How Efforts to Address Campus Rape Could Backfire

Colleges are incentivized to underreport sexual assault.

On April 10, two Republican and 10 Democratic members of Congress penned a letter to the US News & World Report, suggesting that the most authoritative college ranking report in the country include a rating of each college’s handling of sexual assault on campus. The hope is that this would incentivize colleges to take sexual assault seriously and reform many of their relevant policies, and that it would help potential students and their families make a more informed decisions throughout the college application process. All this to reduce the students’ risk of sexual attacks while in college.

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The rating would factor in Clery reports, government-mandated disclosures of campus violence for those colleges that participate in federal financial aid programs. In addition the letter suggests the ratings include violations of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on gender at schools that receive federal funding. The authors also suggested that the colleges’ effectiveness in preventing and responding to sexual assault be taken into account. This last suggestion is not elaborated upon much in this three-paragraph recommendation; these details are for a committee to determine at a later date. U.S. News as of now has agreed to discuss these reforms with members of Congress, whatever that means.

“[Colleges] that fail to adequately respond to sexual violence should not receive accolades from your publication,” the representatives write.

The letter comes at a time when sexual assault on college campuses has been generating many private and public conversations. In just a few months the issue has been elevated from a problem to an “epidemic,” thanks in great part to student organizing grabbing the attention of the media and refusing to let go. Fifty-five colleges are currently under investigation for their handling of sexual assault.  

April opened with allegations leveled at Harvard that it had violated Title IX in not making victims fully aware of their rights, and at times, discouraging them from taking remedial action through the courts and disciplinary committees. A few days ago 23 students filed Title IX, Title II and Clery complaints against Columbia, and a federal investigation is underway at the University of Chicago, which has a history of delegitimizing allegations of sexual assault.

But while plans that push for the standardization of proceedings and rankings of effectiveness are well-intentioned and look like progress at face value, in fact these reforms should only be instituted sparingly and with the utmost caution, as there are many ways in which they could backfire, only further exacerbating a problem with deep social and economic roots.

Silencing and Standardizing Sexual Assault

The first, most glaring problem is, quite simply, that you can’t rank your way to reform. Colleges are already incentivized to underreport sexual assault. They are also incentivized against discouraging patriarchal structures of shaming that stop victims from telling their stories in the first place.

One in five women experience attempted or completed sexual assault while in college, according to the Department of Justice, as do 6% of men. Ninety percent of college rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows.

A year-long study conducted by the Center for Public Integrity in 2009 discovered that “‘responsible’ findings rarely lead to tough punishments like expulsion—even in cases involving alleged repeat offenders.” Only 10-25% of men found guilty of sexual assault are expelled from college. Punishments that don’t qualify as “tough” include colleges making the perpetrator write a research paper, which is likely what they’re in school to do in the first place.

In spite of the prevalence of sexual assault and the culture of silence, college administrators do their part to further repress these reports. One study found that 95% of sexual assaults on college campuses go unreported. More likely than not those 55 schools under investigation, and probably many more, have something to do with that number.

Given these already dismal statistics, it seems naïve to think that a college ranking system will incentivize colleges to more accurately report their numbers—in fact, it would give them another good reason not to.

When asked about this potential pitfall of the ranking system, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who is leading the effort, swatted the issue away: "For all intents and purposes, that's what's happening already. And we're going to require greater transparency and greater accountability."

A Question of Motivations

But what motivates colleges to mishandle and underreport sexual assault cases in the first place? Pundits and policy-makers often identify “fear of bad press” as a culprit behind underreporting, but in fact the problem goes deeper than that

Before having colleges submit to a ranking system that reveals something about sexual violence on their campuses (and hides much else), it behooves us to rank their priorities. Or maybe we don’t even need to, maybe we could just have a conversation about sexual assault at colleges that includes the story of how corporate culture, from profiting off student indebtedness, to investing in exploitative companies, is turning colleges away from prioritizing students’ wellbeing.

Due to the deregulation of colleges and the NCAA in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, the spike in money being funneled to universities from private companies has gone relatively unchecked, giving rise to a corporate-controlled complex of higher education.

“High rates of campus rape may be a symptom of the growing Academic Industrial Complex—specifically, how the increase of private money influences administrative handling of sexual assault, and particularly, how it is silenced,” wrote Save Wiyabi Project co-founder Lauren Chief Elk in an article for Truthout in March.

In other words, it is something of a PR problem, but it’s the sympathies of big businesses that colleges are after, and their continued financial support. Public perception matters, but only so far as it interferes with the college’s interest, which is to make money. “If a campus appears to have a problem with violence, it is less likely that private donors and businesses are going to have an interest in funding it. Therefore, in the realms of both admissions and outside funding, universities have major incentives to underreport the crime,” writes Elk.

