On Stanford’s severely misguided priorities following the Brock Turner incident
Stanford University has recently been in the news for two things. The first dates back to March, with a sexual assault case involving a guy named Brock Turner, who blamed his decision to assault an unconscious woman on “alcohol” and “party culture.” The second dates back to Monday, with an overhaul of Stanford’s alcohol policy that prohibits hard alcohol at on-campus undergraduate parties, among other restrictions.
Stanford has not, however, been in the news for any efforts to address the apparent epidemic of sexual assault on its campus and college campuses across the country—you know, efforts to prevent something like the assault in March from happening again, or at least to decrease their frequency. (And, statistically, it will happen again. It probably already has.)
This isn’t just about Brock Turner. Stanford seems to have a problem recognizing that it has a problem. The introduction to Stanford’s 2015 Campus Climate Survey claims that “[s]urvey respondents expressed trust in Stanford to respond appropriately to incidents of sexual violence.” However, the data seems to tell a more tainted truth.
Thirty-six percent of undergraduate women surveyed responded that they felt Stanford was only “a little likely” or “not likely at all” to hold someone found responsible for sexual assault accountable. Among the undergraduate men surveyed, that number is 20 percent. For undergraduates surveyed who identified as “gender diverse,” the percentage skyrockets: 63 percent feel that the university is only a little, if at all, likely to hold a perpetrator of sexual assault accountable.
“Nearly 40 percent of our undergraduate women experience a nonconsensual violation,” John Hennessy, Stanford’s president, said in reference to the survey’s data at a Faculty Senate meeting this past April. The survey also indicates that 84.9 percent of students who have experienced a nonconsensual sexual act have experienced it at the hands of another Stanford student.
Only 2.7 percent of respondents who experienced a nonconsensual sexual act reported the incident to Stanford. Maybe there’s not a lot of faith in the system after all.
So, what has Stanford done about this? Well…it’s hard to find evidence that the university has done much at all.
“We have made many improvements to sexual assault processes at Stanford, but no, none are in direct response to Brock Turner,” Lisa Lapin, associate vice president of University Communications at Stanford, told me in an email. “Most were underway well prior [to the Brock Turner case].” According to the programs listed on the site to which Lapin directed me, and the list of communications to the Stanford community included within, nothing has been updated since the Brock Turner case.
Stanford has, fortunately, instituted some changes in response to the Campus Climate Survey results from September 2015. For example, at the aforementioned Faculty Senate meeting in April, Hennessy referred to the demonstrated prevalence of sexual assault “disgraceful,” calling for the university to “aggressively address it through education, prevention, support and adjudication.”
The meeting resulted in a resolution acknowledging the issue and recommending “that Stanford consider expanding mandatory educational programs regarding sexual assault and sexual misconduct to include graduate students, postdoctoral scholars and staff.” Which, you know, is fantastic. But the survey results seem to indicate a prevalent issue among undergraduates. And, you know, Brock Turner was an undergraduate student. The woman he assaulted was not even a student at the university.
Even in light of a national conversation about campus sexual assault that has recently spotlighted Stanford itself, the university’s response has been minimal. While it does have programs in place for training and education surrounding sexual assault, it does not appear to have made any changes to these programs (or really any administration-student communications regarding sexual assault and consent) since the Turner trial. In fact, its only high-profile response—if it is, in fact, a response—has been to update its alcohol policy to reform the “campus culture around alcohol,” a culture that Turner explicitly and nonsensically blamed for his actions.
Lapin claimed in another email communication that “[t]he [updated alcohol] policy has no connection to Brock Turner” because “[i]t dates back to March,” referring to the March 2016 letter from Hennessey and Provost John Etchemendy regarding a need to reform Stanford’s “campus culture around alcohol.” It is worth noting that Turner was indicted in January.
If the updated alcohol policy is, even partially, a response to the Brock Turner incident, it’s a bad response. If it is, as Lapin claims, not at all in response to the Brock Turner incident, that’s not any better—it indicates that Stanford simply has chosen not to respond at all. It indicates a lack of response to a very public showcasing of what appears to be a culture of sexual assault, not just a culture of drunk partying, on Stanford’s campus.