The Times reports that a bipartisan group of senators is pushing a bill designed to crack down on sexual assault at colleges and universities.
WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday introduced legislation designed to curb the striking number of sexual assaults on college campuses. The measure would require schools to make public the result of anonymous surveys concerning assault on campuses, and impose significant financial burdens on universities that fail to comply with some of the law’s requirements.
…The new measure would require every university in the United States to conduct anonymous surveys of students about their experience with sexual violence on campus, with the results published online. The survey, which had been pushed for by sexual assault victims, is similar to one conducted by the military, and would allow parents and high school students to make comparative choices.
There are a couple of things wrong with this.
First is reporter Jennifer Steinhauer’s use of the word striking, as in “the striking number of sexual assaults on college campuses,” when in fact we really have no idea how many assaults there are on college campuses—Steinhauer never bothers to venture a guess—nor, in my opinion, is it by any means clear at what level this would become “striking” if we did know it.
(More than society in general? About the same? Half as many?)
More important is the idea of taking anonymous surveys seriously and penalizing universities that don’t—or decline to comply with the proposed law in other ways. This is a heavy-handed intrusion of government into an area where one size fits all legislation is not the answer. I think university administrators will soon come to the point where they routinely tell students, “If you feel that you have been sexually assaulted, go to the police.” Because that may be the best way to comply with federal legislation and avoid litigation and/or federal penalty if the student feels that the university has mishandled the matter.
I continue to be fascinated by the emergence of campus sexual assault as an issue about which the level of consensus—it’s a huge and horrible problem that the federal government must deal with—is inversely proportional to the level of knowledge about the issue.
For example: Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic senator from my state of New York and one of the architects of this legislation, declares that ““The price of a college education should not include a 1-in-5 chance of being sexually assaulted.”
Reporter Jennifer Steinhauer takes this statistic for granted—or perhaps gives it credence (that would explain “striking”).
But any person with just a hint of skepticism would look at that number and say, Hmmm…really? One in five?
The Washington Post examined the origins of that statistic and finds that it’s based on a 2006 Department of Justice survey of 5, 446 women aged 18-25 who chose to respond to the anonymous online survey. (They were given a $10 Amazon gift certificate in exchange for filling out the survey, which was said to take 15 minutes.) The researchers admitted that response rates were low; the respondents were, obviously, a self-selected group, which would tend to skew the responses toward those who felt particularly strongly about the issue.
Some of the questions are strikingly vague—for example, “Have you suspected that someone has had sexual contact with you when you were unable to provide consent…?”
The researchers then extrapolated the results from that online poll to all women at colleges.
There are other issues with this survey—the WashPo piece does a pretty good job of getting into them—but the bottom line is that no responsible social scientist in the world would say that the results of a survey conducted in this manner are worth the paper they’re printed on.
And from what I can tell, the same is true for most of the other numbers being tossed around in the assault on sexual assault.
The Times does not note some other elements of the Campus Accountability & Safety Act, which would also:
1) require all schools to use one uniform process for campus disciplinary proceedings (presumably this is why Harvard has just done so)
2) Mandate that colleges and universities designate “Confidential Advisors” to coordinate “support services and accommodations for survivors” (This would apply only to sexual assault victims, not students who are victims of other crimes)
Here’s the specific language for these confidential advisors:
The confidential advisor shall be trained to perform a victim-centered, trauma informed (forensic) interview, which shall focus on the experience of the victim. The confidential advisor may perform the interview for which the goal is to elicit information about the traumatic event in question so that the interview can be used in either a campus or criminal investigation or disciplinary proceeding.
These confidential advisors sound like a combination of prosecutor and cop. Will the accused also be granted confidential advisors whose job is to elicit information about the alleged event and serve as their advocate?
3) Mandates specific training for “on-campus personnel”
4) Require colleges and universities to “enter into memoranda of understanding with all applicable local law enforcement agencies to clearly delineate responsibilities and share information (emphasis added) so that when a crime occurs, both campus authorities and local authorities can focus on solving the crime”…
5) Gives the Justice Department the power to subpoena the attendance and testimony of any person who might have knowledge of an alleged incident, including current and former students
Now, a couple of things. Any sexual assault is wrong, of course. (The question is how best to handle the matter.) And, to be fair, sexual assault is a notoriously difficult thing to quantify.
Still, there are real issues here that aren’t being discussed—the downside of the federal government getting involved in allegations of rape on campus, and the unintended consequences of framing something as an enormous issue (20 percent of all college women are assaulted or raped!) when that may very well not be the case. The language in this bill corrodes the very idea that one is innocent until proven guilty; it seems instead to mandate universities to establish bureaucracies whose purpose is to corroborate allegations of sexual assault, as opposed to simply seeking the truth.
Truth is, there is no perfect way to handle the problem of sexual assault on campus; every method has its downsides. But this bill seems like a bad idea. It is, one remembers, an election year.