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Moving forward on sexual assault

On Sunday, the Editorial Board had the privilege of interviewing President Richard Brodhead in his final year at Duke University. Yesterday we wrote positively about his history and philosophical legacy at Duke. Today we turn to discussing one of the thornier problems that has remained unresolved during his presidency: campus sexual assault.

In a recent report, 40 percent of surveyed Duke undergraduate women reported having experienced sexual assault during their time on campus. When we echoed that statistic to Brodhead, he reminded us that the number is not out of line with those at schools like Duke. He continued by insisting that there are no quick fixes the university can make to reduce or end sexual assault. One example he made note of to prove his point was the introduction of bystander training to Duke. Despite initial high hopes, there ended up being, in Brodhead's words, "no positive evidence that [the training] made a difference." The same would probably go for other quick fixes like Harvard’s new policy denying members of unrecognized single-gender social groups leadership positions on campus. Such measures which are ostensibly intended to reduce assault rates could instead lead to further complications such as similar organizations popping up off-campus, away from the university’s view, while continuing miscreant behavior. Rejecting the idea of top-down action on sexual assault, Brodhead emphasized that solutions to sexual assault demand an intrinsic culture change at Duke as well as the continued action and efforts of groups and individuals on campus.

We agree with President Brodhead that there are no quick administrative fixes that can be made, but nevertheless reject the idea that campus administrations do not have a large role to play. Rather, because quick fixes do not work, we believe bolder, long-term administrative action is crucial. The university’s efforts to curb assault in the past two years have largely been limited (at least visibly) to the creation of task forces that President Brodhead praised in our interview. And while such task forces can provide an ideological framework for solutions, they have not prevented 40 percent of women on campus recently surveyed from being assaulted. If administrative action is to help resolve problems of sexual assault on campus, it must come in the form of large efforts like a revitalization of the honor code or a rewriting of punishment policies. Perhaps those efforts are idealistic, but our current situation demands change.

We do agree with President Brodhead that individual action is a necessary catalyst for resolution to the problem, but feel that over-reliance on students to solve the problem will not lead to solutions. The fact that even leaders of Greek fraternities, historic hotbeds of sexual assault, have told him how difficult it is to keep their groups accountable should make that evident. If it does not, perhaps student turnover can: with exception to some graduate students, most Duke students leave within four years, taking their institutional knowledge of sexual assault with them. And just as President Brodhead noted that he had to “learn Duke” before making a general plan for his tenure, new students must “learn Duke” before they can begin formulating appropriate individual actions to take against sexual assault. Given that there is no clear, organized process of institutionalizing their knowledge, we let pieces of progress slip out of our fingers at every graduation.

Brodhead noted during our interview that the unsolved problems of sexual assault that plague Duke have plagued the wider world for lifetimes. That is true, but it should not and cannot prevent us from taking bold actions to work toward a better way forward.

This is the second part of a three-part editorial series inspired by our interview with President Brodhead.

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