Letter to the Editor from President Veitch

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Friends,

Sexual assault is a serious issue on college and university campuses. It is probably the singlemost under-reported issue in higher education. We–and by we, I mean all of us–must do something about it. It is incumbent on Occidental; it is incumbent on each of us.

As nearly everyone knows by now, a report of sexual assault was made a week ago that led to a police investigation and coverage on the local news.

Some students and faculty are upset that the College did not notify them of the incident immediately after it happened. Immediate public notification is not a practice that is either possible or desirable. Here is why: 1) In the first few hours, days or even weeks, it is not always clear what has happened in incidents like these. Investigators need time to sort through conflicting accounts in order to provide a clear narrative of what took place. That delay in no way affects the need for a supportive response to the survivor of such an incident, but it does require us to be sure of what we know before publicly going forward. 2) This is a very small community. Public notification makes identification of both the survivor and the alleged perpetrator far more likely, violating the privacy of those involved. 3) A public notification after an incident of sexual assault could easily create an environment in which survivors are unlikely to come forward for fear of being the subject of public discussion and rumor. Where there is a serious and continuing danger, such as an unidentified assailant, or unknown threat that requires a temporarily increased level of security, we will alert the community right away just as we do for other crimes.

In this particular case there was no ongoing danger of an unknown repeat offence because the student involved was immediately identified and interviewed by the police and by Student Affairs. If the foregoing is the case, then why are people calling for notification? Three answers have been put forward: 1) failure to alert perpetuates the myth that stranger rape is more common than non-stranger rape; 2) the importance of educating people about the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses; 3) the fear that Occidental will shun the publicity associated with notification in the hopes that “the problem will go away.” These concerns are legitimate. And I think they can be addressed in other ways. OSAC has called for a “detailed annual sexual assault report.” We will do that. I’ve asked the Task Force on Sexual Assault to look at best practices at other institutions for examples of how that information can be assembled and shared with the community in a way that will have maximum impact. Let me be clear about this: we share the concern about the national and local incidence of sexual assault on college campuses like Occidental. I believe it is incumbent on Occidental to do everything it can to respond swiftly and effectively to incidents of sexual assault and to be honest and forthright about the number and nature of sexual assaults on our campus. We will find the appropriate vehicle. No hiding.

The most recent incident points to a set of unresolved issues that I would like to use this occasion to address. Last fall, a number of students and faculty expressed their concern over recent changes in our sexual assault policy, as well as the effectiveness and quality of certain procedures associated with that policy. At bottom was an outrage over an intolerable situation in which sexual assaults have become far too common on our campus and others. We share that concern, and took several steps in response. First I met with members of OSAC at a public meeting, and then I met individually with several survivors of sexual assault at Occidental. I reviewed the transcripts and tapes from a number of cases that were brought before hearing boards last year to discover what lessons might be learned from them. And finally, I convened a Task Force on Sexual Assault to review our policies and procedures with the goal of recommending changes. While we have a strong policy in place, we are always willing to review and improve it.

While we were in agreement with the spirit of most of the demands made by OSAC, our response made clear that we differed on the best way to implement them. We also made it clear that preventing sexual assault was and is the responsibility of our entire community–students, faculty, staff and administration–and that changes in policy or procedure needed to be part of a community-wide discussion. This was not a strategy for delay as some have charged; rather, it is an attempt to focus legitimate outrage into channels of communication that will educate our entire community on the nature of sexual assault and to come to a broader consensus on the proper means to address it. If a liberal arts college is not the place for thoughtful conversation about an issue as important as sexual assault then we will fail to achieve our primary educational mission and succumb to the sorry state of uncivil discourse one finds in our national political life.

I’m dismayed that having agreed to that conversation, a number of well-intentioned people have chosen to cast our motives into doubt; vilify dedicated, hard-working members of Student Affairs; question the sincerity of our response; and actively sought to embarrass the College on the evening news. That is their choice, and there is very little I can do about it. I can say that it reflects poorly on their commitment to this conversation and to the broader education that must take place if we are to change a culture we all find repugnant. The repugnance of sexual assault is not open to question; but the policies and procedures that guide our response to those incidents is something about which reasonable people can disagree. I’m sure there are those who feel that confrontation is necessary to exert pressure on the College to do the right thing. But there is a point where confrontation becomes an end in itself–satisfying, no doubt, but counter-productive with regard to our shared aims. When it crosses that threshold and descends into name-calling, vilification and misrepresentation, it undermines the trust and good will of everyone involved. And worst of all, it does not lead to progress on this important issue. Some of the work ahead is long and tedious. But those who care about this issue will demonstrate their commitment by mastering the complex set of issues governing our policies and participating in the painstaking work of bringing other stakeholders into the conversation in the hopes of persuading them and being persuaded by them in return.

It is my fervent hope that we can all return to the conversation that we have begun together. The starting point for these discussions will be the OSAC demands, but it will not be the ending point. The Sexual Assault Task Force reserves the right to add other items to the agenda, and to rethink some of the suggestions made by OSAC. We will provide a full report on our progress by May 1. The Task Force will continue to do its work, focusing on education, therapeutic response, adjudication, best practices and revision of policy. Going forward, we will make a concerted effort to make this discussion public. I invite you to join us.

Warmly,

Jonathan Veitch
President
Occidental College

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