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President Lawrence responds to student concerns about sexual assault

Published: September 11, 2014
Section: Featured, News

Gender-based violence and sexual misconduct pose a singular threat to our most deeply held values. The safety and welfare of our students is our most critical responsibility, and higher education has been slow to act on an issue that pervades our culture and our campuses. Brandeis, rather than being immune, shares this burden, and we have a moral obligation to do everything we can in response.

Three years ago, the Office of the Provost began work to seek a Violence Against Women Act grant, an effort led by Professor Bernadette Brooten. Following that work, Provost Steve Goldstein and Senior Vice President Andrew Flagel convened a campus-wide task force to support seeking the grant, while simultaneously identifying crucial steps our institution should be taking. In the meantime, Vice President Flagel and our Student Affairs team, with the counsel of faculty, staff, and alumni with expertise in the field, made significant changes to our conduct policy, changing our standard of proof and establishing an external Special Examiners Process for cases of student sexual misconduct. We also expanded our training at Orientation, bringing in external trainers, and continued to have many of our staff members trained by the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and other groups.

The processes and training have continued to be refined, and even at a time of fiscal stringency, we established a position for a sexual assault service and prevention specialist. I was delighted that a national leader in the field, Sheila McMahon, joined our community.

Our students have also been leaders in helping us look for additional ways to address these issues. The Brandeis Students Against Sexual Violence group delivered a petition with thousands of signatures in favor of a wide variety of efforts. I was pleased that many of these aligned closely with the recommendations of the Violence Against Women Act grant planning group and were already underway. Along with the reorganization of our entire student health and wellness organization, the counseling center hired new team members with expertise in trauma and serving sexual assault survivors. We started “Bystander Intervention” training across the campus, developed new websites and brochures and expanded training for staff members and faculty. In consultation with our students and listening to their specific design requests, we allocated space for a Rape Crisis Center. Senior Vice President Flagel has provided funding for a graduate assistant to work with Sheila McMahon in overseeing the effort, three additional student positions and 15 stipends each year for Student Advocates to work through the Center to provide 24/7 support during our school year.

Working closely in collaboration with our students and faculty, we are taking additional important steps this year. We have announced the hiring of the Speak About It organization for ongoing training in and around our undergraduate orientation program, and that the health center will now offer Plan B free of charge. We have also approved funds for a search, already underway, for an additional university Title IX compliance officer with a focus on our students.

Next week, the Division of Students and Enrollment will publish the updated Brandeis student code of conduct, Rights and Responsibilities, which will include substantial changes. There is now a survivors’ bill of rights, increased privacy protection and more specific sanctions, including mandatory removal from campus for any student found responsible for non-consensual intercourse involving physical force, threat or purposeful incapacitation.

By now most of you are aware that the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education will be investigating a complaint against Brandeis University. I do not feel it is a reason for undue anxiety. The university has made great strides in the area of Title IX compliance, and I see this as an opportunity to work with the OCR to identify ways to further improve our policies and practices.

That being said, let me be clear—compliance with Title IX is a necessity, but it is by no means sufficient. Brandeis must and will be a leader in combating sexual violence. A new campus-wide committee has been convened to continue this work, in alignment with the University Academic Council subcommittee on the topic. We are rolling out new training programs for all faculty and staff, and deepening our training for the staff members most engaged in these critical issues.

As I said at the dedication of the “Light of Reason” sculpture, as someone who has spent a career prosecuting and then studying bias-motivated violence, and advocating for effective law enforcement and legislation against hate crimes in this society, including gender-motivated violence, let me state clearly: Sexual misconduct and sexual violence will never be condoned on this campus and has no place on this campus. We will continue to work together, as a community, to confront this critically important issue.