Nicole Eramo, Member at Large Public Policy Division
July 18, 2017
In the fall of 2014, my life and career were turned upside down by the now infamous Rolling Stone article, “A Rape on Campus.” As the dean who worked most closely with the student, “Jackie,” whose story was the centerpiece of the article, I was made into the poster-child for institutional indifference to rape in colleges and universities, a portrayal that as a student affairs professional and long-time advocate against sexual violence, cut me to my very core. After almost two years of battling Rolling Stone and the author of the now retracted piece in Federal court, a jury of my peers decided that I had been defamed with “actual malice,” a very high bar to meet. It provided me individually with some vindication and an opportunity to repair my reputation in the public eye, but sadly I’m afraid it has done little to change the broader media narrative about campus sexual assault – one that casts bad actors and indifferent institutions on one side and innocent victims on the other. While the media’s tendency towards sensationalism carries some of the blame, as I’ve reflected on what has happened to me, I have come to feel that we as a higher education community have helped foster this narrative by not working harder to tell the story of campus sexual violence and response from the perspective of the administrators and staff, many student affairs professionals, who work tirelessly to serve the needs of both complainants and respondents with care and concern within a legal and compliance framework that is complex, contradictory, and confusing.
This failure to influence the narrative began early in the campus sexual assault debate. When the OCR Dear Colleague Letter was released in 2011, many of us in the response and advocacy communities expressed concern that the letter demonstrated unfamiliarity with the types of cases that we often see in our work on campuses. It also appeared to misunderstand the neurobehavioral impacts of trauma and dismiss research regarding survivor empowerment. Few were willing to challenge the letter, however. University administrators feared looking callous or dismissive of survivors and worried doing so would draw unwarranted attention to their institution. Advocates worried that criticizing the OCR letter could cause the Federal government to return to doing nothing about sexual assault. We continued to remain silent even when OCR’s language became increasingly combative, thus furthering the dubious rhetoric that colleges were resisting compliance rather than struggling to comprehend the regulations within the context of cases that were often “clear as mud.”
Through the more collaborative work of the President Obama’s White House Task Force, which included campus officials and advocates, and the FAQs released by OCR in 2014, colleges and universities received more clarity regarding the expectations for compliance as well as some strategies to meet the still difficult burdens of Clery and Title IX. With the new administration, however, we have entered another moment of uncertainty as we consider the possibility of the Federal government providing yet another “new” road map for Title IX and Clery compliance. As professionals who deeply care for students, we cannot remain silent yet again and allow the well-being of our students to be subject to ever-changing political winds. Contributing to this dialogue remains daunting as individual professionals and as institutions because any move toward working with the Federal government, especially by institutions currently under OCR investigation, will be perceived as a move toward disrespecting the needs of survivors and wanting to sweep the issue of sexual violence back “under the rug.”
This is where organizations like NASPA and its Public Policy Division (PPD) can be helpful and give voice to the concerns of our profession. As a newer member of the PPD, I have been impressed with the depth and breadth of knowledge in our association and the desire to share that knowledge, both with the broader membership and with those who influence policy impacting the profession. In January, NASPA partnered with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) to bring together a panel of college presidents and administrators to brief Congressional staff on the evolution of Title IX. The professionals emphasized the need for colleges to remain vigilant but called for a more collaborative relationship among OCR, legislators, and colleges when approaching Federal policies. NASPA and AASCU plan to continue this partnership and may look for other opportunities to give voice to higher education professionals in future policy debates. The PPD also keeps watch on policies at the state level and the association provides numerous opportunities for policy briefings and professional development so that student affairs staff can bring this knowledge to bear in policies and practices on our own campuses and in our own communities. Members can consult the NASPA website for these opportunities and sign up for RPI policy briefings through the Online Learning Center.
NASPA has also just approved a new Knowledge Community – the Sexual and Relationship Violence Prevention, Education, and Response KC – that will partner with the PPD to consider opportunities for dialogue and debate on developing concerns and issues. Members can get involved with this new KC through their NASPA profile. Through these opportunities, we can amplify our professional voices and continue to work together to look for occasions to share the nuanced challenges inherent in working as higher education professionals in this difficult but rewarding space.
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