There’s something you should know about Walker’s proposal on college sexual assault reporting

As the work week wound down, one of the big headlines here in Wisconsin was that Scott Walker didn’t want colleges to report sexual assaults. Highlighted were amendments to ss. chapter 36 in the proposed changes to the state budget and state statutes that would eliminate current requirements for (1) university staff to report to central administration and (2) for the campuses to report to the system the statistic counts of known incidents of sexual assault.

Soon after the story broke, UW System administration and the Governor’s office acknowledged that the System had been asking for the removal of these requirements (conveniently omitted were details on the complex, confusing, and inefficient nature this dual reporting responsibility at the campus level as well as how the request has probably been repeated annually for years).

Jezebel, the first piece I saw on the matter, has already added a mea culpa at the top of its previously published article. I by no means intend to defend Walker. But the public ire on this issue is unfortunately misplaced and misinformed, and that’s good news for Scott Walker right now.

The deletion of the statutory requirements regarding sexual assault are absolutely important, but they are more reflective of bad (and successful) political optics, rather than sound policy.

It is a terrible idea, politically, to appear like you’re soft on the issue of campus sexual assault. If you’re thinking about making a run for national political office, you definitely do not want to risk alienating 50% of the electorate (who tend to vote disproportionately high). But if you can get some media coverage on the issue, while it also distracts from the very real negative outcomes likely from the proposed budget cut and changes to campus governance, you look “unintimidated” in the face of liberal media attacks. Republican voters will only have their positive opinions about you and negative opinions about the mainstream media reinforced because you’re unfairly criticized without all the facts (still underreported) known about the issue! It’s a win-win, politically.

Unless…

When I saw the Jezebel article, it was accompanied with Facebook comments of exasperation and attacks on the governor. Of course, as the internet is wont, the opinions shared had nothing of substance and discussed nothing proactive.

Friday night, I talked with a colleague at another system institution, and we shared the same laugh about how, as a practical matter, the changes to the statutes don’t actually matter and actually do make some of our work more efficient. Here’s how:

UW System is required to annually report the numbers of sexual assaults reported to campus staff, no matter when or where these assaults took place, and categorize them by one of four degrees as defined in state statute, which is also the way our campus policies define sexual assaults perpetrated by students (a terrible way of doing things from a student conduct administration perspective, but that’s a whole other matter).

The Clery Act requires campuses to report sexual assaults as forcible or non-forcible (changing under the updated rules taking effect soon). These two categories had overlap with the state statutes, when they occurred in the reporting years or in Clery reportable locations, requiring university staff at each campus to spend time sifting through each individual report–some anonymous with little detail–to make sure the incidents were categorized correctly and not miscounted or double reported to the respective government entities. Erring in the federal report could result in a fine of $35,000 per miscount, even if you over count. 

Since I began working in the UW System in 2012, I have heard criticisms of the dual reporting structure from numerous colleagues across the System. You can imagine it is challenging to take anonymous reports of disclosures from our confidential reporting sources and cross reference those with known reports through police and other channels, to try and make sure we’re not double counting for each report and that the numbers accurately reflect the information known.

And so, for as long as I’ve been around, which isn’t long I’ll admit, my colleagues from across the state, who do the work day-to-day, have complained (and no doubt advocated up the chain in meetings I’m not invited to) that the dual reporting unnecessarily complicates both reporting to our communities and our overseers. Why couldn’t we at least report using the same definitions of sexual assault, specifically the uniform criminal definition for Clery?

So the message went up to the UW System to lobby the state for change. Clery rules for over 4000 schools aren’t going to change just because our 26 campuses are inconvenienced by our legislature’s rules. And until any change occurs, the System isn’t going to say to the campus leadership to skip the Clery reporting, and of course risk our federal financial aid or substantial fines, in favor of focusing on the state definitions report alone.

Getting back to the budget proposal: Those quick to attack the governor on his proposed changes overlooked other examples of when state government was taken out of the way to make things work best by the people who do the work. In the state statutes granting public authority status to the UW Hospital and Clinics (ss. chapter 233), there is not a single reference to the Health Insurance and Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) which guarantees patients privacy of their medical records (note: whether this was the case at any point since the mid-90s when both HIPAA and the hospital were established is not known to me, but it’s not currently referenced today). Does that mean the hospital shirks its federal obligations because its not currently in state law? Of course not. 

