibility as presidents. We should have zero tolerance for sexual crimes on campus. And we should have zero tolerance for presidential colleagues who fail to exhibit strong and effective leadership to put an end, once and for all, to the shame and suffering of campus sexual assault.