When Faced With Evidence, What Shall We Do?

Every morning, I get briefings from two magazines that cover the higher education industry: Inside Higher Ed, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Usually it’s just the swirl of a busy industry, or the news of yet another example of how the business model of undergraduate education is coming apart. But yesterday…

Duke University released the results of their second biennial Student Experiences Survey, a delicate name for the study of “the extent and nature of sexual misconduct involving Duke students.” Any endeavor titled with a euphemism doesn’t bode well. And sure enough, after hemming and hawing about students’ awareness of campus efforts toward improved climate blah blah blah, the report places the most salient fact on page 11:

48% of all women undergraduates have experienced sexual assault since arriving at the campus.

Excuse me, what??

Let’s fill in the blank with any other public health crisis you choose.

  • 48% of Duke students have ebola.
  • 48% of Duke dormitories have bedbugs.
  • 48% of Duke students have food poisoning.

I mean, pick your crisis, and the public health community would be swarming the place. Classes would be cancelled, quarantine units would be mobilized, a huge team of epidemiologists would be searching for the common root cause. But when it’s only women being groped (30%) and raped (17%)… business as usual.

To their credit, the Duke administration immediately took action. They made sexual assault prevention the singular focus of the coming year, taking precedence over fundraising and research and even basketball, dedicating ten percent of their $8.5 billion endowment…

Well, no, they didn’t do that. They sent their VP for Student Affairs, Larry Moneta, out to say that the university’s numbers don’t appear to be out of line with what the Association of American Universities has found at similar institutions.

Moneta said he wasn’t surprised by the findings. Based on conversations with students, he said, he expected the numbers to be higher. While the scope of the problem is troubling, “I believe we have empowered victims to recognize behaviors they felt were normal that they realize now were a violation,” Moneta said. “They’re also more willing now to acknowledge they’ve been victimized.”

So the university’s takeaway from all this is that a) we’re just like everybody else, b) we thought it might be even worse, and c) at least crime victims recognize that they’ve been victimized. Our work here is done, Tonto.

I taught at Duke fifteen years ago, and recognized the special blend of toxic jock/frat culture even then (as did Tom Wolfe). But to paraphrase Larry Moneta, it isn’t just Duke.

It’s the New York City Ballet. It’s the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s the entertainment industry. It’s college faculty. It’s the armed services. It’s the United States Supreme Court. It’s the presidency. It’s everywhere that men take it upon themselves to determine the roles, and the futures, of women.

And yet, in the face of all of this evidence, men are outraged in huge numbers over an ad that gently encourages us to do a little better? Can we stop being snowflakes and stand up, at last, and make this stop?

Let me gently suggest a few public health efforts that Duke might take, to demonstrate leadership in women’s safety.

They might fund the Durham Police Department to have a patrol car at the curb 24 hours a day of every day of the year at every off-campus fraternity and sporting team house. They might put two cars at each one every September, when the first-year girls come to campus and the predators await (see p. 13 of the report).

They might issue every incoming female undergraduate a can of Mace, and adopt a “stand-your-ground” student code allowing women broad rights of self-defense in the face of threats and hostile action.

They might run spring semester straight through instead of having a spring break.

They might include statistics about sexual assault at Duke in all of their recruitment materials, and let prospective students know what they’re likely to be in for.

They might refocus the efforts of the Coach K Conference on Leadership to become an annual event that trains business and community leaders nationwide on how to respect and support women in every endeavor.

Duke University should be doing absolutely nothing else this year but responding to the moral and logistical challenges that this report raises. The safety of your students is job one. Lead, or close. It’s really that simple.