Of course the UW System–at least the people on the front lines who are committed to the educational mission and civil rights–are going to work to be better than compliant on the issues of interpersonal violence and gender equity. The real problem is that the budget proposal legitimately undermines our work in ways not discussed in the media.

This story, which when analyzed seems just too perfectly planned to be coincidence, serves Walker’s interests. Once the story broke that his budget proposal cut the reporting requirements, the System, possibly directed by the governor’s office, has to come out and say, “it’s not his fault, we asked for this” and Walker gets to look like his proposed statutory changes to reporting requirements are in the best interest of the system (which is true). He looks fine in the media, Jezebel and other media outlets have to backtrack, and the System has a little egg on their face because the reasons for requesting the change are too complicated for a soundbite or the AP wire. Walker supporters and Republicans generally laugh about this latest media gaffe and feel better about their chances in 2016.

And all of this obscures the real problems related to the Walker’s budget proposal and the issues of interpersonal violence at the UW System schools: The $300 million budget cut for the next two years – amounting to an estimated 2.5% or more of each individual campus’s total budget, and maybe much more for the county extensions – will do real damage to the ability of each campus to adequately serve and support victims of interpersonal violence, as well as to undertake the federally mandated responsibilities to prevent their occurrence in the first place.

Issuing “block grants” to the system forces difficult decisions upon campus priorities including federal responsibilities for compliance, debt obligations, contracts for employees, grant matching for existing research and programs, and staffing, hiring, and benefits. The dollars allocated will closely reflect the value of those priorities. If a campus decides on cuts to, say, victim services or investigative staff, Walker is insulated from the negative consequences of those decisions.

The draconian budget cuts, to shore up Walker’s failed budget of two years ago where his tax cuts failed to lead to increased economic growth and a net gain in state revenue, will further damage the UW System and the state. The collateral damage isn’t just the laid off employees; student victims will bear the consequences as well.

Students will have reduced contact to the remaining overburdened administrators and instructors who will be forced to be more “efficient.”  If you’ve got limited time and have more advisees, students in class, and projects because your colleagues were kicked to the curb, then its perfectly conceivable that even the best teachers will have to cut down on the time they spend one-on-one with students. On our campuses, instructors and staff often have the relationships with students that afford the opportunity to see warning signs of issues of concern.

Students may have felt comfortable reporting interpersonal violence precisely because it impacts their student experience in academics or involvement, or manifests in other behaviors of concern. When our relationships with students are diminished through the limitations of time and space due to the budget cuts, victims have reduced options on how to exercise agency in their own recovery: Imagine a situation where a student is struggling with anxiety from an assault or stalking or an abusive partner, and that anxiety is impacting their academic performance. If they seeks counseling or crisis services as the only course of action, that’s a great start, and the confidential counselor can of course share about reporting options and recommend avenues for academic support.

But if the student feels isolated from instructors due to being unable to see them in reduced office hour availability or because staying after class is not private enough, all the efforts to manage their anxiety through counseling are not going to get them the needed academic accommodations. If that instructor or advisor is buried in their work, it’ll be too late before they notice the student’s decline in performance before the end of the semester. The student is not going to request accommodations for the impact of a sexual assault via email, even if that is technically the most efficient means of requesting them.

Beyond the initial support and reparative measures, overburdened investigators will find themselves unable to resolve cases effectively with fair and thorough investigations, which are already often inconceivably difficult. Perpetrators may be able to continue on without being held accountable. Suboptimal investigations foster distrust in the system. All our efforts to encourage reporting will ultimately fail if students perceive the investigations as ineffective (I would consider optimal investigations to be fair and just in process, even if one of the parties ultimately feels unsatisfied with the specific outcomes).

As long as interpersonal violence affects any one of our students, we can be sure that these budget cuts will negatively impact their success on our campuses and after. And that’s what should really outrage us. It’s not the optics or the politics. It’s how these policies play out in the messy reality that is the college campus.

So if you were up in arms about Walker’s proposed changes to the UW System statutes regarding sexual assault, don’t just let that fire die with the clarification from the System administration where they take responsibility for the amendment to ss. 36.

If you’re not from Wisconsin, advocate for our students by contacting the members of the Joint Committee on Finance who have the most power over the direction of this budget bill and voicing your concerns about these budget cuts.

