How to change a culture

Brown’s next steps in sexual assault prevention and education

By
Editor-in-Chief
Thursday, May 21, 2015
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2015

It’s Amanda Walsh’s fourth day on the job, and her schedule is already filled to the brim: meetings, plans, deadlines for new policies looming just a couple months away. From her temporary office in University Hall, she has a view of the Quiet Green, blanketed in early May sunshine.

On that same green, two months earlier, hundreds of students stood around mounds of snow in silent protest of the University’s handling of sexual assault. Most had dollar bills over their mouths, marked with “IX” in bright red tape.

Sexual assault, and the question of what Brown should do about it, has roiled campus recently. The administration penalized two fraternities for alleged incidents tied to sexual assault or harassment. Activists protested the University’s actions in a case involving alleged drugging and assault. The hashtag #moneytalksatBrown became a rallying cry in person and online, garnering national media attention. And that was all just this semester.

Walsh is, in a sense, the embodiment of Brown’s drive for reform. Hired as the first full-time Title IX program officer, she is charged with steering the school’s efforts to handle and combat sexual violence, and she’s excited about the opportunities for change.

“Absolutely Brown is positioning itself to be a leader and, I think, has the resources and the support to do that,” she says. “I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t think that was the case.”

Those resources and support are linked to the work of the Sexual Assault Task Force, which President Christina Paxson P’19 convened this year to create a master plan for Brown. In a 63-page report of its final recommendations released last month, the group called for many concrete changes, including the centralization and expansion of resources, a unified policy and a better adjudication process.

The task force also issued a call to arms on something less tangible. In its December interim report, the words are underlined: “The current norms and culture of the Brown University campus are not acceptable, and as a community we must seek in word and deed to fundamentally change that culture.”

How does a university change campus culture? This question is being asked at colleges — and beyond them — across the country. Brown now finds itself as one of the schools trying to come up with answers.

Campus culture

Justice Gaines ’16, a task force member, has seen several manifestations of a campus culture that needs changing — comments, for instance, like “PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is for soldiers, not for survivors of sexual assault” or a focus on questioning proven rates of sexual assault instead of working to reduce them.

“We’re still challenging things that aren’t really at this point challengeable,” Gaines says.

Still, Gaines and other students say they have already seen changes at Brown in the past few years, largely motivated by the heightened visibility of conversation around sexual assault.

Lauren Stewart ’15, another task force member, says she has experienced firsthand a desire for change — since being on the task force, she has sometimes been approached by people she doesn’t know at parties or in eateries to talk about her work. “People really want to make this place better and want to engage,” she says.

Kevin Carty ’15, a sexual assault peer educator, says he noticed a shift among the first-years in the Alpha Epsilon Pi pledge class he led this spring: When the group discussed consent, each pledge made comments showing that he had already thought about the topic on his own. Carty says this is notable because education about consent is so lacking in high schools. “That is all Brown culture right there.”

But heightened awareness has come at some personal cost to sexual assault survivors, like Lena Sclove, who sparked campus dialogue by sharing their stories, says Will Furuyama ’15, a sexual assault peer educator and a coordinator of the Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse. “While it’d be nice if all these conversations were just sort of happening spontaneously, I don’t think that they’d happen outside of that context,” he says.

The task force report noted that groups proven to be high-risk for sexual misconduct, like fraternities and sports teams, should have specific training strengthened and tailored to them. Carty says he thinks many of those groups will be responsive — and some have already started taking on the work of discussing and raising awareness among themselves.

But it has been a bumpy road at times. When the University announced stiff sanctions against Phi Kappa Psi and Sigma Chi in January, as well as tougher enforcement of rules against on-campus drinking, some worried that the move could have negative repercussions by pushing risky behavior off campus, where it’s harder to monitor.

Improving education

As the University considers how to foster the campus climate it desires, one of its main tools for changing culture is education. Training can help ensure that students from a wide variety of backgrounds gain awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault and an understanding of appropriate behavior. It can also ensure that faculty and staff members are cognizant of the particular challenges of sexual assault in the university context.

But this is an area in which many say Brown has been severely lacking.

A traditional model at many colleges is to have one event focused on sexual violence at the start of students’ first year — often a survivor telling a story of assault to a large group in a gym or auditorium, as Brown has done in years past.

“We don’t really have education right now,” Stewart says. “We have the one event during orientation (and) by that point, you realize nothing is mandatory at Brown.”

Research into effective practices has pointed to better ways to educate and train students. Inspired by a model at Colby College, the administration is working on developing a program combining online modules with in-person, small-group sessions.

These trainings would cover a variety of topics and take place throughout the year, aiming to stimulate consistent thought and discussion about issues like consent, bystander intervention, gender roles and sexual power dynamics.

