Just a month ago I shared my reflections with Berkeley News on the 2015 film Spotlight and the history of the Vatican cover-ups of clerical sex abuse of young children and adolescents over the past decades. A few weeks later, Spotlight got its much-deserved Oscar for best picture of the year.
Meanwhile, another Oscar contender, Lady Gaga, passionately belted out her anthem “Til It Happens to You,” nominated for best original song and written for the documentary The Hunting Ground, about sexual assault on university campuses.
At Gaga’s side were some 50 sexual assault survivors, including three Berkeley students and alumna. Lady Gaga did not leave the event with an Oscar. But we are on her side.
Like Lady Gaga and untold thousands of others — male, female and transgender — I, too, survived sexual harassment at times, as well as a life-threatening physical and sexual assault many years ago as a civil rights worker. It leaves its traces forever.
So, yes, it can happen to you, and to you, and to you — as long as our working spaces, meeting rooms, classrooms, dorms, recreation rooms, locker rooms, administrative offices are fair game for sex-hunting.
We need much more than educational videos and prevention programs. We need rapid and transparent response to allegations of sexual assault. As one of my very smart undergraduate students said, we need evidence-based clinical, psychological and forensic data collected in response to complaints of sexual harassment and assault.
And the buck stops here. As in the case of the Vatican cover-ups, primary responsibility lies with the “enablers,” be they bishops and cardinals or deans and vice chancellors.
When verified and admitted acts of sexual harassment and assault are taken care of quietly and privately, treated as minor annoyances, when perpetrators are given paid leave of absence or a newly minted administrative position, the university is behaving like the Vatican. When those who want to file complaints are given tissues to wipe their eyes, told to go home and rest, see a therapist, or take an unpaid leave of absence, violence has been done. When deals are made to protect powerful senior staff, star faculty or star athletes treated as untouchable university royalty, violence has been done.
The sense of betrayal is devastating to our students. The moral blindness of our administrators is shocking to our faculty.
Like the Vatican covers ups, there is a long history of cover-ups at the University of California, Berkeley. In the fall of 1986, I replaced then Professor Ken Jowitt as dean of Freshman-Sophomore Studies (now called Undergraduate Studies). I was given a house at the Clark Kerr campus and a mission to increase faculty-student contact and to develop intellectual projects (the campus’s Freshman-Sophomore Seminars grew out of this).
I was also in charge of several graduate-student residents at the Clark Kerr campus, who were also residential academic advisors to the students living there. One night I was awakened by two grad student advisors. They reported that a young freshman student had been gang raped by four football athletes during an after-game party at the Clark Kerr complex.
I immediately contacted campus police and reported to my administrator at the College of Letters and Science, who reassured me that the student was being well cared for at the campus’s student health center, and that the case was in the hands of competent lawyers. In fact, however, the “incident” was swept under the rug and the young men — who acknowledged the rape but blamed the euphoria of the game, women fans, and alcohol as mitigating factors — avoided prosecutions in exchange for “letters of apology.” Their sentence was a few weeks of “community service.” The four star athletes continued to play, the fans continued to roar, and the young woman dropped out of sight and out of UC Berkeley.
We didn’t have a rape policy at the time and the then-Chancellor referred to the incident as “date rape.”
We now have a rape policy and we have a great many sexual harassment education and prevention programs. But think back to the 1980s when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was taking the lives of so many gay men, many of them our students at Cal. What if our university healthcare program offered only education and prevention to the student body? Luckily the director of the campus medical system then was Dr. Jim Brown, who insisted on both prevention/education and giving those who tested positive the best medical care available at that time, rapid and evidence based.
Sexual assault is another kind of epidemic. It kills the spirit and the trust necessary to survival.
Universities are not only ivory towers of learning but also over-protected fortresses. When it comes to allegations and incidents of sexual assault, the first impulse of many administrators is to protect the institutions from “scandals.”
For decades the Vatican treated allegations of child sexual abuse as a private sin requiring penance and pastoral counsel for the priests (who were seen as wayward “children”), rather than acknowledging the verified sexual assaults as crimes requiring immediate but careful interventions with outside help. Similarly, the University of California should change its language and modify its responses, to acknowledge sexual harassment and sexual abuse as serious crimes.