Wisconsin residents: Direct your concerns at your legislator and the JCF because if they go along with these budget cuts as proposed (to say nothing of the granting of public authority status scheduled to take effect in just over 16 months without any semblance of a System plan in place on how the new governance will be operationalized), then they are complicit in the further marginalization of victims, responsible for the failure to serve these students appropriately.

If you decide to sit on the sidelines, then you’re complicit too.

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Finding Inclusive Excellence at Exclusive Research Institutions

In the first few months of this academic year, there have been a number of burglaries and armed robberies near campus, affecting numerous students, and leading to an increased level of alertness (both in timely warnings and crime alerts issued and in student attention to safety). Almost without fail, the alleged suspect is identified as a black or Latino man, usually with a description so vague that it could apply to any college age male. Could it be that men of color, who typically do not live near this college campus, unless they’re students, due to a history of de facto (and de jure) racial segregation in housing in Madison, Wisconsin, are coming downtown to target college students? Sure, this is entirely plausible.

I’m not in a position to debate the veracity of the reports of burglary or robbery victims. However, there is the unintentional impact that this increase in crime has on men of color on this campus. When Latino or black men are singled out as potential perpetrators of violent (property) crimes, the inherent supposition when seeing a young adult male of color on campus is not that he is a student. The heightened alertness to risk of crime is to regard those individuals as a threat to safety or property.

This has obviously been covered extensively in the actual media (and other blogs) in relation to the stop-and-frisk policies of the NYPD. Racial profiling is an abhorrent crime prevention tactic, not exclusively because of the perpetuation of stereotypes and dehumanization of the victims of stop-and-frisk (or because it is statistically ineffective). On a college campus, the perception of black and Latino men as criminals also serves to reinforce another misperception: that these men do not belong on campus.

Recently, I sat in on our campus-wide Diversity Plan listening sessions, where we discussed the current proposed plan developed by the committee and provided feedback on what it means to have an inclusive campus. Nevermind the fact that the last plan expired in 2008 or that the focus on diversity sometimes gives ammunition to opponents of building an inclusive campus. Instead, I was struck by one particular interaction with a faculty emeritus who is actively and adamantly opposed to the current admissions process at the UW.

While seated in a small group dialogue about what it means to feel included on campus, he branched off in to a critique of the admissions standards and how that affects people from “targeted1 racial minorities.” He articulated information similar to the above opinion piece from Madison’s Cap Times, which may be compelling facts. His economic (or whatever) analysis does not hold water when thinking about the context and environments of the education system. The experiences of students of color, both prior to coming to college and after enrolling, matter, and faculty have a tremendous role in how those experiences can negatively (or positively) impact student academic performance.

What came to light in that dialogue, thanks to the generous sharing of a graduate student and a reframing of the issue, is that faculty members may hold certain stereotypes of students of color, including but not limited to:

  • They need a mentor, and therefore the faculty member should take the time to get to know the student.
  • They did not earn their way in to the institution under the “competitive” admissions process.
  • They may only be there as student-athletes, and the “student” part of that label is sometimes completely ignored by peers or instructors.
  • A faculty member’s teaching style, which has worked for White students for years, should also work for students of color. If they can’t compete in the classroom, then they don’t deserve to be there.

Taking these in turn, we can see that many can impact the academic performance of even the most academically talented students of color.

First, research shows that faculty mentors can be important to the success of students.2 However, if the faculty member has a negative perception about the student’s cultural capital or abilities, then this deficit-thinking will not lead to a quality relationship, which is more valuable to black students than the race of the faculty mentor, for example. Additionally, some students don’t have time for small talk–whether its introversion or other deadlines looming. Perhaps when they stop in for office hours, they just want their questions answered, not to share their life story with a well-intentioned instructor.

Second, assuming black or Latino men did not earn their way in to the university perpetuates “stereotype threat.” Faculty and instructors have no way of knowing if a student of color was the top of their class from the very best private institution, or “merely” top 10% from their urban public high school. To assume that they are not academically prepared, and then treat them accordingly, only serves to reinforce social messages students receive about how their race/ethnicity is perceived in academic environments, and can contribute to underperforming. This can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy about students of color when their grades come in.

