Despite committee recommendation, search continues for sexual assault prevention coordinator

| Director of New Media

After more than two decades of discussion, efforts to create an office to lead Washington University’s sexual assault prevention efforts are picking up pace, but there remains no consensus on how soon the position will be filled.

The committee of faculty and students tasked with finding a candidate to fill the new post has scheduled two interviews for next month, despite already recommending a candidate based on three interviews earlier in the semester.

Members of the hiring committee submitted a letter to Alan Glass, the director of Student Health Services and the official directly responsible for the new position, last month after bringing three candidates to campus.

Glass would not comment on specific details of the hiring process, including why no one was hired or whether the candidates who previously visited campus remained in consideration in the ongoing search. However, he underscored the importance of finding a candidate capable of meeting the needs of stakeholders throughout the University.

“I’m very committed to finding as close to perfect a fit for this critical position,” Glass said. “Until we can find a person who at least comes close to that—in all of our opinions—my intention is to leave the search open.”

Members of the hiring committee—who were selected from the chancellor-appointed Advisory Committee on Sexual Violence and Prevention (ACSVP)—referred all questions about the process and the candidates to Glass.

Although losses in the University’s endowment have forced cost-cutting measures in many departments, school officials, including Chancellor Mark
Wrighton and Vice Chancellor for Students James McLeod, have consistently expressed a commitment to the position, and by all accounts financial concerns will not impact the position in the near future.

“We’ve put a lot of effort into the development and financing of this position,” Glass said. “I’m dedicated to it moving forward, so it’s not going to dry up because money is not as free as it was a few years ago.”

Facilitating collaboration

Formally, the position will be known as the assistant director for sexual assault and community health services. When a candidate is hired, he or she will join the staff of the Habif Health and Wellness Center and will report directly to Glass.

The new position will be responsible for coordinating the University’s sexual assault prevention, education and survivor support efforts and will offer guidance to the student groups that currently deal with this issue on campus.

Because there are three different student organizations dealing with issues of sexual violence, each with a slightly different focus, there is a need for a centralized guiding presence, said senior Christopher Chesley, the co-president of Men Organized for Rape Education (MORE).

The new office will help groups “have a more effective and powerful foothold on campus” and will raise the profile of sexual assault on campus, Chesley said.

Leaders of each of the student groups involved with this issue stressed that having an institutional presence focused solely on the problem of sexual violence would open the door to more resources, greater visibility and increased stability as student leaders transition in and out of leadership positions.

“We love the work that we do, but we are limited by our resources,” said junior Maria Santos, president of the Committee Organized for Rape Education (CORE). Although the movement of students is divided into several smaller groups, Santos stressed that a University-wide staff position would help bring attention to the fact that “we are a larger group and a larger constituency that is interested in fighting sexual assault on campus.”

A long history

The first conversations about the position in the 1980s grew out of a recognition that despite a strong commitment to sexual assault prevention and education among students, faculty and staff, the University’s resources lacked the visible presence to make them easily accessible.

Initially, the University’s support network was pieced together gradually through the commitment of members of the University community.

According to Karen Levin Coburn, a now-retired staff member who served as the University’s women’s crisis counselor and the chair of the Committee on Sexual Assault (COSA) for many years, survivors of sexual violence and those in need of support were often referred to her informally by faculty members and RAs.

“There was a lot of collaboration going on on campus, but it was still not organized in any way,” Coburn said.

Over the years, efforts to prevent sexual and relationship violence grew because of initiatives led by students, faculty and staff, and many of those have remained until today. In addition to the three student groups that focus on survivor support and education, “The Date,” a required presentation during freshman orientation, began because of student lobbying and is still a student-run event.

COSA, which was replaced last year by ACSVP, submitted a yearly recommendation to then-Chancellor William Danforth highlighting the need for a staff position focused on coordinating all of the efforts under way on campus.

“Generally, my thought was that rather than have lots of specialists, that they were problems and issues for the whole campus,” Danforth said. “We were a smaller institution then, and I didn’t think it made sense to try and solve every problem with a new person in charge of something.”

The most recent push to fill the position began in 2007 in response to the violent rape of a female student in Myers Hall by a man unaffiliated with the University. That year, Student Union Senate passed two resolutions in favor of the position and students began to lobby the administration in earnest.

Those efforts sparked the University to re-recognize the importance of facing the problem posed by sexual assault, and led to a year-and-a-half-long process of writing a position statement and the ongoing interview process.

Shifting focus

During the long development of the position, its scope has shifted substantially.

Currently, the job description emphasizes responding to sexual and relationship violence as a health problem.

According to Glass, the position defines sexual assault and the risk factors associated with it in terms of a broad sense of community health—both the physical and mental well-being of the victim, as well as the ways that alcohol and other mental health problems factor into the perpetration of sexual violence.

“Although universities place these positions in different areas administratively depending on what their culture is, the logic for defining it as health certainly works for our University,” Glass said.

Across the board, those involved with the sexual assault prevention and education movement on campus stressed that whatever the mandate of the position, it was important for it to help to shape the broader conversation on campus in a way that would draw attention to the problem and help facilitate solutions.

“It’s important to remember that having this position won’t solve everything—there’s still going to be sexual assault on campus,” said senior Bobby Harvey, president of the campus Sexual Assault and Rape Anonymous Helpline (SARAH). “What we can do is have more of a dialogue about it, and hopefully creating the position will help create a dialogue about it because there’s so much that people don’t know about the issues.”

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