University Responses to Sexual Violence

The #MeToo movement highlights the challenges organizations face as they struggle to respond to sexual violence. How colleges and universities treat sexual violence is of particular importance because universities serve as hubs, connecting the labor market, families, the philanthropic sector, government, and other parts of society. They play a vital role in the education of citizens and the creation of our scientific workforce. As Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 recognizes, women’s access to education—including higher education—is a fundamental issue of gender equity. A series of court cases starting with Alexander v. Yale in 1980 established that sexual harassment in schools threatens women’s access to education, and is thus a form of prohibited sex discrimination.

American universities have failed to respond effectively to sexual violence. Approximately one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college. These rates have remained roughly constant since at least the 1980s. The failure of universities to address sexual violence is evidence of stubborn gender inequality. It is also a puzzle. Given their ethical commitments and educational missions, why have universities been unable to address this issue? More pragmatically, why don’t they do better, particularly in recent years, as the reputational and financial stakes have escalated? One might argue that failure is simply a consequence of the intractable nature of the problem. But this cannot explain why universities continue to support organizations and practices, such as fraternities, that have been consistently found to intensify sexual risk (Armstrong, Hamilton and Sweeney 2006). Nor can it explain the substantial variation that exists in organizational responses. Systematic research on this variation is scarce. Research on the legal, political, and cultural forces shaping university responses is even more sparse.

My colleague Sandra Levitsky and I are working to document and explain variation in university responses to sexual violence in a rapidly changing legal, political, and cultural environment. We conducted a large, multi-year, multi-method project involving the construction and analysis of a quantitative data set and qualitative interviews. The project offered a context for graduate and undergraduate training and provided an umbrella for a variety of spin-off student projects. Details about the project can be found on the project website.

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