There’s another component, too: making it required. The task force recommended that the University find ways to ensure participation, like making training a prerequisite for students registering for classes or faculty members receiving salary increases.

Liza Cariaga-Lo, vice president for academic development, diversity and inclusion, is leading many of the immediate efforts to improve education, including plans for next semester. The report set a July 1 deadline for creating these, and she says they are already underway.

Effective this fall, orientation for new graduate students will include an hour-long panel focused on sexual assault resources and policies. A similar program for new medical students will also be implemented, Cariaga-Lo says. And the University is working with an outside company to adapt an online training module for faculty and staff that will roll out this fall.

The task force report emphasized that education for everybody needs to include considerations of how sexual violence intersects with different identities and communities. Gaines says that means not glossing over the fact that sexual assault disproportionately affects queer people and people of color, for example.

In 2011, the orientation event Stewart attended featured a white woman talking about her experience of being assaulted by a man, which she says confined sexual assault to a very specific narrative.

“How can we build compassion to be more a part of our culture? How can we build understanding and knowledge and empathy into what we are expecting from people on campus and how we are expecting people to treat each other?” Gaines says. “Part of that is education.”

Taking the lead?

Though research at Brown and elsewhere has offered some insights into the best ways to educate and train people about sexual assault, colleges everywhere are grappling with the same overarching concern: Nobody has fully figured it out yet.

And perhaps nobody will. Each university exists within society at large, so there are limits to how much it can shape its own community. The task force report made clear that it does not expect Brown to be able to drive rates of violence to zero. But, members say, the school and the community have every obligation to try nonetheless.

As campus sexual assault has been elevated in the national consciousness over the past couple of years, many schools have started devoting more institutional resources to figuring out a better path forward. But the body of research remains relatively small in some areas — in the context of graduate education, for instance. 

“If anybody had really figured it out, we’d all be doing that,” says Gail Cohee, director of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center and assistant dean of the College. “What everybody’s doing at this point is borrowing from what’s working at other institutions. The nice thing about this getting such national attention is that universities are sharing information in ways I think they hadn’t necessarily done before.”

Hence the references in the task force’s report to efforts at places like Colby and Wheaton College. Cohee says a few schools, like Yale and Tufts University, were legally forced to devote more attention to sexual assault a few years before the national momentum kicked in with a renewed push from the Obama administration in 2011.

But Brown’s administration has focused on sexual assault for at least a couple decades, says Russell Carey ’91 MA’06, the task force’s co-chair. Brown was one of the first colleges to designate sexual misconduct as an official offense when it did so in the early ’90s, he says.

Some experts say a greater institutional commitment to change across the country is the most salient transformation in recent years. “We already know a huge amount, as far as I’m concerned. What’s been missing is the political will on the part of college administrations,” says Jackson Katz, creator of the national Mentors in Violence Prevention education program. “People are listening more because now there’s political leverage. There’s momentum.”

Still, no school has really emerged as a national leader on comprehensively creating better policies. “I don’t know if there’s really an ‘ahead of the pack’ in terms of sexual violence policy,” Furuyama says.

A range of efforts

Beyond implementing educational and training programs, Brown’s administration is looking to use a variety of tools to achieve the cultural shifts it wants to see.

Part of this attempted culture shift involves the reforms to the reporting and adjudication processes themselves. The task force wrote in its report that centralizing a system and processes that are clear, fair and supportive to survivors would change the nature of students’ experiences on campus.

Many at Brown actually hope and expect to see a rise, temporarily, in reported incidents of sexual assault: Since current reporting data is significantly lower than what studies indicate is the rate of actual violence, a rise in reports would indicate that survivors feel more comfortable coming forward.

“It reflects a sense that the culture is one that will support a reporter,” Walsh says. “We can’t possibly address the sexual assault, dating violence, stalking that is occurring on the campus unless we know about it.”

A campus climate survey conducted this spring by the Association of American Universities will also shed light on the nature of sexual violence at Brown. The survey’s results are expected in the fall.

Brown additionally intends to leverage its capabilities in another way: promoting and stimulating more scholarly research on sexual violence.

Across all the initiatives the University is undertaking, sources say, a continual process of evaluating and assessing what works and what doesn’t work is crucial.

That includes comprehensive data collection and reporting, Carey says, as well as seeking a shift to an environment where sexual violence is unacceptable. “That’s much harder to put a number to,” he says. “It’s more of a feel than a data point. But for me that would be a sign of great success.”

For Stewart, work to prevent sexual assault must be paired with a more supportive climate for survivors, from both the administration and students.

“My dream is: If you’re sexually assaulted, then you have a good support system because we have educated people to know how to respond,” she says.

“I hope that our environment becomes more survivor-friendly and sexual assault isn’t like this dirty secret — that we admit that we have this problem and we’re trying to work towards fixing it.”