Why do universities “handle” sexual assault?

There’s a very interesting op ed over at Feminist Wire which is well worth a read. (Thanks for the tip, L!) The author’s main point is that lost in the discussion of universities’ mishandling of sexual assault allegations is the question of why universities should be handling sexual assault allegations in the first place.

Three days after the first shot across the bow, the US Department of Education released the names of 55 colleges and universities currently under investigation for their mishandling of sexual assault cases. While I am pleased by this progress, one enormous question remains looming in my mind: why are colleges and universities “handling” sexual assault cases? If I were raped in the bathroom at my local supermarket, I wouldn’t expect the grocery store to “handle” it. I would call the cops and I imagine the grocery store would support that 100%. I’m not sure how or when this system of separate investigation and punishment began, but what it has created is a dangerous double standard that both perpetuates rape culture and allows some perpetrators to avoid well-deserved consequences.

Unfortunately, the author fails to address what I assume are the two main talking points of those who disagree with her. Firstly, universities can apply a lower standard of evidence than courtrooms – they don’t have to establish ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the assault took place in order to take action. That’s of particular importance for sexual assault cases – especially date rape or situations in which both parties were heavily intoxicated – where guilty verdicts in courtrooms are notoriously difficult to come by. Secondly, some students who wouldn’t want to go to the cops may nevertheless feel comfortable going and speaking to university administrators. So in-house procedures for reports of sexual assault can allow for action to be taken in situations were the victim is reluctant to speak with police or press formal charges.

Despite failing to address these points, though, the op ed is still a very interesting read. It presents one side of a conversation we should definitely be having.

8 thoughts on “Why do universities “handle” sexual assault?

  1. We could just do away with all rules of evidence and that way we could ensure convictions no matter what!

  2. I take Rumple to be mocking the idea that it might ever be a good idea to use a standard of evidence other than the beyond reasonable doubt standard.

    This ignores the fact that findings of responsibility in university sexual assault hearings involve, at worst, expulsion or termination of employment; people don’t get sent to jail when they lose their case.

    If Rumple is OK with civil courts using a preponderance of evidence standard in order to determine civil liability, on the grounds that findings of civil liability are generally not as damaging to their targets as findings of criminal liability, I’m not sure why Rumple shouldn’t also be OK with universities using a standard less demanding than “beyond reasonable doubt” in their sexual assault investigations, on essentially the same grounds. Or perhaps Rumple thinks that civil courts too should use the beyond reasonable doubt standard?

    I, for one, share magicalersatz’s frustration that the author of the post didn’t address the issue of standards of evidence. For sexual assault cases on university campuses to effectively handled by the criminal justice system, you’d have to find prosecutors willing to pursue such cases. And given the beyond reasonable doubt standard, that would probably be quite rare. 9 in 10 victims of rape on college campuses know their attackers (link below) and alcohol is often involved, which makes it very difficult to get criminal convictions in such circumstances. In light of that, it’s hard for me to imagine that if it weren’t for universities conducting their own internal investigations, the criminal justice system would step in.


  3. I share the concerns mentioned in the OP regarding standards of evidence, as well as students who may not want to come forward to the police. But I do think that O’Driscoll is largely right on regarding her criticisms of how universities as a matter of fact typically handle sexual assault cases.

    One issue that might be overlooked here is that it’s not as if students must EITHER make use of internal university resources OR file an official police report — students can, and should, do both. However, in my admittedly limited experience (and, anecdotally, in the experience of a number of people I know) university administrators typically discourage students from reporting to the police through more or less subtle tactics. This includes, say, pointing out that rape convictions are regrettably rare and pursuing a criminal trial might be unduly stressful for the victim (true, but perhaps not always appropriate information to present to a complainant when he or she is seeking help), or outright lying to students about whether or not a report filed with campus security also gets forwarded on to local police (I personally know of several occasions of this sort). It can also include simply failing to ask the student whether or not they would like to file an official police report, at a time when asking such a question would have been called for. In general, I think it just doesn’t occur to lots of students that complaining to, say, campus security or university administration does not in even the least bit “get the ball rolling” when it comes to starting actual criminal proceedings. If that is true, and if it is true that universities often actually discourage students from filing official police reports (even if they do so just by failing to provide the student with adequate information about his or her options), that seems like a huge problem to me.

