It is a an alarming fact that troubles me deeply. A 2015 survey conducted by the Association of American Universities found that about one in five women on our Twin Cities campus had experienced sexual assault. We are not alone. Sadly, that horrible statistic was roughly the average for 26 peer institutions in the same survey.
There is little positive attached to that reality, but we at the University of Minnesota have been national leaders for more than three decades in working to change the culture that creates such behavior. Last fall, our pioneering Aurora Center marked its 30th anniversary of providing safe and confidential space for students, faculty, staff, and alumni who are victims/survivors of sexual assault, relationship violence, or stalking.
In fact, in January, a federal report identified 92 specific recommendations for institutions of higher education on handling sexual assault. I’m proud that the University has implemented almost all of them, such as requiring sexual assault training for all incoming students, employing full-time advocacy and counseling services for victim-survivors, conducting regular awareness campaigns, and employing a full-time Title IX coordinator. That Title IX position is critical after the U.S. Office for Civil Rights determined that gender-based discrimination on campus also includes sexual violence.
In August 2015, our Board of Regents established an “affirmative consent” policy as a standard for sexual assault investigations. University policy now requires “informed, freely, and affirmatively communicated willingness to participate in sexual activity that is expressed by clear and unambiguous words or actions.” That is, partners must communicate “Yes.”
For those of us who were students at the U in previous decades, the occurrence of sexual assault was likely just as frequent, if not more so, than it is today, says Aurora Center Director Katie Eichele. Eichele believes the current generation of students understands the values embedded in affirmative consent. It is, she says, a generation that has grown up amid antibullying and antiharassment campaigns and has repeatedly been sent messages about asking, listening to, and respecting each other in intimate settings. “Affirmative consent,” Eichele says, “is all about respect.”
Of course, we won’t be able to stop all sexual violence on a campus of 50,000 young people. But I am confident that if we encourage victims to come forward, if we help them to have the courage to report what happened to them and support them through the process, and if we continue to focus on creating a culture of respect, we will go a long way to offering them the best care, while also bringing perpetrators to justice.
While no one knows for sure whether there will be a change in the federal law related to enforcement of Title IX, it is up to us to remain vigilant and do better to improve education, prevention, and response. Any sexual assault on our campus is harmful to the entire University, undermining our values and the culture we strive to create. I know while I’m this University’s president, we will not retreat from our commitment to educate our students, to support our victim/survivors, and to ensure a campus climate that remains true to our core values of respect for everyone.