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What is Right is a Constant: A Conversation about the Culture of Respect Foundations Course

Student Success Supporting the Profession Campus Safety and Violence Prevention Health, Safety, and Well-being Initiatives Sexual and Relationship Violence Prevention, Education, and Response
October 11, 2019 Allison Tombros Korman NASPA

In this series, we highlight the tools and programs provided by Culture of Respect to help higher education end campus sexual violence. 

One of the most persistent themes of the work to address sexual violence on campus is change: as Culture of Respect has worked with folks around the country on this issue and we’ve waded through changing laws, evolving public opinion, and, a time of stress and change in higher education. When Culture of Respect started to talk about developing a course for campus professionals, we considered how the content would stay relevant in this rapidly-changing environment. As we developed the content for the course, now called Culture of Respect Foundations, we focused not just on what was essential for campus professionals to know, but also what would remain important even amongst inevitable change. 

I recently connected with a key collaborator on the project Jill Dunlap, the Director of Research and Practice at NASPA. Jill holds a Ph.D. in political science, has 20 years of campus experience, and is a passionate and committed advocate. As we discussed about the potential impact of the course, Jill acknowledged our concern about making substantive organizational advancements in such a rapidly changing environment, but also reminded me of what has stayed constant in this work: preventing sexual violence and helping survivors heal are just, urgent goals that higher education must take on to fulfill its mission. 

Read on to hear more of Jill’s perspective about our work to address sexual violence on campus and visit the Culture of Respect website to learn more about the soon-to-be-released Foundations courses.

When developing this course, we tried to identify topic areas that would prepare any campus professional to support a college’s strategy for addressing sexual violence. We came up with six modules. If you could distill the most essential parts of the course into just one message for every campus employee about sexual violence, what would you say? 

That is difficult. I think that my message to every campus employee is that this issue is every single person’s job on campus. I used to say this all of the time when I directed the sexual violence prevention and response office on campus. 

I don’t have any better example than the time when I was called by the Financial Aid Office because the office staff was receiving reinstatement application letters from students who were disclosing that they had separated from the institution voluntarily after a sexual assault. The staff was desperately trying to determine how to respond to these types of applications both from a policy standpoint (Should they be required to pay the reinstatement application fee?, etc.) and from an emotional standpoint (replying with care, getting those former students connected to resources, etc.). 

Whether you work in the print center or the student union, you may come into contact with a student who trusts you and with whom they feel comfortable disclosing trauma that has happened to them. The Foundations course will provide you with resources not only about how to respond at that moment to someone who trusts you with that information but also what you need to do from an institution’s perspective to be compliant with their policies.

We hope the Foundations course will be used to augment any required training that a campus employee participates in related to sexual misconduct on campus. What do you think it would be like to work on a campus where every employee completed not only the Clery-mandated training but also our six-module Foundations course? How would it impact the school climate?

The course not only walks you through how to respond to disclosures of sexual violence and why that response is so important but also just how to approach work on campus generally with a trauma-informed lens. For example, if a student discloses to you that they were a former foster youth, that likely involves some level of trust on their part. They may be coming to you seeking resources and research shows that they may likely have experienced trauma as a result of their time in the system. Or someone may disclose to you that they were formerly incarcerated. Your response in each of these instances both involves using a trauma-informed approach. The skills that you learn in the Foundations course about the history of campus sexual violence and the likely emotional responses by those who have experienced harm are transferable to any number of situations involving interactions with college students. 

I imagine that in an ideal world where everyone approached all of their interactions from a trauma-informed lens, you would have a much more pleasant and supportive campus climate. You would likely see graduation rates rise and students persist at higher levels. This is all from the macro level, of course. If we are talking specifically about the impact on sexual violence survivors, I think you would see them persist at higher rates as well and feel more supported during their time on campus. 

When the institution leads in terms of how survivors are treated, the campus will follow. When students are taken seriously by campus administrators when they come forward and are treated with respect, it does change the climate over time. Word gets out among students and climate changes. In the same way that when students are treated poorly when they report, they tell their peers and word gets out that you shouldn’t report. We, as student affairs administrators, can change campus climate around sexual assault in powerful ways. It is up to us to decide which direction we take it.

The Foundations course covers the evolution of campus approaches to addressing violence; assessment and evaluation; evidence-based prevention strategies; collaborative approaches; and trauma-informed response to sexual violence. If you were to design a Foundations 2.0 that offered more advanced training for campus employees, what topics would you include? 

I think Foundations 2.0 would be titled, “So We Are All Trauma-Informed – Now What?”The most cutting edge work happening right now is focused on several different topics. The first is restorative justice. How can it be used in sexual misconduct cases responsibly and with survivors’ needs at the center to improve the experience for both parties? The second would be on assessing campus climate [survey] data. What are we doing with all of the data we collect and how are we using it to improve what we are doing in both prevention and response work on our campus? How do we collect and synthesize this data to improve the lives of students? 

The third would be research. Who is looking at current research to inform the work that we are doing? What we know about sexual assault on campus is constantly changing and being updated. How do we stay current and use research as the foundation upon which our work is established? 

The final one would probably be: how are we telling people about what we are doing? In many ways, over the past almost 10 years, institutions of higher education have been asked to solve problems surrounding sexual violence that have never been addressed in the larger community context. Sexual assault survivors don’t have guaranteed rights to workplace accommodations after an assault in the same ways that they do on campus. High schoolers aren’t required to take sexual violence prevention programming before enrolling. We as campus administrators have to un-educate our incoming students about all of the negative ideas and behaviors they have regarding sexual interactions when they arrive at our doors. 

Institutions have made great strides in both prevention and response to campus sexual assault. We just aren’t always good about telling everyone about it – parents, alumni, students, prospective students, the greater community and policymakers. I would like to see institutions take some of the progress they have made and use it to work with lawmakers to enact better policies. So, communicating about our successes and policy advocacy would be my final two modules for Foundations 2.0.

What change would you like to see college campuses make to better address sexual violence? What do you hope we’ll see ten years from now? Twenty years from now?

My wish for campuses is what is has always been – that they would focus on what is right and not what is required. We get so caught up in compliance that we forget the human students who are at the center of everything we do, and who these policies are designed to protect. When you see campus administrators, even the well-intentioned ones, do things like making all employees responsible employees (mandatory reporters to the Title IX office) you can see how this plays out. Those policies never took student survivors’ voices into account. They were designed, first and foremost, to protect the institution from employees who knew about cases (like the one involving Larry Nassar) and did nothing, rather than provide meaningful mechanisms for student survivors to come forward. Student perspectives weren’t involved in those processes, and student activists and survivors certainly weren’t consulted about how those policies would impact reporting behavior. The saddest part for me is that many institutions pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations whose sole purpose is to add to their bottom line, for advice that leads to bad policies like the one above. Why not spend that money, which is often coming from student tuition, on emergency funds to help survivors persist at the institution? When we as campus administrators put students at the center of our work, we are more likely to do the right thing rather than the compliant thing. And if the past few years have taught us anything it is that what it takes to be compliant is ever-changing. What is right is constant.

Culture of Respect supports institutions of higher education in all aspects of preventing and responding to campus sexual violence. Apply now for the fourth cohort of the Collective and join more than 100 colleges and universities in fostering a Culture of Respect.