University of Minnesota Alumni Association

About Campus

A New Culture

The U rolls out a plan to address sexual assault and harassment on campus.

How do you change the culture on a college campus, from one where sexual assault and harassment take place with unfortunate regularity to one where such transgressions are rare to nonexistent? That is the question the University of Minnesota is grappling with as part of President Eric Kaler’s Initiative to Prevent Sexual Misconduct. Kaler, who calls addressing this “public health problem” an “important personal mission,” launched the plan in early 2017.

Illustration by Skip Sterling

“Recently, our Twin Cities campus—like too many across the nation—has been the center of sexual assault news and conversation because of the reported behavior of some of our students and faculty,” Kaler said during his State of the University address last March. “When responding to such incidents we must be guided by our values, and we must take actions that express our priorities.”

Over the past several years, the Twin Cities campus has been the setting of a string of disturbing incidents: Former U Athletic Director Norwood Teague resigned in 2015 after sexually harassing female employees; former student and Sigma Phi Epsilon member Daniel Drill-Mellum was convicted in 2016 of rape; five football players were expelled or suspended (five additional players were cleared through the U’s disciplinary process) following an alleged assault in 2016; and former head football coach Tracy Claeys was fired in early 2017 for his support of players threatening a boycott in the incident.

“We are at a tipping point at this university,” says School of Public Health Dean John Finnegan, who is charged with implementing Kaler’s initiative. “In the past, we have done good work here at the U in providing services for survivors,” he says, singling out The Aurora Center for Advocacy & Education and Boynton Health. “This is now the University saying, we need to go upstream. We need to really look at the issues of changing our culture and preventing this kind of activity in the future.”

In October, Finnegan released a report documenting what the effort might look like. It will likely entail training for students and all staff and faculty, and a public health awareness campaign that would include posters and T-shirts, based on a model implemented at other colleges, called “It’s On Us.” The approach, devised partly by the U.S. Department of Education, “works to educate, engage, and empower students and communities . . . to do something, big or small, to end sexual assault.” The report also includes recommendations for surveys and other methods of assessing the success or failure of the initiative and suggestions for generating useful research.

The cost totals around $540,000 over two years. While the plan’s fine points are yet to be worked out, in October, the Board of Regents made a policy change requiring the U to “adopt procedures on each campus for providing training on prohibited conduct to all members of the University community.”

“What we are talking about is the full spectrum of microaggression and harassment and inappropriate gender-based remarks all the way over to the criminal side, assault and violence,” says Finnegan. “This all gets in the way of why we are here as a university.”

Measuring rates of sexual misconduct is notoriously tricky, since the crimes are believed to be underreported and even the definition of assault can be subject to interpretation. A 2015 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct found that 23.5 percent of responding female undergraduates on the Twin Cities campus reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats, or incapacitation since enrolling at the U. That was in line with the aggregate rate found across the other 26 universities included in the survey.

A 2016 study commissioned by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that an average of 10 percent of women were assaulted during a single academic year across the nine campuses examined by researchers. “One of the biggest takeaways was the amount of variation [in rates of assault] from one school to another,” says coauthor Christopher Krebs, a criminologist with North Carolina-based RTI International, a nonprofit that provides research and technical services to governments and businesses. “We really think schools need to understand their problem. They need to know the problem in their community if they hope to address it.”

The dramatic differences in single-year rates between schools—from 4 percent at one to 20 percent at another—suggest that campus culture matters. Krebs says figuring out which factors or actions lead to a school being safer is the “hundred million dollar question.” He did find that sexual assault and harassment, which he places on the same continuum and considers part of the same culture, tended to be higher at schools where staff and students viewed leadership as ineffectual at dealing with sexual misconduct. “It sounds like the U of M is trying to be proactive and do the right thing,” he says.

In mapping an approach that is “community-assessment-based and evidence-driven,” Finnegan’s October report proposes widespread online sexual misconduct prevention training followed by face-to-face or department-based training—some targeting especially vulnerable groups, like LGBTQIA and international students—perhaps led by facilitators. The effort is expected to be underway by early 2018.

The report was generated with input from over 300 faculty, staff, students, and advocates, including Trish Palermo, president of the Minnesota Student Association, which has launched its own sexual assault task force to work alongside the President’s Initiative, and Katie Eichele, director of the Aurora Center, which provides free and confidential support to those coping with relationship violence, sexual assault, or stalking. “I’m excited that our campus is ready to take the next step forward, which is prevention,” says Eichele. “I know we can do it.”

In addition, the report was devised with advice from California-based psychologist and consultant Alan Berkowitz, who made a presentation at Coffman Union in September.

Speaking to a mostly full auditorium, Berkowitz advocated for a multifaceted approach. “You don’t create the problem,” he said. “But the environment either inhibits the problem or it permits the problem.” He suggested that training be different for men, focused on rape prevention, than for women, focused on risk reduction. “Because the men who sexually assault care more about what other men think, and also because we want to create a safe environment for victims to come forward, the research is clear that separate gender programs led by same-gendered facilitators are better,” he said. The problem of sexual misconduct is “primarily, but not exclusively, caused by people who identify as male and are trying to outdo other men at being male. That’s why we say prevention is men’s responsibility.”

Training can undo what he calls “pluralistic ignorance,” the incorrect belief that one’s private attitudes, judgments, or behaviors are different from those held by others, and “false consensus,” the belief that a person represents the majority when, in fact, they are in the minority. Undetected rapists, Berkowitz said, have “extreme over-perceptions of other men’s acceptance and support for their attitudes and behaviors.”

When it comes to risk reduction, Charlene Senn, a professor of applied social psychology at the University of Windsor in Canada, has devised one of the more promising approaches. The training, which she calls “resistance education,” is delivered in small-group settings. It teaches first-year university women to assess risk, recognize and resist coercive behavior, and take action—whether leaving a room, yelling, pushing, or kicking. “Research shows that when women use even one tactic,” there is a 60 percent chance of foiling a potential rape, Senn says. Her program also includes a positive sexual education component.

The training, which studies show reduces victimization, “makes sure every woman has a strategy that she would feel comfortable using.” To those who view this type of instruction as blaming or unfairly putting the onus on women to fend off male behavior, Senn says, “If we know something that we know from evidence is effective and we don’t tell women, that is not feminism.”

Beyond training, the U plans to create a campus-wide public health awareness campaign that emphasizes the need for bystander intervention, suggesting how and when to step in—expanding on earlier efforts by the Aurora Center. “We know bystanders can have a huge impact,” says Finnegan. The exact contours of the campaign are yet to be determined. The trick, he says, will be to develop a theme that everyone, including graduate students, undergraduates, faculty, and staff, can relate to. “This is the part where it’s not all science. We need art in here, too.

“I’ve been doing public health campaigns since 1980,” Finnegan says. “And so, we’ve certainly learned that if you are talking about change in the long run, you are really talking about multi-layered strategies. You are talking about education, communication, use of technology; you are talking about policy.” Despite the lack of a well-worn path forward—there isn’t a wealth of concrete evidence showing what reduces campus sexual misconduct—Finnegan says the answer is “really out there, there is no doubt in my mind.

“We may push the envelope on this.”

Jennifer Vogel is Minnesota Alumni's editor.

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