The Kavanaugh Effect on Campus

The hearings for Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh brought feverish attention late last week across the country and internationally, even for those who don’t typically follow politics. The hearings included testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford, who bravely testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about being sexually assaulted in high school, an assault which Kavanaugh has been accused of committing. Attention to the hearings has no doubt been driven, in part, by the #MeToo movement and the growing intolerance for sexual misconduct in our culture. Institutions of higher education have been at the forefront of this culture change, spurred by student activism and increased federal focus on Title IX protections for students since 2011.

Perhaps this is why campuses in particular, were so invested in the events of last week. Many institutions held gatherings so that students, faculty and staff from across campus could watch the hearings collectively. Some professors showed the testimonies of Dr. Blasey-Ford and Kavanaugh as part of their classes last week. Perhaps it is the fact that many campuses have done so much work on this issue that made these hearings salient for everyone at the institution. Maybe it is due to programs like Culture of Respect on campuses that educate students and train faculty and staff to respond to disclosures and reports of sexual assault with kindness and a trauma-informed approach. Student affairs educators work hard to teach our students that a survivor’s alcohol use isn’t a reason to blame a victim for what happened. Most students understand that delayed reporting is, in fact, normal. Student conduct officers have now been trained in trauma-informed interviewing which takes into account disjointed or piecemeal memories, without questioning the credibility of the complainant.

Maybe it is all of these reasons collectively that the hearings so captivated our students, faculty and staff last week. Student affairs educators sat alongside students watching the hearings, often in dismay that so many of the important messages we have tried to impress upon students about sexual assault in recent years seemed to unravel in front of us. Adding to this anxiety is the fact that the hearings come during a time when the Department of Education is prepared to make major changes to Title IX guidance that would significantly alter how institutions are able to address sexual misconduct.

One of the major changes in the leaked proposed rule is to limit institutions’ requirement to conduct an investigation only to those incidents which occur on campus. This would leave many survivors to report to law enforcement any sexual assaults that occur by their peers, faculty members or other members of the campus community that simply don’t occur on campus. The financial and educational costs to survivors are outlined in this 2016 piece from the The Yale Law Journal.

There are many lessons to be learned from the Kavanaugh hearings. Lessons about how far we have come on this issue in the campus context. And lessons about how far we, and the rest of the country, still have to go. The good news is that many campus administrators are fighting for the continued protection of survivors and the rights of all students in these processes. A recently released report indicates that during a public comment period on deregulation, the Department received 12,035 comments in support of Title IX regulations. Those comments came from “attorneys; college/university professors (of multiple disciplines, including law); family members or friends of accused students or student victims/survivors; non-profit professionals; people who work in state Departments of Education, school principals; students accused and/or found responsible of sexually harassing/assaulting other students; teachers; therapists and counselors (including those working in schools and colleges or universities); U.S. veterans; and victims/survivors of sexual violence (both students and non-students)” according to the report. Only 1% of the comments that the Department received on Title IX were in opposition to Title IX regulations for institutions.

In other words, the message to survivors of sexual violence needs to be not only that we, as institutions, believe you but that so many, many other people do too. As we await the final determination of the Senate regarding Kavanaugh’s fate as a nominee, campuses can focus on messages to students demonstrating that campuses are committed to protecting those who have been harmed by sexual violence, and will continue to lead our country forward in supporting those who decide to come forward.