Holding Universities Accountable for Sexual Assault

4 min read

Share this Article

College and university campuses can be breeding grounds for sexual assault (SA). Many campus narratives concerning sexual assault focus on the survivor, without as much focus on holding the perpetrators accountable. To fully tackle SA, institutions must appropriately deal with those who commit these acts of violence and work to mitigate future harm.

Trigger warning: This piece includes a deep analysis of sexual assault and rape culture.

A History of Neglect

Colleges and universities have a notorious history of neglecting survivors of sexual assault. Institutions have policies that should act as preventative measures. However, many fail to follow both federally mandated guidelines and their own policies.

Title IX, for example, includes several protections for students. It also notably and explicitly prohibits sexual assault. Universities pledged commitment to these principles upon the enactment of Title IX. Yet many have failed to adhere to their promises.

Although there have been some efforts to cut down on sexual assaults on campuses, much work remains to be done. And the attention that SA does receive on campus is oftentimes directed toward ill-conceived prevention initiatives, many of which fail to appropriately censure perpetrators.

This misplaced blame leads to major slip-ups and neglectful practices.

For example, in 2015, three Louisiana colleges failed to alert one another of a student transferring between them who faced allegations of sexual assault. That student, Victor Silva, was accused of assaulting six women while attending these colleges.

Louisiana lawmakers and universities failed to handle the situation appropriately. Silva avoided an investigation through a loophole in Act 172. Although this statute is meant to prevent students accused of sexual assault from transferring schools, Silva withdrew from one school so quickly that it didn't have time to begin an investigation. So there was no pending case against him to prevent his enrollment elsewhere.

These missteps — and the additional negligence of failing to notify other schools of the allegations — should serve as a lesson and a warning.

Reasons Universities Don't Step Up

Colleges and universities often have reservations about standing up to perpetrators of sexual assault. Protecting the school's reputation may be part of their decision-making process.

Sustaining a reputable name is important to any institution that claims prestige. Yet, in trying to avoid tainting their name, colleges may end up reinforcing their notoriety.

College SA investigations are often filled with red tape. This bureaucracy can be used to rid the university itself of any involvement in an assault, potentially allowing it to suppress facts that might validate the survivor's case. Some assaults have even been committed by members of the colleges' administration and faculty. Failure to take action has been linked to efforts to protect the institution more than the victims.

A college's hesitancy might also stem from a more sinister motive — the preservation of assets. Some perpetrators of SA belong to groups or families that make substantial donations to or income for the university.

The 2015 documentary "The Hunting Ground" shows how SA investigations on campus can be influenced by a college's need to protect its assets. This might include protecting influential families and organizations linked to students who commit sexual assault (not to mention mitigating the costs of the investigations themselves).

Though fraternities are organizations meant to foster positivity, they are often a part of this problem. Fraternity members are three times more likely to commit sexual assault than other men on campus, according to a 2007 study. Fraternities have had a role in rape culture on campuses across the nation. For instance, the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon (mentioned in the documentary) has such a notorious reputation that its acronym SAE has taken on another meaning — sexual assault expected.

Sports can also play a signficant role in rape culture. The status of star athletes and their contributions to university profits can lead to dangerous situations where accusations of SA against athletes may be ignored, dismissed, or covered up.

To persecute members of these groups and organizations — which make significant financial and cultural contributions to a school — could mean forgoing their support.

Universities Need to Hold Perpetrators (and Themselves) Accountable

Thoroughly and fairly examining sexual assaults on campuses is essential. Addressing where it's happening, who is committing these acts of violence, and what barriers can be implemented to stop SA are instrumental to dealing with the problem.

On top of that, universities need to recognize how administrations themselves play a part in sexual assault — with a particular focus on how they may be shielding those who commit these assaults.

The apparent contributions of fraternities to sexual assault should be dealt with. Other students are becoming increasingly critical of these organizations and are protesting fraternities' significant involvement within rape culture.

Assessing other factors that contribute to each campus is another necessary act to help understand university-specific factors of sexual assault. Creating a generalized but less effective response can create blind spots.

Refusing to deal with rape culture on campus is akin to perpetuating it. The excuses and lack of follow through carried out by institutions harm everyone — not just those who have experienced sexual assault.

A college's traditions can also perpetuate date rape culture and its harmful impact. They may help reinforce the idea that feminine-presenting people are deemed as responsible for their sexual assault — that the fault lies with the victim rather than the perpetrator.

If institutions do not deal with sexual assault in depth, it will continue at alarming rates. Universities must recognize that their administrative practices and lack of leadership can create space for sexual assault on campus. They also must deal with internal biases that hamper their ability to reduce harm inflicted against students.

5 Practices for Colleges to Implement

Here are some ways that colleges can take the onus off survivors and put it onto themselves and those who commit sexual assaults:

Change the Narrative

Institutions need to change the narrative around sexual assault. They must validate the stories of survivors who are willing to share their experiences. And they must use survivors' perspectives to illustrate further that sexual assault is inhumane and must be eradicated. Universities should essentially create new campus cultures where they prioritize justice.

Take Investigations Seriously

Colleges must stop mishandling and trivializing allegations. They should take steps to reconfigure SA review boards to strip partiality and disreputable tendencies. The intensity of the examination process should increase. Investigators should also comb through existing policies to ensure they are robust and remove any deficiencies or loopholes.

Consider Expelling Perpetrators

It is important for schools to provide support and recovery services for survivors of SA. These actions could include expelling or suspending perpetrators of SA to minimize their contact on campus with survivors. Potential alternatives to automatic expulsion might include invitations to participate in transformative or restorative justice processes.

Develop Action Items and Accountability

Institutions should focus on developing policies and procedures that address the shortcomings of how previous sexual assault cases have been handled. Producing action items that focus on case promotion instead of neglect is an effective way to address past mistakes. Schools can create an internal and external accountability system with students, staff, and community members that can help lighten the burden of responsibility carried by survivors.

Use Consistent Reporting on Sexual Assaults

Universities should hold regular meetings with the school population to discuss the state of sexual assaults on campus. Under this system, administrators would be obligated to provide monthly and annual reports that detail progress. They would focus on action items and give updates on implementation, correction, and prevention efforts.


Reframing the narrative of sexual assault on campuses is key to ending these acts of violence. All students deserve to walk across their campus without fear of assault. And survivors deserve widespread support and understanding.

Only through tangible change and action can colleges and universities correct the rape culture they've helped to maintain.

SEXUAL ASSAULT CONTENT DISCLAIMER: If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, please seek legal counsel. If you are experiencing a life-threatening situation, seek help or dial 911.

Featured Image: Rapeepong Puttakumwong / Moment / Getty Images