Colleges’ Dirty Little Secret and the Politics of Silence

Katherine White
One with Heart Program Coordinator

People are talking about sexual assault on college campuses, but are college administrations listening?  Students say that 20 percent of women and 5 percent of men are sexually assaulted while attending college.[i] Colleges, interested in preserving their image of safety, prefer to keep these claims on the down low. As the conversation heats up, colleges are under increasing pressure to listen and change. What happens on November 8th will determine whether they keep listening or barricade themselves behind a wall of silence and continue with business as usual.


Business as usual for today’s colleges and universities means big business.[ii] The shift, beginning in the early 1980’s, toward higher education operating on capitalist management principles has meant a shift in focus from creating educated citizens to providing the biggest and best “college experience.” As Andrew Rossi points out in his 2014 documentary, Ivory Tower,[iii]students have become consumers and university presidents have become CEO’s earning millions of dollars a year to oversee the many elements of the college experience, including protecting the image and the brand that sells their college in a highly competitive market.

The bottom line, rape on college campus is bad for business. The Hunting Ground, a powerful documentary released in February 2015, looks at rape on college campuses and exposes the lengths university officials go to cover up sexual assaults to protect their image.[iv] The documentary follows students who allege they were raped at college and looks at how their complaints were handled, focusing particularly on The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Harvard, Amherst College and Notre Dame. Against a backdrop of university claims that they take sexual assault seriously, students’ complaints are met with victim blaming, indifference and inaction.

These colleges, along with most colleges and universities around the country, site very low numbers of sexual assaults, indicating they are underreporting, despite federal requirements under the Clery Act that they keep and disclose information about crime on or near their campuses.[v] The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with a student population of approximately 29,000, sites 21 rape reports and 9 reports of forcible sex offences in 2015. Despite the large discrepancy between these numbers and the reality of what women are experiencing, this shows an increase in reporting over their 2013 statistics which site 0 rapes and 19 forcible sex offences.[vi]

President Obama has been outspoken about colleges not doing an adequate job of addressing sexual assault and has taken steps to solve the problem. In 2013 he signed into law the saVE Act which expands the transparency requirements of the Clery Act; requires that colleges follow up reports of sexual assaults with disciplinary proceedings; and offers resources to colleges to implement awareness programs. [vii] He followed up in 2014 with his ‘It’s on Us’ campaign calling for everyone to get involved in changing the culture of silence. In his speech launching the campaign he said: “To work so hard to make it through the college gates only to be assaulted is an affront to our basic humanity. It is on all of us to reject the quiet tolerance of sexual assault and to refuse to accept what is unacceptable.”[viii]

Obama has put some teeth into these initiatives. He threatened to pull funding from colleges who fail to make changes. Both Obama and Biden said that neither they, their wives or members of their cabinet will accept speaking engagements at institutions they consider insufficiently serious about pursuing sexual assault allegations.[ix]

Will our next president provide this same kind of leadership? Neither candidate addressed this issue during the debates despite pressure from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center so their record and character must speak for them.[x]

Clinton has long been an advocate for women’s rights. She supported the passage of the Violence Against Women Act and the creation of the Dept. of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women. When the Brock Turner case became public she spoke on behalf of the survivor and said that, as president, addressing sexual assault on college campuses will be a priority.[xi] She has posted her plan on her website, a plan which mirrors the work that Obama started.[xii]

Trump has released no statement on this issue and posted no plan on his website. He treats women like objects, speaks of them as animals, and currently stands accused of sexual assault by numerous women. Trump modeling agency, owned by Donald Trump, is being sued by one of his models who claims that Trump brought her to the United States from Jamaica with promises of a high salary, forced her to live in sweatshop conditions, and paid her practically nothing.[xiii]Her claims are supported by other models, some as young as 14, brought to the United States by the agency, held in squalid conditions with no legal status and virtually no income.[xiv]

Despite a pattern of abuse against women, disregard for human rights, shady deals, unkept promises, and failed businesses, Trump entices voters with claims he will make America great by running the country like a business. Think for a moment about what this means.  The primary concern of the CEO of any business is financial gain. There is often a conflict between financial self-interest and the interests of society as a whole. We see this in the conflict colleges have between protecting their brand and protecting their students.

Our elected leaders are not CEOs. Their leadership role is very different; they are charged with keeping individual self-interest in check through incentives, regulations, and legislation. We expect their voice and vision to protect the greater good. Clinton, who has spent her life in public service, understands this. Trump, who has spent his life in service to himself, does not.

It is time to decide whose voice and vision will lead our country forward. There are many issues at stake that directly impact our lives. What is happening on our college campuses is one and it is not insignificant. Seventeen million young adults attend colleges and universities in the United States; 57 percent are women. It has been in the financial best interests of colleges to remain in denial about the scope of sexual assault and stay silent. Will we continue to address their denial with policies and programs that break down the wall of silence, or will we go back to business as usual? We decide on November 8th.  We must choose wisely.

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[i] Washington Post/Kaiser Foundation; DiJulio, Bianca, et al. Survey of Current and Recent College Students on Sexual Assault. June 12, 2015.

Anderson, Nick and Clement, Scott. “College Sexual Assault: 1 in 5 College Women Say They Were Violated.” The Washington Post, June 12, 2015.

Association of American Universities; AAU Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct. 2014

[ii] Kasperkevic, Jana. “The Harsh Truth: US colleges are businesses, and student loans pay the bills.” the guardian. October 7, 2014.

[iii] Ivory Tower. Director Andrew Rossi. Produced by CNN Films. January 18, 2014. Film.

[iv] The Hunting Ground. Director Kirby Dick. Produced by Amy Ziering. February 27, 2015. Film.

[v] Wikipedia. “The Clery Act.” Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia.

[vi] The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 2016 Annual Campus Security Report.

[vii] Understanding the saVE Act. Know Your Title IX: Empowering Students to Stop Sexual Violence.

[viii] Somanader, Tanya. Government Blog, White House website. “President Barak Obama Launches the ‘It’s On Us Campaign to End Sexual Assault on Campus.”   the White House President Barak Obama.  September 19, 2014.

[ix] Eilperin, Juliet. “Biden and Obama rewrite the rulebook on college sexual assault.” The Washington Post, July 3, 2016.

[x] Young, Ashley and Tin, Alexander. “What Will Clinton and Trump Do About Sexual Assault On College Campuses?” npr Oregon Public Broadcasting politics. August 7, 2016.

[xi] Stein, Sam and Kingkade, Tyler. “Hillary Clinton Praises Courage Of The Victim Of The Brock Turner Sexual Assault.” The Huffington Post, June 15, 2016.


[xiii] Mosk, Matthew, Ross, Brian and Kreider, Randy. “Trump Model Felt like ‘Slave’ Working For Trump Agency.” ABC News. May 10, 2016.

[xiv] West, James.  “Former Models For Donald Trump Agency Say They Violated Immigration Rules and Worked Illegally: ‘it’s like modern slavery’. “Mother Jones, August 30, 2016.