  4. Actually, the mockery was of advocating a certain form of hearing on the grounds that it will result in more convictions. One would think that such reasoning is not very conducive to setting up a just system.

    One might also not care to have university administrators and their ilk meting out justice, as they are not widely known for the honesty, immunity to influence, and love of justice. And certainly not when so many of the accused will be the student athletes for whom they have an innate fondness.

    The innocent yet accused and the honest accusers suffer in this farce of a system, and the only people who benefit are those who run it, those who try to gain political influence in universities through promoting it, and those who manage to pull of injustice that they would otherwise not accomplished.

  5. It is very clear that institutions that in effect police themselves can be the agents of very dire abuse. It isn’t clear, however, what’s cause and what’s effect.

    Among other things, an inordinate number of people can become invested in protecting a reputation, a brand, a bank account, a friend, and so on. I think the grocery store example in the piece quoted is questionable. ‘We’re not liable’ might be their first response.

  6. I’m so pleased that the piece has touched off discussions in different areas. First of all, thank you all for reading the piece and thinking about it. In the interest of space, we weren’t able to touch on all of the complicated aspects of this issue and I agree that it is important to know that schools have a much different method of determining whether or not someone has broken their code of ethics. While we all share the same goal of ensuring that victims of sexual assault are heard and their allegations responded to quickly and decisively, I worry that the inherent conflict of interest that often exists at schools colors their investigations. Also, because they have a much different (and not legally binding) way of determining guilt or innocence, any investigation that occurs may end up hindering an official police investigation. I am very sympathetic to the women who are hesitant to report incidents to the police and I believe that the schools have a large role to play here in supporting the victim emotionally and encouraging her to go through official channels. Indeed, they have a huge liability at stake if they have violent offenders in their midst that they do nothing about. It is a complex issue, for certain, but by letting schools have a parallel (or the only) process, we are sending a message that college students are a breed apart and that can only end up harming everyone involved. Again, thanks so much for taking up the mantle of discussion! (And, as a feminist who holds a degree in philosophy, I am thrilled to discover that this site exists!)

  7. Leaving aside the issues of gender / sexuality / discrimination / etc. (which I know is ridiculous, but hear me out…) it seems to me that one meaningful reason that colleges and universities handle sexual assault cases and grocery stores don’t is because colleges and universities have something meaningful to withhold, and the frameworks in place to withhold it, in disciplinary proceedings.

    Nobody applies to get in to a grocery store, and there aren’t loyal networks of Safeway alums that would induce you to want to stay connected to a particular grocery store, and though sometimes you do see little photos taped to the cash register (or at least you used to) saying “don’t accept checks from these people”, banning people from the grocery store for misconduct that has not been proven in a court of law is probably illegal (maybe not? now I am thinking of “no shoes, no shirt, no service”… but anyway, the point is grocery stores are not partially constituted by their selection criteria for customers) (although Costco? which might someday have a law school [hee hee idiocracy joke]) .

    Anyway, colleges and universities are allowed to set all kinds of criteria about access and while some have been properly challenged as indefensible (gender, race, sexual orientation and so on) it seems to me that the notion that colleges and universities have special rules which they set for themselves and to which they expect people to adhere is important to the idea of the college or university itself. The idea that “sexually assaulting a drunk person might not get you in trouble out there in the fallen world, but it certainly is grounds for being kicked out of our shining city on a hill” is elitist for sure, and defeatist about social mores and the responsibility to insist they be higher for everybody (not just college kids). But it doesn’t necessarily come from a place of sexism (and might even be motivated by anti-sexism).

    Finally, flawed as it is, it might actually work in practice — by which I mean, we hear about the egregious failures in college and university systems, and we have the lamentable statistics for rape and sexual assault convictions in the justice system. But do we have large scale statistics on numbers of cases brought before disciplinary hearing boards in colleges and universities nation-wide, their “conviction” rates, their “false conviction” rates, and comparative statistics about rates of sexual assault on campuses before they existed and the rates now? I’m not an expert but my own sense is that we have a lot of anecdotes in defense of one premise or another (the feminists are out of control! Patriarchy is on the march! etc.) but in fact no generalized sense of how things are going.

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