Third, while student-athletes may be granted latitude in admissions, there are still expectations (per NCAA eligibility guidelines) that they perform in the classroom in order to be able to compete. Even if a student, no matter their race, were also an athlete, they and the instructor each have an obligation to ensure that they are performing at their very best. Making assumptions about their admission qualifications does nothing to assist this student in their academic (and subsequent) athletic success. Understanding that Division I intercollegiate athletics is both an access point for college for some students as well as nearly a full time job outside of classes, instructors should work hard to encourage their students’ academic success, time management, and balancing of competing priorities.

Finally, I find it particularly detestable, after secondary education preparation and my chosen career as an educator, that instructors would assume that their teaching style and methods would and should work for all students, just because it has worked for decades or worked when they were in college. We have learned so much about teaching & learning–to say nothing of racial and other identity development–over the last half century and for instructors to rely solely on methods that were pioneered in an era when only upperclass White men were enrolled in colleges (and that continued after the GI bill redefined diversity to only include White men from broader social classes) is wrought with White privilege, and both irresponsible and unfortunately damaging. It’s easy to teach the way one always has and chalk up poor grades by anyone to some fault in the student. It’s much harder to acknowledge that some students need different methodologies, different learning assessments, and/or different assistance outside of class, especially when the pressures and challenges for all students have changed so much over time, and to then make the time to engage in those new practices. Even faculty of color can fall in this trap, if that manner of education happened to work for them.

Many faculty like to believe that they are good instructors–and that’s probably true for many of their students. But that does not mean that their implicit biases or negative assumptions about students of color, especially in a community like Madison that has such racial disparities, don’t impact their teaching effectiveness. White students may pick up on these biases and it may reinforce their own negative assumptions about their peers’ academic abilities. It can reinforce stereotype threat. It can decrease student engagement and contribute to the lower graduation rates cited by Hansen. It can reinforce other negative stereotypes generalized to the broader group represented by the woefully few men of color on campus.

Connecting back to the initial point, the reality on this campus (and likely others experiencing similar circumstances) is that black and Latino men are at risk for being perceived as neither qualified for nor welcome on campus, and possibly even be viewed as criminals.

Of course, this is not just a problem for UW students. If affects community members and employees. It extends to other institutions as well. A recent example from UCLA highlights similar trends in elite public higher education. But if Inclusive Excellence is the overriding goal (Inclusion is excellent, excellence is inclusive), then is it fair to say that our institutions fail to measure up to the term elite, since we are reinforcing exclusion, and therefore not excellent? Perhaps this has always been what we’re best at: reinforcing a perceived meritocracy that is primarily about exclusion through competition for grades, degree program admission, and jobs after graduation. 

But hope is not lost! It is imperative that efforts to foster a more inclusive campus focus on helping faculty interrogate their instructional methods to make them more inclusive. Inclusive classrooms lead to greater creativity in problem solving and greater attainment of learning outcomes, to name two examples. But beyond the practical academic benefit, faculty and other instructors can better understand their own implicit biases and use pedagogical practices that have been shown to increase student learning and disrupt social systems of privilege. Research institutions should pioneer applied educational research to foster innovative and effective methods to increase the college enrollment and subsequent success of black and Latino students, with the added benefit of reducing the risk of committing crime.3 Madison and Dane County should be the laboratory in which we work, and if that’s not the Wisconsin Idea, then it’s really just a marketing scheme.

1.Targeted is an unfortunate term to describe their recruitment, since the targeting based on race/ethincity doesn’t stop once they matriculate. Instead many become the targets of microaggressions and even intentional acts of bias or hate crimes.

2.Sources: Lee, W. Y. (1999). Striving toward effective retention: The effect of race on mentoring African American students. Peabody Journal of Education, 74(2), pp. 27-43. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1493074. and Hernandez, J. C., & Lopez, M. A. (2005). Leaking pipeline: Issues impacting Latino/a college student retention. Journal of College Student Retention, 6(1), 37-60. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/196729924?accountid=465

3.A word on the crime disparities: Obviously context matters. Crime and criminality are not the result of some deviant genetic trait among people of color. Systems of socioeconomic (and behavioral) oppression lead to certain crimes in certain situations, as well as the criminalization of certain behaviors deemed deviant or dangerous. These categories are subjective, determined by people with power, and over time they have had a disasterous effect. Students who are more engaged in school, both K-12 and post-secondary, and feel that they are on a path to legal economic success, have less–no?–incentive to commit property crimes.