Campus sexual assault is a major safety concern that university administrations have major financial incentives to underreport.
In 2012, it was revealed that the University of Montana and the city of Missoula were being investigated for a mass cover-up of sexual assaults on campus. Eighty reported assaults were either ignored or not prosecuted over a three-year span. Senior administration of the school was personally involved in attempting to silence victims and skew reports, and the football coach and athletic director at the center of the inquiry were fired. On February 14, the US Department of Justice reported that the Missoula County prosecutor’s office “systematically discriminates against female sexual assault victims in conjunction with the cases stemming from the University of Montana.
Sexual assault on college campuses is not a new problem, but it has arguably become an increasingly severe one. Rana Sampson states in her report “Acquaintance Rape of College Students” for the United States Department of Justice, “Rape is the most common violent crime on American college campuses today.” As more attention focuses on the issue and how to curb and prevent it, the conversation has relied heavily on addressing awareness, education and reporting. While that all is important, serious questions remain about the factors behind the heightening of the problem. How has the campus environment become increasingly unsafe? Why have senior administration and university presidents become more personally and deeply involved in covering up rape, rather than protecting their students? High rates of campus rape may be a symptom of the growing Academic Industrial Complex – specifically, how the increase of private money influences administrative handling of sexual assault, and particularly, how it is silenced.
Deregulation, Athletics and Accountability
A growing trend since the late ’90s and early ’00s has been the deregulation of college and the NCAA. The push to deregulate higher learning, particularly management, occurred under the guise of making college more affordable and more accessible. The result has been the opposite, with universities morphing into public corporations. College administrators are increasingly positioned under the direction of CEOs (as they continue to take places on corporate boards), instead of the public and the state. This means corporations have more control and influence over how policies are leveraged and the image of the institution. So whether rape is a prevalent problem on campuses or not (it is), the demand to maintain the facade that it isn’t is very high. Safe learning environments are of the utmost importance to parents and students when deciding which college to attend. Sexual assault is a major safety concern, and parents and students are trusting administrations when they report low to zero instances of rape. Additionally, if a campus appears to have a problem with violence, it is less likely that private donors and businesses are going to have an interest in funding it. Therefore, in the realms of both admissions and outside funding, universities have major incentives to underreport the crime.
With the deregulation of the NCAA, college coaches now have close to unlimited access to potential future athletes without risk of recruiting violations. This opens up an array of perks that coaches can offer as a way to entice athletes (young men in particular) to come play for their team. A popular perk coaches offer is access to young women and sexual assault without consequence. This standard is set for athletes before they even begin college. Coaches also still actively recruit young men being criminally investigated for rape. Young men are given the message – by college officials – that before they join the team, objectifying and victimizing women is something they’re entitled to do, and that they will be protected from repercussions.
Ed Cunningham, an ESPN college football analyst, framed recent sexual assault allegations against four Vanderbilt football players as an “isolated incident,” saying, “But these are young men. They are given a place in society where they are not always going to follow the rules.” In this “rules”-based frame, the issue of sexual assault is positioned as an issue of, “Be careful because you might get in trouble, or someone might get you in trouble.”
In a system in which authority figures are covering up, making excuses for and even encouraging sexual assault by athletes, the people who are “supposed” to be holding these men accountable are the ones dismissing the gravity of their actions. Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Stockstill treats the issue of sexual assault by his players as an interference in the success of their season: “Talk to your team about it, and do your best as a coaching staff and as a team to not let it be a distraction.” When the value of BCS bowl game, play off, and March Madness appearances are at a premium, the importance of preventing rape or holding athletic culture accountable for it is at an all-time low – and in many places – nonexistent. Colleges are raking in more and more money from sponsors, televised games and championship titles. Private donors interested in keeping up successful seasons and programs are also providing schools with millions of dollars. Rape becomes an inconvenient reality – one that must be hidden to ensure profits.
Rape as a Cost-Benefit Analysis
Private enterprise has clearly benefited from deregulation and expanded its takeover of higher learning. So what are the stipulations when corporate money is invested? College administrations already scramble to give corporate donors the impression their campuses are safe and free of rape to maintain their schools’ reputation. Corporate money – and the reputation of the corporation – makes the requirement to appear flawless even more imperative. In the context of sexual assault, victims become the problem, and so to make the issue of sexual assault disappear, victims are the ones who are made to disappear. Much as employees in business settings are fired for reporting sexual harassment and rape, and students at universities are, and will be, treated in a similar manner (sometimes through expulsion, or even institutionalization. Additionally, schools create hostile environments for students who’ve spoken up about their victimization. Take University of North Carolina sophomore Landen Gambil, who filed a federal complaint against the university for its treatment of assault survivors. The university has now charged Gambil with an honor code violation, for creating a “hostile environment” for the person who assaulted her. When protecting capital interests is the priority, the policies that address sexual assault work to shield donors, administration and rapists.
In a capitalist setting, dehumanization for power and profit is nothing new. However, we have not traditionally considered campus rape as a problem associated with, or as a result of, capitalism because so many colleges are intended to be public institutions focused on supporting students’ efforts to get an education. Colleges are not supposed to be corporations. Yet this is what institutions of higher learning are rapidly becoming. When the focus of academia evolves into profit-making rather than providing education, safety risks and concerns of individuals become insignificant, and exploitation of people occurs – much like what happens with unregulated businesses, this is a side-effect of capitalism.
Sexual assault is especially inconvenient for capitalist interests because of the expenses attached to addressing survivors’ needs. According to the US Dept. of Justice, “Overall, rape is believed to carry the highest annual victim cost of any crime.” Rape is expensive, and so, it’s cheaper for colleges to settle lawsuits than it is to deal with the crime. Settlements are a standard tool of capitalism. For example, in 1977 it was discovered that it was more cost-effective for Ford to settle lawsuits of Pinto victims than it was to make the minor fix to make the car safer. Between the cost of rape as a crime and the loss of revenue it would mean for colleges and their corporate counterparts, settling Title IX lawsuits is worth the risk and cheaper than protecting students. Sound unbelievable?
The Obama Administration performed a cost-benefit analysis of rape in another institution that also has perpetual high rates of sexual violence: prisons. This was done via the Prison Rape Elimination Act. The analysis was aimed at assessing the costs of addressing and protecting incarcerated people from sexual assault, versus not doing so. PREA, much like the Clery Act for colleges, was intended to make information about prison rape public, in an attempt to hold prisons accountable for the sexual violence occurring within the institutions. The act also involved conducting a study on the frequency and severity of the problem. The point was to put a monetary value on stopping prison rape. (PREA also divides rape into categories and creates a hierarchy of sexual assault, much as the government did with the Clery Act and Campus SaVE Act.) If our federal government is deciding whether or not to protect citizens from rape in an institution based on how much it costs, it seems possible that some college administrations are capable of the same.
“Within the logic of market capitalism, it is rational for a University to pressure survivors of sexual violence to keep quiet as a way to protect their bottom line,” founding director of Project Nia, Mariame Kaba, tells me. “But, ‘rational’ or not, the actions of these universities are turning victims of violence into accomplices in exploitation by dehumanizing them and by minimizing the harm that they’ve experienced from rape. Survivors are consistently told – by the antiviolence movement and by authorities – that reporting assaults to the legal system is the main way to validate their claims. Yet universities, caught up in free-market motivations, are often incentivized to discourage survivors from speaking up. The bottom line: The university climate has become hostile to survivors, and either way, they are the ones who lose.”