By DAVID J. SKORTON
During the past year many of us have focused on sexual violence and the need, no matter how difficult, to change the culture, attitudes and behaviors on our campus, and in the broader society, that make it persist. After wide campus discussion, we have made progress in addressing this issue, but there is much more that each of us — and all of us — must do to help create a campus environment that is safe, respectful and free from all forms of sexual harassment and sexual violence. As we approach winter break and contemplate our personal and community goals for the new year, we must work together more effectively to address sexual misconduct in all its forms. For too long this has been considered a “women’s issue,” but it is in fact one that concerns us all. It is critical that we recognize that sexual violence is a “men’s issue” as well.
Sexual violence is not a new problem for our society or our campus, but several reports since 2012 of stranger and non-stranger assaults have heightened concerns within our community. I thank all the individuals and groups — students, faculty, staff and community organizations — who have taught me so much and have helped us develop a community-based approach to prevention that includes educational strategies and security measures, as well as strong enforcement.
Efforts to combat sexual violence and sexual harassment rest on several guiding facts. We know, for example, that sexual violence can occur in a range of contexts, including social settings and the workplace, and can involve students, staff or faculty. In the majority of cases, survivors of sexual violence are female while the perpetrators are male. Research suggests that on college campuses, the perpetrator is most often known to the victim; and that the majority of sexual assaults are committed by a subset of men who are repeat offenders. While most men do not engage in these behaviors, our silence on this issue adds to a climate where rape-supportive attitudes remain unchallenged. Sexual violence can also occur in same-sex relationships or as an expression of racial or gender bias, and violence of a non-sexual nature can involve intimate partners.
Strong sanctions, as well as education, are needed to prevent sexual violence in all forms. Of course, prevention is preferable to responses after the fact, but comprehensive efforts to address sexual violence must include confidential support services and advocacy, including for survivors of unwanted sexual experiences that may be emotionally traumatic even if they do not meet judicial criteria for a violation.
Over the past year, our efforts have centered around prevention, including educational and safety initiatives and enhanced disciplinary procedures. To increase campus security, for example, we’ve expanded the hours for the Blue Light escort service, which is available from dusk to dawn when classes are in session. Cornell University Police Chief Kathy Zoner continues to send out weekly Blue Light safety emails to the campus community.
Among our “awareness” efforts is a new education program, “Speak About It,” that examines the role bystanders can play in prevention of sexual violence. We piloted the program with entering undergraduate students last January and, based on a favorable response, instituted it as a mandatory component of new student orientation. Some 88 percent of undergraduates starting their Cornell programs last August participated in the program. Also, more than 6,200 faculty and staff have completed training through Respect@Cornell: Eliminating Harassment and Discrimination, and a cross-section of male staff and faculty are taking new leadership in this effort through the group Men Against Sexual Violence.
For both policy and legal reasons, and after broad and often contentious campus debate, we have moved investigations of sexual assault and sexual harassment by students from the Campus Code of Conduct to a revised version of University Policy 6.4, which previously had handled only cases involving faculty and staff. This decision was based on guidance all universities received from the U.S. Department of Education concerning compliance with Title IX (the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in educational institutions). Our revised Policy 6.4 includes a new adjudication process for students, which parallels that provided to faculty and staff.
To address the complex dynamics of sexual harassment and violence fully, however, we need to further tap into the best thinking of our campus community and local experts. I am pleased that some 40 members of our campus and wider community have agreed to serve on a new Council on Sexual Violence Prevention (CSVP), which is chaired by Susan Murphy, vice president for student and academic services, and Mary Opperman, vice president for human resources and safety services. The council, which is charged with addressing sexual harassment and sexual misconduct through strategic planning; research and evaluation; and education and outreach, is holding its second meeting today (Dec. 2). CSVP works closely with Title IX coordinators, Cornell University Police, University Communications and the Office of the University Counsel.
I invite you to learn more about CSVP and about sexual harassment and sexual violence through the Sexual Harassment and Assault-Response Education (SHARE) website. The site covers a variety of topics including how to report an incident; get care; learn about relevant policies and laws; access safety resources; and take advantage of educational and engagement opportunities.
The university is obligated by law to promote an environment free of sexual violence for all members of our community. But that is an imperative for our community, far beyond the requirements of the statute. To achieve this we must examine our culture and challenge attitudes and behaviors that foster sexual violence. While we continue this essential work, we also need to look out for one another and to call for help when it is needed. In these final weeks of the semester and going forward, please join me in redoubling our efforts to prevent sexual violence on campus and in affirming that a culture that condones such activity has no place at Cornell.