In November of 2014 I attended a lecture by former President Jimmy Carter in Memorial Church at Harvard. He spoke about Violence Against Women around the world, the topic of a book he had published that year. In his lecture, President Carter argued that violence against women is the most serious human rights violation around the world, perpetrated and sustained by cultural practices that have roots in misguided interpretation of religious scriptures. He argued also that violence against women was perpetrated in all countries around the world, even when it violated the law, including in two of the institutions we most respect in the United States: our universities and the military, institutions where there is a high incidence of sexual assault and rape. President Carter argued that this culture of violence is sustained to a great extent because people who could denounce these practices or sanction them, turn a blind eye to them or enable them. In his words:
“Exactly the same thing happens in universities in America that happens in the military. Presidents of universities and colleges and commanding officers don’t want to admit that, under their leadership, sexual abuse is taking place,”“Rapists prevail because they know they’re not going to be reported.”
President Carter’s talk impressed me by the clarity of his moral argument and by his command of the facts, and also by his one hour delivery in which he cited facts and figures without the use of any written notes. As I left Memorial Church that evening I thought of him as a remarkable leader, someone with the moral courage to take on a most difficult issue, and to invite all of us to not stand by, and to do our share to right this wrong.
As I left his talk, I picked up a copy of the book ‘A Call to Action. Women, Religion, Violence, and Power’ in the Harvard Coop, our university bookstore, and after reading it, decided to follow his call to action. A few months later I received a nice handwritten note from President Carter in response to a letter I had sent him explaining how his book had persuaded me of the urgency of this issue. I had assigned his book as required reading in a course on education policy I teach, joined a task force at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to discuss the findings of a climate survey to examine the incidence of sexual assault at our University, organized a Think Tank at Harvard on how to address gender inequality and co-chaired a task force on violence prevention in public universities in the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. Had President Carter not been diagnosed with cancer in an advanced stage I would have invited him to join us at the Think Tank I had organized on this topic or to join us at a recent conference the Department of Higher Education of Massachusetts organized to discuss the findings of a report on this subject produced under the oversight of the committee on violence and sexual assault prevention I co-chaired.
What I have learned about this subject since listening to President Carter the fall of 2014 has convinced me that there is much work to do to eliminate violence against women in America, including in our Universities, and that it is critical that we all take a clear stance and act decisively to advance this work. In September of 2015, the Association of American Universities released a report of a campus climate survey conducted in the spring of 2015 in 27 institutions of higher education, including Harvard. It took courage on the part of the Presidents of the Universities which participated in this study to do so and to make the results public and take clear steps forward to advance the recommendations of the task force. Harvard’s President Drew Faust, established a high level faculty task force that produced a report of Sexual Assault on our own University, and that outlined clear recommendations for action to eliminate it. The report was widely discussed by groups of faculty and students, and much greater emphasis on education and prevention is in place since.
The AAU study revealed that the incidence of sexual violence was higher than that reported in previous studies, a relatively small percentage of even the most serious incidents are reported to an organization or agency. That study revealed that more than one in ten students had experienced nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching by force or incapacitation.
In 2015 The U.S. Justice Department released a report that showed that 90 percent of the rapes committed on college campuses are committed by four percent of the men. One in five women is sexually assaulted before graduation and one in 10 is raped. Furthermore, assault rates are higher in institutions of higher education than among women not in college.
In this context, the recent revelations that Donald Trump reported having engaged in sexual assault of women, and that he seems to believe that his status as a ‘celebrity’ gives him the right to kiss or fondle women, or to aggressively incite married women to have extramarital affairs with him, is very grave. It is not only unethical behavior, possibly criminal, it is a form of grave violence and offense that should be unacceptable in a society that lives by the rule of law. The behavior he reports having engaged in exemplified exactly the kind of conduct that Jimmy Carter describes as perpetuating this grave violation of the most basic human rights of women, as does the silent by-standing or complicit enabling of those who witnessed him in perpetrating this violence. I imagine those who taught him as an undergraduate at Fordham University and at the University of Pennsylvania are reflecting on what they could have done differently to better prepare him to live ethically. All of us who work in higher education should think deeply about what it means that a graduate of an Ivy League university in America has said and done the many things Donald Trump has said which challenge the core values of a democratic society, and that many college graduates seem to identify with his views.
Donald Trump has admitted that he did indeed say and do these things, and he has apologized. This apology is insufficient to undo the damage that the public knowledge of his practices, his bragging about them, and the complicit enabling of those like TV host Billy Bush, present when he discussed his plans, has caused to the ongoing efforts to eliminate these practices in all institutions where they happen. Many who hear about Trump’s behavior might wonder whether there is anything wrong in emulating what a powerful man did as an affirmation of his power and status as a ‘celebrity.’ The various studies on sexual violence in higher education indicate that a factor underlying such violence is lack of clarity about what is acceptable behavior. To clear up any misunderstandings on the minds of students it is important that educators, in high schools and colleges and universities, convey to their students in no uncertain terms how these practices are a violation of the law and of basic ethical norms to live in a democratic society that respects the equal rights of women and men. The evidence Carter cites in his book, and the other reports I have mentioned, demonstrate that there is urgent work to do to educate the next generation to understand how wrong behavior such as the one perpetrated by Donald Trump is. This is not a time to stand silent by the sidelines, to be a bystander as many who emboldened Trump have been, but a time for anyone with responsibility to educate the young to take a clear moral stance about how unacceptable this form of violence Trump has perpetrated is. I am heartened that a number of leaders of the Republican party, including Condoleezza Rice, Mitt Romney, John McCain and Paul Ryan, understand the gravity of the situation and have repudiated Trump’s behavior. I hope university professors, high school teachers, and higher education leaders will do the same.
Carter, Jimmy. 2014. A Call to Action. Women, Religion, Violence and Power. New York, NY. Simon and Schuster.https://www.amazon.com/Call-Action-Women-Religion-Violence/dp/1476773963/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1476022729&sr=8-1&keywords=carter+a+call+to+action
AAU Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct.
Harvard University. Report of the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault.
Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. Securing Our Future: Best Practice Recommendations for Campus Safety and Violence Prevention.
Massachusetts Board of Higher Education Conference: Securing Our Future. September 2016.