Martin Luther King said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” I am a Stanford alum and this is a letter to the people in power at Stanford in support of brave Leah Francis, an undergraduate student who decided to speak about a painful experience and take action.
My organization, the Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness, was hired by Stanford to run a DOJ Office of Violence Against Women grant from 2006-2011. The Center decided to stop working with Stanford in 2011 largely due to the fact that the people in power at Stanford continued to prioritize liability over student safety. They failed to recognize that avoiding liability is achieved by properly responding to sexual assault and dating violence cases. Instead, the University has improperly focused on avoiding being sued by a student found responsible for perpetrating these acts.
The Center wrote the proposal to establish the Office of Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse (SARA) in hopes that an official office would lead to greater change, but until the SARA office reports directly to the Provost or President of the University, we will continue to see ineffective and inadequate responses to these issues. This office needs to have the power to ensure that all decision makers, including ARP reviewers and top administrators, are properly trained to stop blaming victims and start holding people who choose to rape accountable.
My hope is that a Fundamental Standard at any university does not exist in vain. It is important to distinguish Stanford University’s Office of Community Standards (OCS) from the United States justice system. It is not a court of law. The OCS administers the student judicial process for Stanford by which students are held accountable for adhering to established community standards. In cases of sexual assault and dating violence, reviewers are asked to determine if a student violated the Fundamental Standard which states “Students at Stanford are expected to show both within and without the University such respect for order, morality, personal honor and the rights of others as is demanded of good citizens. Failure to do this will be sufficient cause for removal from the University.”
In Leah Francis’s case, the reviewers found the student responsible for violating the fundamental standard and for sexual assault through force. They found him responsible for forcing himself inside a woman who was so intoxicated that, not only could she not give consent, she could not remove her tampon. Women do not consent to sex when there is a tampon inside them because it will penetrate their cervix, which is what happened to Leah. For the people who are victim-blaming out there, you must see that most men do not try to have sex when their friend, or ex-girlfriend, or girl-friend, is not able to give consent. They bring their friend a glass of water and some crackers and they sleep in another room. So the question is why Stanford wants to give a degree to a student who raped a fellow classmate who came to him for help; who came to him because she thought he would provide a safe place for her to sleep.
In his book, Macho Paradox, Jackson Katz quotes Doug Flutie, a college and national football star: “There’s nothing better than excelling at a game you love. There’s nothing worse than thinking your accomplishments as a player outweigh your responsibilities as a person.” There’s nothing worse than thinking your accomplishments as a student outweigh your responsibilities as a person. I am asking the people in power at Stanford to consider this as they craft a response to the legitimate public outcry they are witnessing. The Fundamental Standard exists because you believe that your mission is not just to produce number-crunching geniuses. Your mission includes the joy of contributing to the development of well-rounded human beings who have the intelligence and integrity to change the world.
This mission includes accountability. Holding people accountable for sexual violence and relationship abuse provides the person who has committed an act of cruelty on someone else with an option to make a different decision that doesn’t harm fellow human beings; because he will know there are consequences. Holding people accountable ensures that fewer people in this place that students call home for four years will harm their friends; because they will know there are consequences. Holding people accountable ensures that young women like Leah can continue feeling proud of being part of the Stanford community; because they will know that Stanford does not blame victims and stands by its expectations that students treat each other with respect.
I am asking you, people in power at Stanford, to read this, not with anger, or defensiveness, but with awareness of your own opportunity to stand up and do what’s right. Rather than justify your mistake in this particular case, or other cases, apologize. Ask the legal office to craft an apology that doesn’t expose you to further liability, but apologize in earnest. Apologize for telling a perpetrator that you value his degree more than you value safety and justice for a victim who is also trying to obtain a degree in the face of lifelong pain. Apologize and then do something about it. Not just for the sake of checking a box to show you tried. And give permission to the Stanford community to speak truth to you without fear of being shut out of the community. Again, Martin Luther King: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but [s]he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” There are people in power at Stanford whose conscience is telling them to speak out. I hope you do.
Nicole Baran, ’00, ’01
Contact Nicole Baran at firstname.lastname@example.org.