There has been a lot of activity in Washington, D.C. this week that has warranted careful attention. These have been issues that significantly impact our campuses, and to a great extent, our daily lives – healthcare and transgender rights among them. With all that has been happening, the post-mortem about Betsy DeVos’s meetings on campus sexual assault and the accompanying comments by Candice Jackson that overshadowed those meetings, seem long ago. Yet the ripple effects from those events continue and they leave those of us who continue to be invested in this work with some important reminders about re-centering the conversation moving forward.
Candace Jackson’s comments prior to the Department of Education’s listening sessions asserting that 90% of campus sexual assault involve drunk, regretted sex rather than actual assaults were clearly misguided and not based on factual data on false reports. She since apologized for those comments, but the damage had clearly been done. Activists and victims’ rights organizations, joined by some supportive members of Congress, had already planned to protest the meetings due to the invitation of supposed men’s rights groups. The comments by Candace Jackson added to their legitimate concern that the Department isn’t taking the issue seriously.
There were two important takeaways from the controversial statements by Jackson and the meetings held by the Department for Student Affairs practitioners, as well as anyone else whose role on campus involves preventing or responding to sexual and relationship violence.
The first is the importance of having Student Affairs practitioners at the table. Among the list of higher education associations invited to the listening sessions were organizations that represent college and university presidents and lawyers. And while it can be argued that high level decision makers are important stakeholders in these discussions, there was a serious gap in knowledge about the front line work happening on campus. For instance, how many people at that higher education session could articulate how many cases their campus investigates in a typical semester or how many hours of training their law enforcement officers, Title IX staff, student conduct and hearing board members receive every year? Being able to accurately describe how much effort goes into handling these cases correctly is vital when meeting with people who have accused campuses of serving as “kangaroo courts.” Who on that panel could articulate why students choose to report to campus processes instead of criminal justice processes? The importance of having Student Affairs staff at the table has been outlined elsewhere and cannot be understated.
The second important lesson to be learned from the past two weeks is the importance of educating legislators and policymakers while centering actual facts at the forefront of those discussions. There is certainly a feeling that we may be living in an era of “post truth politics,” but it doesn’t mean that attempts to support discussions with actual data should be aborted. As scholars and activists quickly pointed out after Jackson’s comments, she had actually inverted the rates of false reporting, which reside somewhere between 2 and 10% (incidentally, the same rate as false reports of other crimes such as robbery). There are hundreds of scholars who are currently doing significant research on campus sexual violence that can be very useful for practitioners in both their roles on campus and in conversations with policymakers at the national level. For example, a current study by Drs. Carrie Moylan and Amy Hammock is examining the process of sexual assault policy implementation at institutions across the country. So much effort in recent years has been focused on updating policies and procedures with regard to campus sexual and relationship violence. This study, and others like it, can help us understand how effectively those policies have been carried out. Student Affairs practitioners should not only seek out research to strengthen their efforts on campus and to inform policy conversations, but also participate in research to help us better understand which of our efforts have been effective and which have been less so. This connection between research and data and policymaking has been sadly absent, often with dire consequences for victims of interpersonal violence as a result.
NASPA supports this work in a variety of ways, from producing original research to supporting the involvement of Student Affairs professionals in the policymaking process at all levels. The Research and Policy Institute (RPI) team, in coordination with the Public Policy Division, tracks sexual assault legislation and policymaking at the state and national levels. RPI also produces monthly policy briefings on this and other timely topics. In addition, NASPA recently added a Knowledge Community for Student Affairs professionals whose roles engage with this topic. The Sexual and Relationship Violence Prevention, Education, and Response KC is designed for student conduct staff, prevention educators, Title IX coordinators, advocates and senior level administrators who oversee these areas, and provides a space for robust discussion on the best ways to address interpersonal violence when it happens on our campuses.
NASPA is as committed as ever to providing safe campus environments for all students, and continuing the work with our members and stakeholders at all levels to continue this important work. Together, we can support our work with solid data and ensure that the expertise and voices of Student Affairs professionals guide our efforts moving forward.