Sorry, University of Delaware - You're Not Doing Enough

Vice President Joe Biden speaking at a University of Delaware event.
Vice President Joe Biden speaking at a University of Delaware event.

It was Saturday evening. I had just finished helping my friend sort through some old clothes, and was walking back to my dorm to work on some homework. I turned the corner onto New London Road. I had my headphones in with the sound turned up. And that was when I saw it: on my right, a house with its door open, music filtering from a laptop on the front porch, with a sheet hanging from a railing with the words “21 to Drink, 18ish to Sleep Over”. It made my blood run cold. I looked around me to see if anyone else was paying attention. Cars drove by. Kids walked up and down the sidewalk, oblivious as to my presence, on the way to their next party. Nobody seemed to notice. Nobody seemed to care.

Three years ago, on a warm September day, I stood in front of Memorial Hall and spoke to a crowd of students about how the university was refusing to take the problem of sexual misconduct on campus seriously. A sociology professor had been quietly let go after he made sexual advances to another student, and had been offered a prestigious job at Cambridge. The story broke quickly thanks to the exceptional journalism of the campus paper, The Review, and the mood on campus soured. Adjacent to the spot of the protest was the president’s office. We were there for three hours. He never came out.

Since then, things have changed - largely for the better. We hired a new Title IX coordinator, who has excelled in her position. There’s been a push to increase trainings for staff and students on sexual misconduct. More people know about the resources available to them on campus, and are taking advantage of them. It feels like we’re beginning to make conversations around sexual violence commonplace on our campus, and that we’re helping people to know that we’re not alone.

But at the same time, things are largely the same as they were when I arrived here, a nervous and much less confident freshman. Not only has federal guidance on Title IX shifted dramatically under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, but after a brief spike in reported instances - a good thing, considering that more reports mean more people are recognizing and seeking help for this violence - the latest Cleary Act numbers released on campus show a steep drop in reports. It feels like all of the momentum of the last few years is beginning to run out - mostly because student investment in dealing with this issue has too.

Normally, this would not be an issue. In fact, I was hoping this would even be mitigated by the fact that Vice President Biden now has an office on campus, and his dedication to the It’s On Us campaign and other efforts to end sexual violence would move here too. But aside from a thirty-six second clip in which he gave a broad and generic endorsement to the university’s own prevention and awareness model, kNOw More, there has been radio silence. As I’ve written before, the Vice President has been one of the leading national voices in this effort. So far all that he’s done at the university has been a panel on job creation. It’s hard to know whether this is his personal agenda or that of the university, but it feels like a waste that one of the leading champions of anti-violence efforts has spent the first part of his time here talking by and large about technology in the workplace.

Combine all of this with the bedsheet tied to the railing that made my pulse race on Saturday evening, and it feels like this is a battle that few at the university are particularly interested in fighting with any consistent dedication. There is a wonderful community of staff and students here who I work with often, and whom I know personally. Their year-round commitment to erasing this scourge of violence is inspiring, and that they would work alongside me and others is, frankly, humbling. I learn from their expertise each and every day.

But in a few months, I will be graduating, and with my departure comes the issue of what happens next. I say this not to be self-congratulatory, but to point out that this is an issue that does not graduate with each class of students. This is a self-perpetuating cycle that restarts with each new class of incoming freshmen. And from what I’ve seen in the first few months here, I’m not optimistic that anyone other than the usual advocates will do too much about this.

So, to the University of Delaware administration - particularly to President Dennis Assanis, whose leadership on this issue has been abysmal and almost entirely absent - I say this: You are asking us to “kNOw More”, and I am asking you to Do More. Affirm your commitment to Title IX and the protections it offers to students at the university, publicly and repeatedly. Encourage one of your biggest assets, Vice President Biden, to engage directly with students and staff on campus to address sexual violence. Create a long-term action plan for not only engaging students who live off campus but holding them accountable for spreading messages that sexual violence is acceptable or funny or normal when it is none of those things. And establish a permanent task force on community and campus engagement not simply to avoid a PR disaster or a lawsuit, but to do the right thing and tackle this issue once and for all. Your students’ safety depends on it, as does your reputation. We are counting on you to do your job - and from what I’ve seen this semester you’re simply not doing it.

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