Colleges that are in the business of making money are also in the business of encouraging a culture of sexism and violence. One way in which this plays out is through jock culture, where private investors pour millions into college sports teams. “Historically,” writes Jessica Luther for the Atlantic, “when college sports programs, especially football, have needed to convince young, athletic men to choose their school, they’ve used women to do so.”

These loathsome persuasion tactics, again, often come down to a financial calculation on the college’s part. The 20 most profitable college football teams in the country rake in seven-figure revenues, but the players cannot be given any financial incentive to pad the wallets of their wealthy sponsors, as delineated in the NCCA Division 1 Manual.

Dave Zirin wrote powerfully about the muted, almost non-existent initial reaction of the media to the allegations of two young women who said they had been assaulted by members of the Notre Dame football team:

“At too many universities, too many football players are schooled to see women as the spoils of being a campus god. But it’s also an issue beyond the commodification of women on a big football campus. It’s the fruit of a culture where politicians can write laws that aim to define the difference between 'rape' and 'forcible rape' and candidates for the Senate can speak about pregnancy from rape being either a 'gift from God' or biologically impossible in the case of 'legitimate rape.'"

In other words, colleges become complicit in rape culture when they are given a cash incentive to do so, which is, in this case, the financial boost a high college ranking affords. Upsetting such a structure of violence will take much more than a reorganizing of its moving parts. It will require that we recognize patriarchy and privatization as powerful motivators of these attacks and begin chipping away at their harmful logics.

Rape is among fastest growing violent crimes in America and the most common violent crime on American college campuses today. Its apologists are, for the most part, not to be found on college campuses.

Better Yet

Around the same time that Jackie Speier and her team were submitting their suggestions to U.S. News, the White House released a comprehensive report on how to protect students from sexual assault and deal with its aftermath. The report, published on Tuesday, was compiled by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, which the president established this past January. The professed goals of the report are to identification of the scope of the problem, prevention, improve the responses of universities and those of the federal government.

The report suggested a “climate survey” which would test students’ awareness of and attitudes toward sexual assault on campus, rather than count the number of incidents reported. The survey would be standardized and used across all U.S. colleges. In addition, the report enumerated several recommendations and guidelines to address sexual assault on college campuses including ones that address questions of confidentiality in counseling.  

This suggestion points in the right direction, polling students on their experiences rather than assigning a number to their willingness to talk at all. The danger is that the survey becomes a standard in its own right down the road, used to evaluate and rank colleges for public consumption. In other words, the surveys should remain disconnected from the colleges’ profit motives, lest they become be converted into another statistic, which not only lacks subtlety, but would also need to be controlled and repressed for colleges to remain profitable.

This same logic also points to what is so harmful about the second part of Speier’s proposal—that not only reports are counted, but also experiences, including how good the school is at preventing assaults and how adeptly they deal with its aftermath. As we move forward with a much needed debate over how to end the glut of sexual assault on college campuses, we also need to think of new ways of improving and expressing quality of care that is actually empathetic and effective, not a checklist of emotional hurdles satisfied, fear of violence assuaged (as evidenced by a survey), complaints registered.

The same day the White House also launched a new website,, which provides visitors with mental health resources and a “know your rights” page that lays out clearly the protections afforded to students under Title IX. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights also released a more detailed 52-point guide to students’ rights under Title IX. This will undoubtedly be an important resource for many.

But the most helpful suggestions in the report are those that have the potential to shift paradigms, not just put a Band-Aid on the problem.

The report astutely points out, for example, how the adverse physical and psychological consequences of sexual assault can cause the victim to have only a fragmented memory of the event or delayed recall. A culture of victim blaming can give way to repression and rationalizing the trauma. “Specialized training, thus, is crucial.”

And the report states, to its great credit, “[the] CDC’s review shows that effective programs are those that are sustained...comprehensive, and address the root individual, relational and societal causes of sexual assault.”   

Another helpful approach, proposed by Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand and some of her colleagues, is that all Title IX and Clery Act violations be recorded and made available to the public in a database. That way the public would have at their disposal more information than a ranking could show them, and colleges would be offered less incentive to fudge their numbers.

There are many kinds of policies that will really put a dent in those sexual assault numbers. Colleges could make sure that students who are found guilty of sexual assault are, at the very least, expelled, for example. They could make it a priority that students have access to mental healthcare, safe housing and rape kits. The goal is that someday we live in a society where victims, and in this case that mostly means women, are given the benefit of the doubt when they report sexual assault, and one where such offenses are not seen as minor, where the damage is real. But we don’t have to live in this society, where everyone is on the same page, for colleges to lead and do so with strength of character and conviction.

We cannot measure the problem of sexual assault out of existence. Creating more review boards, demanding more oversight, speaking compassionately and directly about sexual assault, these are all helpful ways to start speaking about such problems, but it is only the beginning.

Hannah K. Gold is a journalist, creative writer and former intern at the Nation. She lives in Brooklyn and blogs here and on Twitter @togglecoat