Why Are University Presidents Leaving Campus Rape Survivors Out in the Cold?

shutterstock_127916003College administrators have known about the campus rape problem for three decades, and they have been mandated to address it for two decades. So why has so little been done? One major factor among many is failed leadership at the top of the academy.

Karen Barrett first documented the campus rape problem in her 1982 article “Date Rape: A Campus Epidemic?” in Ms. magazine, and Ms. published another article on the same topic in 1985 featuring Dr. Mary Koss’ three-year study of over 7,000 students at 35 schools. Koss found that 1 in 4 college women faced rape or attempted rape during their time on campus—and not much has changed since then.

Schools have been mandated by law to address campus sexual assault for the past 20 years. The Clery Act of 1990 requires schools to accurately report their rape numbers, but campuses routinely underreport these figures. Schools were first mandated to provide support and accommodations to survivors in 1992 with the passage of the Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights, but most schools still fall short. As a graduate student in the late 1990s in a leadership position in residence life, I can attest to the fact that campus administrators at national conferences I attended were well aware of the campus rape problem.

So why has so little been done by college administrators?

A recent survey of college and university presidents from Inside Higher Ed reveals that presidents are a key part of the problem. Of all institutional players, college presidents have the most power to make change—through hiring decisions, policies and day-to-day leadership. Despite reputable studies showing that 1 in 5 female students face sexual assault, only 1 in 3 college presidents agree with the statement, “sexual assault is prevalent on college campuses,” according to the new report. Furthermore, only 6 percent of college presidents agree that sexual assault is prevalent on their campuses, when plenty of evidence otherwise exists.

Seventy-seven percent say their schools are doing a “good job” addressing the problem, while only 4 percent were willing to admit that their school does not adequately protect students. The truth is that almost no schools expel rapists or take other basic measures to prevent assaults on their campuses due to institutional fears about being sued by perpetrators or losing alumni donations if a problem is exposed.

We have seen evidence of this delusional thinking from college presidents who publicly deny the problem, take survivors to task for blowing the whistle, play upon rape myths of false reports and downplay the significance of campus rape:

  • At a press conference in October of 2013, University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst said that survivor complaints of the school’s mishandling sexual assault were “astonishingly misguided and demonstrably untrue” before settling with survivors for $1.3 million in 2014.
  • In 2013, Occidental College President Jonathan Veitch scolded survivor activists who “actively sought to embarrass the college” (his words) when they shared concerns about the college’s handling of sexual assault cases with local media. The college settled with 10 survivors for a large sum in 2013, but President Veitch continues to deny that Oxy has ever had a problem, and even hired a team of now-discredited PR attorneys to write a report blaming survivor activists for problems on campus.
  • In July of 2014, Hobart and Smith William College President Mark D. Gearan sent a campus-wide letter stating that he was confident the college had not violated federal law after students filed a Title IX complaint citing egregious mishandling of sexual assault.
  • In August of 2014, University of Oregon President Michael Gottfredson stepped down after allegations surfaced that he allowed three basketball players accused of a gang rape to play during March Madness. President Gottfredson denied that he or the college mishandled the case, stating that local police requested the school not take action.
  • In November of 2014, Lincoln University President Robert R. Jennings gave a speech at an all-female convocation about how false rape reports ruin men’s lives. He resigned two weeks later after his rape-myth comments brought national scrutiny.
  • In November of 2014, Eckerd College President Donald Eastman III blamed survivors for campus rape in a campus-wide email with his suggestion that they drink less and engage in less casual sex.

College presidents across the country insist that they “take this issue very seriously,” but as the Inside Higher Ed poll and this pantheon of failed presidential and institutional leadership show, most college and university presidents simply do not.

My advice to college presidents (not that any of them will actually listen since I’m one of those rowdy faculty members who just won’t behave like a “dutiful daughter”) is to:

  1. Admit there’s a problem. If survivor activists are saying you have a problem, then you have a problem. See this activism as a gift, a wake-up call if you will, and gather data on the scope of the problem on your campus through a representative student survey.
  2. Make real change by telling the truth about your numbers. Then, establish an affirmative consent policy, institute an expulsion policy for students found responsible for sexual violence, mandate ongoing annual bystander training, and comply with the law and invest in a dedicated Title IX officer and independent staff to oversee fair, professional adjudication processes. And please spare us the long list of superficial changes you’ve made as evidence of progress when the basic pillars of prevention are not in place.

Maybe we need new presidents who know how to read data. Or maybe we need new presidents who actually respect faculty experts enough to trust their data. We certainly need new presidents who aren’t steeped in rape myths and victim-blaming, who will treat this like a public health crisis instead of a public relations crisis.



Dr. Caroline Heldman is the Executive Director of The Representation Project, Professor of Politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles and a Senior Research Advisor for the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media. She also co-founded the New Orleans Women’s Shelter, the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, End Rape on Campus, Faculty Against Rape and End Rape Statute of Limitations. Her books include Rethinking Madame President: Are We Ready for a Woman in the White House?, Protest Politics in the Marketplace: Consumer Activism in the Corporate Age), Women, Power, and Politics: The Fight for Gender Equality in the United States, The New Campus Anti-Rape Movement and Sex and Gender in the 2016 Presidential Election. Her research has been featured in top academic journals like the American Political Science Review, the Journal of Politics, Political Psychology and Political Communications; and her work has also been featured in the New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast.