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Confronting Assault Issues on Campus: Our Reality, Our Challenge

Dr. Henry Cloud wrote a book called Integrity wherein he describes it as “the courage to meet the demands of reality.” When it comes to confronting assault issues, too often I fear we are not courageous enough to deal with the reality and the challenges that come along with it.

Life is forever confounding and challenging. As a professional, first in the insurance industry and then higher education, I always believed in leaving my intensely personal issues at home, safely out of mind from day-to-day work responsibilities.

Verelyn Gibbs WatsonVerelyn Gibbs WatsonLate last year my personal life collided with my work life in regards to the issues of assault on college campuses.

A consultant was urging me to speak up as issues of sexual assault and campus violence attracted more and more attention. He argued that it was essential for me to share thoughts as the president of the largest accredited honor society in the Association of College Honor Societies. We’re also an honor society with a 70 percent female member population.

But in thinking this through, I was very hesitant. I came to realize my past was holding me back. I had never spoken publicly about the relationship violence I had experienced many years ago. Calling for high achievers to raise the bar and speak up, while I remained silent about my own experiences, just felt wrong.

Perhaps some can compartmentalize their lives and plow ahead without integrating what they have seen and reacted to. This was not possible for me. I realized in order to write about issues of sexual assault and campus violence, I needed to first explain what had happened to me, and that would not be easy.

I kept being encouraged that the higher ed community would welcome public statements from someone like me. I was assured many college presidents and association leaders felt they couldn’t weigh in as the Justice Department was launching investigations and other elements were making the environment very fraught.

It was clear that students and their campuses communities were all struggling with this and I knew it was essential to help shine a light on the issue without blaming or vilifying institutions of higher ed. This was especially important with so many of them taking more steps to improve the campus culture.

I reflected on Cloud’s sentiments as I considered the reality facing our college campuses today. Ultimately, I decided to share my experiences openly and honestly in a blog entry and use it as a call to action for our honor society and the entire college sector.

I was nervous as I waited to see the reaction. My anxiety was misplaced. Our honor society’s national leadership council immediately embraced my words and stepped up to help lead the charge. Our board of directors, inspired by the passion of our student leaders, was supportive of the cause. Even U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut tweeted the blog. It went viral.

This issue has helped galvanize The National Society of Collegiate Scholars and we have made an examination of the problem and solutions a central part of our ScholarCon conference in late June.

Certainly I can’t speak for other leaders in our space, but a recent poll indicated that college presidents were split on the occurrence of sexual assault, be it in a general sense or on the campuses they oversee. When asked if they thought sexual assault was a “problem,” these presidents were more likely to think of as a general problem rather than as an issue on their own campuses.

Maybe this is all someone else’s issue or being blown out of proportion. Maybe. For those that have acknowledged these issues as real concerns or problems, I strongly believe that, by acknowledging the issues, leaders are setting their institutions on a courageous path to changing outcomes for their students. I hope they will be joined by many more.

I see my role as one to look for and highlight solutions. I will leave the blame game and investigations to appropriate authorities. But I remain convinced, more than ever, that the effort to support sexual assault and campus violence victims, while praising prevention methods, is a worthy endeavor.

Verelyn Gibbs Watson is president and COO of The National Society of Collegiate Scholars.

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