On Monday morning, activist Wagatwe Wanjuki lit a Tufts University sweatshirt on fire, and broadcast it on Facebook Live. She did so in protest, calling on schools like Tufts to apologize for mishandling sexual assault cases.
“If they care about ending rape on campus, if they care about justice, then they should be able to do the very bare minimum of apologizing for not doing their jobs,” Wanjuki said in her livestream.
Wanjuki used to go to Tufts, but she never graduated from there. In 2008, she tried to report a fellow student for sexual assault, but said the school told her it didn’t have to take action. Wanjuki said school officials pressured her to withdraw from Tufts a year later when her grades began to slip.
In 2014, Tufts was found in violation Title IX on its handling of sexual assault cases by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, after the review of a separate case and the university’s overall polices. The school conceded at the time that “more could have been done to address the student complainant’s concerns,” but did not issue an apology of any kind.
In fact, no school that the federal government has found violated Title IX has apologized.
Wanjuki, as part of her new group Survivors Eradicating Rape Culture, started a social media campaign on Monday asking that people who agree that schools should apologize for mistreating survivors should tweet about it with the hashtag #JustSaySorry. Her request is simple: colleges that mishandle sexual assault should admit they did wrong.
And the lack of simply apologizing is not going unnoticed on campuses.
After the Department of Justice found the University of New Mexico often mishandled cases throughout a six-year period, the school president Bob Frank held a press conference in April to complain that the year-and-a-half long probe was “anecdotal.” The university has continued to criticize the investigation results in the months since their release.
“Since the DOJ released its findings of its investigation of UNM,” wrote Ashlynn Ota, a former UNM student and sexual assault survivor, “President Frank has not done what any university leader who truly cared for students would do ― apologize.”
When asked about these criticisms, UNM referred The Huffington Post to a previous statement from Frank, where he noted it was important to him to address “the concerns in as sensitive a manner as possible.”
Tufts did not respond to a request for comment.
Throughout the past few years, survivors and activists have spoken out about how colleges and universities mishandled sexual assault cases. The number of federal investigations into claims schools violated the gender equity law Title IX in responding to sexual violence has jumped four-fold in just two years, now topping 200 campuses.
Yet, there are only a handful of universities whose leaders have apologized for the way their schools treated sexual assault victims.
Baylor University was the most recent, stating that it wished to express its "deepest apologies" after an internal review found the school often dropped the ball. The University of Alaska-Fairbanks’ chancellor stunned activists when he apologized last year for mistakes the school made, saying, “I am deeply sorry for how our lack of action affected our students and their friends and families.” Oregon State University has also received praise for apologizing for its response to a 1998 gang rape.
“Any institution whether it’s an institution of higher learning or a trade association, thinks long and hard about apologizing. It’s not something you do lightly,” said Gene Grabowski, a strategic communications counselor.
“When you see an apology from a university in a crisis,” Grabowski explained, “chances are they have a skilled crisis communications person they’re working with, and the crisis communications person has some standing.” But the key is to accept “some level of responsibility, but not so much that you make yourself legally liable,” he cautioned.
There’s no clear, single explanation why colleges do not apologize for the mishandling of sexual assault cases. For one, there is often a real chance for them to turn into lawsuits ― from either the accuser or the accused. Communications experts also note that schools want to continue branding themselves as safe for incoming 18-year-olds and their nervous parents. And if people involved in a case gone awry are still employed, it’s not a great HR practice to publicly denounce them.
But for schools that haven’t issued apologies, activists scowled at some of the tepid language issued by universities. “The Hunting Ground” documentary mocked how frequently colleges issued statements saying “we take this issue very seriously” in response to allegations they mishandled rape cases.
Teresa Valerio Parrot, a higher ed communications consultant, said she always tells clients to take their statement and run it through Google ― “If anyone else’s pops up, that suggests to me that your language isn’t authentic to your campus. It also shows that we’ve not paid attention to institutions that have been there before us.”
When it comes to sexual assault, campus leaders often find themselves trying hard not to be too much of anything, Valerio Parrot said. They don’t want to be too unsympathetic, too animated or not animated enough, and it makes it difficult to come out with a human response.
“I think so many times, institutions want to ask for understanding but the institution’s leaders get that they haven’t built that trust yet,” she said.
One major problem from a communications standpoint, argues education consultant David Wolowitz, is that “schools are not individuals,” and not even really groups of individuals. They’re usually groups of administrators and trustees, overseeing faculty, staff, students and speaking to donors and alumni as well ― all groups with competing interests, Wolowitz said. This makes it more difficult for a school to come to a decision to issue an apology and admit to failings, he said.
“Communications from groups tend to not be particularly well-received by the public,” Wolowitz said. If a school is going to issue a statement, he advises “the more personal they are and written in the voice of the sender ― as opposed to be appearing be written by a group of people ― the better.”
Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter who covers higher education and sexual violence, and is based in New York. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.