January 29, 2014

University Officials Support Federal Sexual Assault Memorandum

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Correction appended

After Cornell saw a surge of sexual assault cases last year, President David Skorton and Susan Murphy ’73, vice president for Student and Academic Services, said they were “enthusiastic” about a memorandum signed by President Barack Obama last Wednesday which will create a task force to work with universities on handling cases of rape and sexual assault.

A White House task force, which hopes to protect students from sexual assault, will strive to hold schools accountable for addressing the issue of sexual assault on their campuses, recommend how to prevent and respond to sexual assault and encourage schools to communicate with students about past incidents of assault.

Skorton and Murphy said they hope that the task force’s instructions, which they will receive at the end of the semester, will be in line with Cornell’s past efforts to improve its sexual assault policies.

Skorton expressed his approval of the new task force, drawing attention to the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses.

“[Susan Murphy and I] think that it’s a terrific use of [Obama’s] office, the bully pulpit, to focus us on a very important issue,” he said.

Echoing Skorton’s sentiments, Murphy said that Obama’s public health approach to sexual assault is both “incredible” and “critical”.

A report by the White House Council on Women and Girls (WHCWG), which was released Wednesday, illustrated how just how common sexual assault is on college campuses.

According to the report, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men have been sexually assaulted in college; however, only 12 percent of victims report the attack. Additionally, of the 7 percent of men who admit to committing rape, more than half were repeat offenders, having committed an average of six rapes each.

WHCWG explained that these numbers “don’t begin to tell the whole story.”

“[The statistics] don’t tell of the physical, emotional and psychological scars that a victim can carry for life. They don’t speak to the betrayal and broken trust when the attacker is a friend, a trusted colleague, or a family member,” WHCWG said in the report.

Women who are victims of sexual assault can develop physical and emotional effects that can compromise their academic performance, according to the report. Rape survivors suffer from a wide set of emotional consequences that have been linked to higher dropout rates.

Student activist Anna-Lisa Castle ’14 said in an email that she hopes the task force will provide support for students engaged in fighting sexual assault on Cornell’s campus.

“This support should come in the form of compensation for students who are doing the work that administrators are getting paid for, lending additional support to overworked lower-level administrators who deal directly with students, hiring professionals for trainings and institutionalizing educational programming on the issue,” she said.

According to Skorton, student leaders have helped him see the relevance of this issue within the LGBT community, something that Obama did not address when he introduced the task force because, according to Murphy, the vast majority of cases are male-female.

Additionally, Skorton revealed his plans to reach out to the White House before the task force publishes its instructions and share Cornell’s own experience modifying its sexual assault policies.

“We’ll do our best to get our ideas in front of that group, our ideas that we’ve learned from Cornell, some of which are derivative of other universities,” Skorton said. “We will hope to have input by letting people in the White House know that we have ideas.”

In response to Obama’s efforts to build a new task force, President Skorton said, “I think it’s terrific, I think it’s just what [Obama] should be saying.”

Correction: A previous version of this story implied that President Obama’s memorandum was signed Wednesday, Jan. 29. In fact, the memorandum that will create the White House task force was signed last Wednesday, Jan. 22.