When President Obama announced last week the formation of a task force to address sexual assault on college campuses, the University of Virginia was putting the finishing touches on a conference that would tackle the same issues.
“Dialogue at UVA: Sexual Misconduct Among College Students” – the result of six months of planning and close collaboration between University President Teresa A. Sullivan and Patricia M. Lampkin, vice president and chief student affairs officer – will bring together more than 200 student affairs professionals, legal experts, student leaders and presidents from colleges and universities from across the country.
The conference will be held Feb. 10 and 11 in Old Cabell and Newcomb halls, and registration is full.
“One of the most vexing problems I’ve seen since becoming a president is the growing rate of sexual misconduct on college campuses nationwide,” Sullivan said. “Our intention with this conference is to launch a national discussion among higher education communities in which we examine the complexities surrounding sexual misconduct and explore ways to reduce such behavior. Our focus will be on how we might together begin to change the culture that fuels sexual misconduct.”
Sullivan said she believes it is the responsibility of presidents to lead the way in making a cultural shift regarding sexual misconduct among college students, and decided to invite some of her colleagues to participate in kicking off a philosophical discussion that could foster change.
“It’s time for the higher education community to discuss the challenges together and to share ways for our institutions to better educate students about what sexual misconduct is, how it might be prevented, how it should be adjudicated and what the consequences are for both the survivor and the perpetrator,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said she is grateful for Obama’s recent announcement and applauded his efforts. “As more of us focus on this issue, the greater the chances for success,” she added.
Joining Sullivan during a two-hour “Panel of Presidents” will be Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, Amherst College; Gene Block, University of California-Los Angeles; Philip Hanlon, Dartmouth College; Royce Engstrom, University of Montana; and Carol Folt, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Hunter Rawlings III, president of the American Association of Universities and president emeritus of Cornell University, will moderate.
In addition to the college presidents, the conference is bringing together 13 of the nation’s leading experts in the fields of education, prevention and adjudication of sexual misconduct, as well as in the care of survivors. University student leaders who serve in organizations that focus on education and prevention of sexual assault were members of the planning committee and will be leading a student panel on the evening of the conference’s first day.
Lampkin said she has been extremely pleased by the response to the conference, not only by college presidents, but also by her own colleagues around the country and the individuals – counselors and Title IX coordinators – who work on the front lines of sexual assault issues on college campuses.
“Sexual misconduct is one of the most difficult issues student affairs professionals deal with today,” she said. “It’s emotionally charged and it has the potential to damage an individual for her or his life if not handled well. It hurts individuals, and at the same time it undermines the sense of community that we foster on our respective campuses. It robs students of their safety and sense of security.”
By bringing together leaders from all parts of the country, Lampkin said she hopes the conference will result in meaningful dialogue, new insights and connections, and a shared basis for addressing this critical issue.
The U.Va. conference and Obama’s action provide the latest examples of a renewed focus on the problem of sexual assault on college campuses, a problem that some have called an epidemic. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to school districts, colleges and universities saying “sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX.” The letter included new instructions clarifying schools’ legal obligations to prevent and respond to sexual assault.
Just prior to the “Dear Colleague” letter, U.Va. had completed a comprehensive, yearlong review and revision of its policies and procedures, Lampkin said.
Many other institutions followed suit, but criticisms of how colleges and universities deal with sexual assault persist and there have been numerous high-profile cases played out in the news media, along with accusations that some schools have tried to hide sexual assaults on their campuses.
Sullivan and Lampkin want discussions at the conference to address all of the difficult issues surrounding sexual assault with candor. “If we cannot be honest and open, we will not make progress,” Lampkin said.
Linda Fairstein, one of America’s foremost legal experts on crimes of violence against women, will be the conference keynote speaker Monday morning. A 1972 alumna of U.Va.’s School of Law, she prosecuted cases involving sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse and homicides for 30 years, becoming the first head of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and one of the first prosecutors in America to work with DNA evidence.
Fairstein currently serves as senior adviser at K2 Intelligence, where she leads the Campus Sexual Misconduct Group, specializing in best practices and Title IX compliance at academic institutions.
Salamishah Tillet, a rape survivor, scholar and writer who has spent her career championing the rights and voices of the most vulnerable citizens, will be the keynote speaker for day two. Tillet and her sister are co-founders of A Long Walk Home Inc., a nonprofit organization that uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to end violence against girls and women.
Currently an associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, Tillet also has faculty appointments in the departments of Africana Studies, and Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies.
Fairstein and Tillet said they were pleased to be invited to speak on this issue to which they have devoted their lives.
“I think it’s remarkable,” Fairstein said, “that Teresa Sullivan is bringing university presidents to the table on this issue.”