Here is a spine-chilling statistic, lately published in an op-ed piece for the New York Times by Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld: “only 5 percent or less” of college women who have been sexually assaulted report the incident to police. That’s in contrast to the approximately 35 per cent of sexual assaults and rapes reported to the police nationwide, a statistic that’s nevertheless disturbingly low. Rubenfeld, who has come under attack for his analysis of “consent” and of the role alcohol plays in sexual assaults on campus, cites “low arrest and conviction rates, lack of confidentiality, and fear they won’t be believed” as the main reasons women choose not to pursue criminal charges. These deterrents to reporting recall Davidson College Police Chief Todd Sigler’s analysis, cited in the first of the four posts on this blog about this question (9 Nov. 2014). Very probably, instances in which students have been harassed or assaulted by professors and college staff are even less frequently reported. Another reason for such low reporting and complaint rates is campus culture, both student culture and faculty culture.
As to the former, peer pressure is powerful. The whistle-blower runs the risk of being ostracized as a snitch and a wimp. Students are likely to think of sexual assault as something that happens every day, something in the natural course of events at college—unpleasant, but unavoidable. The sooner a student sets it aside, she may reason, the likelier she will remain integrated in the social scene. Pressing criminal charges can make the victim appear vindictive and petty, hung up on rules and full of herself. No matter that none of those fears are true; they have the force of truth because they appear true. In the case of lodging a complaint against a professor, the student must take on not just the social establishment, but, in effect, the entire, monolithic academy. In reality, how many students have the heart and stomach for that prospect?
As to faculty culture, at least two obstacles apply. One is the closing of ranks around a fellow professor whose claim to academic freedom may be perceived as threatened. How dare a mere undergraduate or graduate student question the behavior of a faculty member? What does a student really know or understand about how a distinguished member of the academy does or should operate? The other obstacle is reluctance to turn on a colleague. I’m aware at my own institution of faculty who are bothered by the behavior of some of their co-workers, but who hesitate to say anything; even after they’ve broached the subject with a representative in the personnel department, they may back off. Like students, they don’t want to be the ones to get their peers in trouble, and they don’t want to be revealed as ratting someone out.
Emphasis on bystander intervention has recently been held up as an effective means of curbing student-on-student assault. Faculty have a similar opportunity and obligation to intervene on behalf of a student whom they know to be abused.