The Higher Value of Higher Education In Addressing Sexual Violence

What will Kenyon do to stop sexual assault on our campus?

Alumni returned to the Kenyon College campus recently to celebrate reunions, and more than celebration was on the minds of some of them. During a question-and-answer session with young alumni, a woman asked me, “What are you going to do to stop sexual assault on campus?” A good, and not entirely unexpected, question: Like many other colleges and universities, Kenyon has been under scrutiny because of its handling of sexual misconduct cases.

My answer reflected much of our specific and intentional work in this area. In the past two years, we have overhauled our policies for adjudicating cases and providing support for both claimants and respondents, bringing us in line with recommended best practices provided by the U.S. Department of Education. We have increased staffing in our Office for Civil Rights, which includes Title IX enforcement, and greatly expanded education programs. In response to recent concerns about the fairness and efficacy of our approach, we initiated an independent audit of our Title IX policy and procedures to make sure we are adhering to the policy, following the procedures and being scrupulously fair to both parties.

This is all important work – not only the appropriate steps to take in light of changes to regulations and the law over the past five years, but also the right thing to do for Kenyon and any institution.

During the past year, many college and university presidents have been asked similar questions about the climate on campus – racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, gender and gender identity discrimination, threats to free speech – as a wave of student activism swept the country.

Responses to these protests tend to focus on the operational details: new or enhanced services; symbolic changes to building names or position titles; and the commitment of resources to achieve longstanding goals around the issue of diversity. These are important steps. But, like my answer to the alumna, these steps address issues on the surface, when perhaps what is required is a deeper examination of the mission of higher education.

The political discussions about higher education are all about operational efficiency – what college does for students and the economic return on investment for a degree. Some politicians reduce higher education policy to a false dichotomy of “welders versus philosophers,” and our federal College Scorecard identifies only projected income as a measurable outcome of an undergraduate education. In this context, a college education is pared to mercenary terms, to mold students for employment.

But a complete college education is career preparation and much more. The college experience should develop an understanding of ethical and moral decision-making, the sense of empathy and the recognition of the consequences of one’s actions on self and others.

We must keep in mind our central responsibility to educate – not just to acquire good jobs but also to prepare students for lives of active, ethical citizenship in a civil democracy.

Colleges and universities do have the responsibility to ensure that all students are safe, are treated equally and fairly and have the opportunity to pursue their education. The work on campus to fight against bias, discrimination and sexual assault should not be merely operational in nature. Rather, that work should be grounded in the notion that phenomena such as bias, discrimination and sexual assault are contrary to the values of an ethical, civil society, and that we should be producing graduates who understand and practice these values.

Dedication to this mission requires more than having the right policies in place, more than resources for support and more than symbolic gestures and changes. Colleges must challenge students to connect learning inside the classroom with their lived experiences and to draw upon the power of the humanities, arts, social sciences and natural sciences to shape the thinking and world views of our students. In turn, students must actively participate in their own education, to question and be questioned, to be challenged by new and different ideas, to develop empathy and understanding for those around them, to rise to a high standard of ethical behavior and to commit to making their communities better places.

What will Kenyon do to stop sexual assault on our campus? In response to that young alumna’s question, I would still list the operational changes we are making. But changes in policies, procedures, and administrative structures are easy, and should only be the beginning.

Educating students for lives of active, ethical citizenship in a civil democracy is much harder. Colleges must not focus on the easy at the expense of the challenging. Our expectations of our institutions, of ourselves, and of our students, must be higher.

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