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Provost calls for policy, communication at ASSU sexual violence town hall

Panel follows significant criticism on University’s handling of sexual violence on campus

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Over 100 students, faculty and community members attended the Associated Students of Stanford University’s (ASSU) town hall on sexual violence on Tuesday, packing the lecture hall in Building 200 where it was held. 

The town hall follows Stanford’s release of its Annual Title IX/Sexual Harassment Report, which revealed that in the past year before Aug. 31, Stanford has received 279 reports of sexual violence, sexual harassment and gender discrimination — up from 221 in the previous year. The Stanford community has recently received nearly weekly AlertSU Crime Alerts of possible instances of sexual violence or druggings. Even more reports of potential incidents of sexual violence are posted in the Stanford Police Department’s bulletin — most recently, there was a report of rape at an undisclosed location on campus on Wednesday and a sexual battery at Escondido Village on Sunday.

Furthermore, the Association of American Universities (AAU) campus climate survey results, released on Oct. 15, showed that 14.2% of respondents had experienced at least one instance of nonconsensual sexual contact at Stanford, with 31.1% of undergraduate women reporting an instance. The first number is significantly higher than the 1.9% reported in a parallel statistic by Stanford’s Campus Climate Survey (CCS), last administered in 2015 before it was replaced by the AAU, which defines sexual assault more broadly.

“It’s my fifth year here, and we’ve never seen an [AlertSU] nearly every week,” former ASSU President Shanta Katipamula ’19 M.S. ’20 said. “That could be because there are more incidents happening or [a greater proportion of] people are reporting, but my guess would be that it’s not just an increase in reports, since research shows that increases in reports usually correlate with an increase in trust in the community, and we’ve seen the opposite of that.”

Provost Persis Drell said at the town hall that sexual harassment and violence have “been around for a long time,” but she could not point to anything specific contributing to the recent increase in reports of sexual violence.

When asked about root causes of the sexual harassment and violence, both Drell and Senior Associate Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Access Lauren Schoenthaler pointed to a power imbalance.  

“We don’t talk about how power can be used in sexual relationships,” Schoenthaler added. “Across our nation there needs to be more conversation about how systems of oppression and power can be used and how each of us can play a role and be supported by others.” 

Searching for solutions

Nearly 25 other administrative members were in attendance in addition to Drell and Schoenthaler. Six campus administrators, including Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole, Schoenthaler and Drell, formed a panel that answered questions from attendees. Before the town hall began, Drell had grimly referred to the impending question-and-answer session as a potential “firing line” for the administrators on the panel. 

“I have heard what you have to say,” Drell said. “Many of you feel betrayed, angry, vulnerable, discriminated against, distrustful, perhaps alone. I am here today because I want to hear your criticisms, I am here with many colleagues because I want to answer your questions and I want to hear your solutions as to how we’ll do better.”

In addition to seeking solutions to broader University issues, the town hall featured multiple questions from students in search of resolution to individual cases ranging from the availability of rape kits to establishing safe spaces to discuss toxic masculinity. Student questions also tackled the issues of reporting cases to Stanford once someone has left the University and power imbalance in graduate school departments. 

One of the first questions raised in the town hall was as to why the Provost chose to put the town hall during dead week as opposed to another time when students are not focused on finals and dealing with travel commitments. 

Drell said she and the ASSU had considered placing the forum in January, but the ASSU executive team had preferred that the forum be hosted sooner. 

Recent regulatory changes

Much of the town hall focused on the issue of Stanford’s policies and how they fit into the scope of national regulations. Of particular note was Stanford’s definition of sexual assault, which requires the unwanted sexual contact to have additionally been “occurring under threat or coercion.”

“Stanford is looking to change that definition and making our definition of sexual assault to be much more consistent with national norm,” Drell said. “The challenge is any change to [Title IX] policy needs to be approved by the [federal Office for Civil Rights] and we have several layers of changes, but since the [Trump] administration came in, nothing has been going through.”

Drell added that further uncertainty has been introduced by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ intention to change regulation governing campus sexual assault, which DeVos plans to announce in January. Amid these proposed changes is one that would allow cross-examination between the accused and accusing parties, but not between the accused and accuser themselves.

Policy proposals

Fielding a question on how the University plans to reduce the culture of toxic masculinity on campus, Schoenthaler said she was heartened to see men in attendance and Drell added that the University was providing funding to faculty to find an effective preventative educational program for men on campus about being perpetrators of sexual violence, as no such program exists today that has empirical backing for effectiveness. 

In response to a request that the University do a better job alerting future employers of dismissed faculty members’ sexually violent actions, Drell said the University is reviewing the process it uses to determine if recent hires have a history of sexual violence. However, she noted that not granting confidentially to separated faculty members could make reporting more difficult for sexual violence targets.

“If I don’t agree to confidentiality, the reporting party must go through our faculty discipline process,” she said. “And it may guarantee more surety of the outcome to agree to confidentially and a quiet separation rather than going through the process.”

Drell emphasized the value of communication and awareness in reducing rates of sexual violence.

“There are people who perpetrate sexual violence who don’t see themselves as doing it,” Drell said. “Which is why talking about it and making it visible is so important, along with giving [the perpetrator] a mirror so that they can see how their behavior affects others.”

In closing, the panelists pledged to respond to all questions submitted on the anonymous form that had not been covered at the town hall and offered their takeaways. These ranged from greater recognition that not all targets of sexual violence wanted to go through the criminal process to get justice to considering making sexual harassment and sexual violence training mandatory more than once in undergraduate students’ careers.

Drell called for increased student involvement in crafting responses to sexual violence.

“We need your help,” she said. “We try to run programs, but we need your participation and help, and most of all, we need your ideas to change the culture.”

An audience member called out that administrators needed to do a better job of drawing in students who would not otherwise be involved, saying that “it’s a lot to put the onus on survivors to say why you’re harassing me or assaulting me.”

“Couldn’t agree with you more,” Drell said.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that DeVos’ proposed policy would require students reporting assault to be cross-examined by faculty. The policy would allow cross-examination between the accused and accusing parties, but not between the accused and accuser themselves. The policy would not mandate that these cross-examinations occur, and faculty would not be responsible for these cross-examinations.

The article has also been corrected to reflect that the University is providing funding to faculty, not graduate students, to find an effective preventative educational program for men on campus about being perpetrators of sexual violence. The Daily regrets these errors.

Contact Kate Selig at kselig ‘at’ stanford.edu and Ujwal Srivastava at ujwal ‘at’ stanford.edu.