Create a free Diverse: Issues In Higher Education account to continue reading

Combating Gender-Based Violence on College Campuses Must Start at the Top

Gender-based violence, harassment, and sexual assault continue to be rampant on college campuses across the country.

More than one out of every eight students experiences rape or sexual assault, and one-in-five female students reports receiving assistance from a victim-services agency. Faculty and staff are also at risk of harm. Collectively, higher education must give this issue the attention and priority it deserves. Specifically, the time has come for college presidents to step up and lead the fight for the safety of our campus communities.

Dr. Adela de la TorreDr. Adela de la TorreSadly, even the grim statistics above fail to capture the full scope of gender-based violence on campuses, as experts say a majority of sexual assaults go unreported. In this context, it is unconscionable that many university leaders delegate the response to this epidemic to a single department or committee who often have other related obligations and duties. All too often, instead of taking proactive internal approaches to prevention, schools often spring to action reactively in the face of high-profile Title IX investigations, or legal threats. Our research suggests that few campuses have adopted proactive or comprehensive approaches that move the bar on this important issue.

In the simplest terms, the prevention of gender-based violence is not just a matter of policy, compliance, or enforcement; it must be addressed as part of the broader culture, to include the culture of our collective campuses, including nurturing an environment characterized by care, responsibility, and accountability. With their highly visible public platforms and extensive professional networks, university presidents are uniquely positioned to go beyond tactical responses and drive holistic cultural change. They must step up to meet this moment, including dialoguing with each other about the scope of the problem and working together to forge industry – and not just campus-specific – solutions.

With the release of the White House National Plan to End Gender-Based Violence last year, the time is upon us to consider a more comprehensive and collaborative national strategy for higher education, including development of shared best practices. Prevention, research, and survivor support efforts are currently highly fragmented across higher education. Though all universities must comply with Title IX regulations, they have different approaches, rely on different data-collection strategies, and offer varying levels of support for survivors. This patchwork approach leads to nationwide gaps in prevention and survivor care, despite the herculean efforts of Title IX officers, student affairs professionals, survivor advocates, and others.

Indeed, an October 2023 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that dating violence, sexual assault, and domestic violence pose significant challenges for survivors, including those on college campuses who may face both academic and financial consequences. The sad reality is that many survivors experience long-term trauma and leave universities without completing their degrees – an understudied phenomenon deserving of our attention and care.

The GAO’s findings and recommendations illustrate the holistic nature of a strategic approach to this issue. They include providing mental health services, no-contact orders, housing changes, course adjustments, transfer policies, suspension of student loan payments, and compassionate leaves of absence to support survivors in continuing their education. In terms of institutional administrations, a unified approach like this would require coordination and collaboration across offices and departments representing housing, student affairs, finance, registrar, provost, legal, campus safety, and more. Beyond just these functional responses, it also would require balancing various approaches to the issue as one of safety and law enforcement, Title IX compliance, student resilience, survivorship, and other perspectives.

Dr. Monica J. CasperDr. Monica J. CasperFor these reasons, it is simply unrealistic to expect effective results when the ultimate responsibility and leadership for this issue are delegated into just one office or department. On many campuses, women’s resource centers or Title IX offices become the de facto center of institutional responses and can become overwhelmed by the workload. Yet, there is only one administrator and one office on a campus that have the global view and authority over these many disparate functions: the university president. The only viable approach to effectively combating gender-based violence – and the call to action we make to institutions across the nation – is to place responsibility for a proactive approach to the issue directly in the Office of the President.

At San Diego State University, we adopted this approach in early 2023 in creating our interdisciplinary, cross-institutional Blue Ribbon Task Force on Gender Based Violence. In working both internally and with experts from institutions across the country, we discovered a broad need for systemic change in colleges and universities that goes beyond mandatory compliance with federal, state, and systemwide guidelines. That is to shift from a purely reactive approach to a holistic approach that places prevention and cultural change as the central focus. All practices and programs related to prevention must be survivor-informed – including survivors who are students, faculty, and staff. The authority of the president must be leveraged in requiring trainings for campus leaders, and we must lean into preventive measures that address power and control dynamics, consent, institutional betrayal, alcohol misuse, and more. This includes recognizing both individual and collective responsibility for harm. 

In taking a cross-functional and collective approach, presidents can tap into various experts, including survivors and advocates, who can help to ensure programs are not only strong and effective, but also facilitate restorative justice practices and are culturally specific and intersectional for our diverse communities. Even more critically, presidential leadership on this important issue ensures consistency and accountability.

Working to end gender-based violence in higher education is not only an opportunity, but it is a responsibility to those in our care. Our response to an issue of this magnitude – and the significant changes required to address it – must start at the top and cannot be delegated or be merely symbolic. At a minimum, we recommend that all professional organizations of university presidents and chancellors develop gender-based violence working groups or task forces to share best practices. We also encourage senior leaders to consult the NASEM Action Collaborative for guidance on preventing sexual harassment, NASPA’s Culture of Respect program, and organizations such as Futures Without Violence on how to foster integrative practices beyond Title IX.

Meaningful change on college campuses requires that university presidents and chancellors lead the charge. Real solutions begin when they acknowledge and embrace the vital roles they must play. Please join us in these efforts.

Dr. Adela de la Torre, an economist, is president of San Diego State University, the first woman and first Chicana to hold this position.

Dr. Monica J. Casper, a sociologist, is Special Assistant to the President and Chair of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Gender-Based Violence at San Diego State University.

The trusted source for all job seekers
We have an extensive variety of listings for both academic and non-academic positions at postsecondary institutions.
Read More
The trusted source for all job seekers