It is not a secret that colleges and universities have been plagued by cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Too often, students find themselves victimized by members of their own communities, and we as faculty who are committed to fostering a safe and supportive learning and working environment must find constructive ways to respond.
Why there are these problems, and why they seem to occur with frequency in the academic world, are deep, important questions that I hope we will continue to have conversations about. But what I want to do here is to suggest two concrete proposals for moving forward.
Being sexually assaulted or harassed is a traumatizing and isolating experience, and students who suffer at the hands of members of their own communities often face a further traumatizing choice: be quiet and continue to share classrooms, colloquia, and departmental parties with those who have victimized them, or come forward and face a myriad of possible consequences, ranging from having their private lives subjected to public scrutiny to outright rejection by their peers.
Despite the risks, some students do report the crimes to officials at their institutions, and some do so precisely because they believe that it is the morally right thing to do. Reporting such incidents is a courageous step in protecting oneself and others from being harmed. There is, however, one possible consequence of coming forward that is particularly pernicious: this very act of seeking justice and fostering safety might itself result in further harm to victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment, by rendering them vulnerable to lawsuits brought against them by the people who have already victimized them.
Faculty members are employees of colleges and universities and, so long as they are acting within the scope of their employment, they are indemnified by their employers—that is, their employers will cover legal expenses and damages that may arise in the course of their fulfilling their professional obligations. However, students, both undergraduate and graduate, are not employees and may not automatically enjoy this protection. While some institutions readily agree to defend and indemnify students who face legal action against them, absent such indemnification, a student may face significant legal expenses in defending against a lawsuit filed by someone who typically has greater financial resources. This very possibility can have a chilling impact on our communities, for it provides an extremely effective means of silencing victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Here is where my first proposal comes in: should a student report to you that she has been victimized by one of your students or colleagues, fight aggressively on her behalf for the college or university to indemnify her.* You are in a far more powerful position than she is in, and you have far more resources to appeal to in negotiating and advocating on her behalf. Tell your institution how it is in its own interest in the long run to cultivate an environment in which students can seek justice and safety for themselves and others without the added risk of financial ruin. You can assure them that indemnifying students in this way is not without precedent.
In addition to the issue of indemnification, it is also important to recognize that lawsuits often force the defendant into silence. This silence, and the social isolation that comes with it, can be emotionally devastating. My second proposal, then, is that we, as members of the academic community, reach out to victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment, to let them know that they do not stand alone and that their position in our profession is secure. If you believe a victim, tell her that you do. If you feel that she suffered an appalling violation, convey this to her. If you know of a professional opportunity for which she is well-suited, invite her. Send her an e-mail, post a collective letter of public support, include her in academic discussions and gatherings. In caring for those who have already taken the courageous step of standing up for justice, we will not only make it easier for future victims to find their voices, we will also foster a community in which our most vulnerable members can flourish.
* Although I use the feminine pronoun here, these issues apply to all victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
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