Culture of Respect as an Evolution

In this series, we highlight the tools and programs provided by Culture of Respect to help higher education end campus sexual violence. 

It was 2011, and I had been president of Williams College for about a year. My team and I were staring at the results of an anonymous survey of the health of our two thousand undergraduate students, and we were seeing something that shocked us. More than half of the women on our campus reported having been subjected to unwanted sexual contact while at Williams, and approximately one in ten reported unwanted sexual intercourse. This was a heartbreaking tale of personal suffering, but it was also something more: a public health crisis. 

Suppose that ten percent of our students were being struck by cars as they crossed the state highway that runs through the Williams campus. Of course, we’d move aggressively and immediately to address that, and we wouldn’t think that anything short of total elimination of the problem constituted success. The issue of sexual misconduct on our campus was of that magnitude. Addressing it required both deep care for students who had been harmed and accountability for those who had harmed them, and a comprehensive public health approach to prevention. 

Facing this shocking situation, here’s what we had: a talented, committed staff of professionals; terrific students who wanted to partner with us; and a deep sense of urgency. What we didn’t have was a map for how to do this work as effectively as possible. There was no CORE Blueprint, with best practices and guidance about how to deploy resources. There was no community of professionals beyond the college to whom we could turn for ideas and support. We dived into the work, we made progress and learned as we went, but we felt relatively isolated in our efforts.

The next year saw the Department of Education’s Dear Colleague Letter, emphasizing that addressing sexual assault on college campuses isn’t only a moral and health issue, it’s an educational issue governed by Title IX. At Williams, we were grateful for the letter, both because we agreed with its premise and because it made this critical issue more visible and national.

But at the same time, there developed a toxic narrative, in the press and elsewhere, that in order to “protect our reputations,” most colleges wanted to sweep sexual assault under the rug rather than address it. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Everywhere, I saw student affairs professionals profoundly committed to this work, to creating campuses where sexual assault was a thing of the past. What they needed wasn’t uninformed criticism, it was help and resources. A community of colleagues. A blueprint. We shouldn’t each reinvent the wheel; rather, we should do this hard and vital work together. This is why, when I was at Williams, I supported the establishment of Culture of Respect. 

Things have changed since 2011, in ways that are both hopeful and challenging. On the one hand, awareness of these issues has only grown. The #MeToo movement has urged us to grapple much more seriously with the harm that sexual harassment and sexual assault do, not just to students but to people of all ages. The 2018 National Academies consensus study report on the climate for women in science and engineering was as damning in its conclusions as it was measured in its tone; we at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation have provided resources to disseminate the report broadly and to fund significant follow-on activities by the national scientific societies. The discussion of sexual assault has finally come out of the shadows.

On the other hand, the new presidential administration has taken a very different approach, rescinding some official guidance and suggesting (maybe even mandating) new approaches that likely will make it harder to meet the needs of our individual students and of our campuses as a whole. And more generally, we are facing blowback and backlash, something that often follows serious progress on difficult and important social issues.

What encourages me, more than anything else, is that no matter what challenges the environment may present, there is no going back on our commitment to eradicating all forms of sexual misconduct from our colleges. We launched this work because we believe in its critical importance, not because of a governmental mandate. We have a community of extraordinarily committed professionals on campuses spread across this country. We have students who are eager to learn better ways to care for each other.

The hardest and most important work we are doing is the work of changing our campus cultures, to foster a universal appreciation for the personal boundaries and individual experiences of every person. I would have been very gratified to have known, back in 2011 when we first saw those awful statistics about our own college, that we would find so many amazing partners in building that fundamental culture of respect.


Culture of Respect supports institutions of higher education in all aspects of preventing and responding to campus sexual violence.

Join us for our free live briefing, Task Forces: A Model for Collaborating to End Sexual Violence in Higher Education with Allison Tombros Korman, David Arnold, Anna R. Kratky, Wendy Mendes, Denmark Diaz on Thursday, October 3, 2019 at 3:00 pm ET.

Apply now for the fourth cohort of the Collective and join more than 100 colleges and universities in fostering a Culture of Respect.  

Adam Falk is President of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation in January 2018, Falk served as President of Williams College from 2010 through 2017. His accomplishments while at Williams include a deepened commitment to student body diversity and inclusion, increased attention to campus sustainability, and major investments in academic facilities. Falk came to Williams from the Johns Hopkins University, where he had been a member of the physics faculty since 1994. From 2006 to 2010, he served as the James B. Knapp Dean of the university’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, following service as Dean of the Faculty and Interim Dean.