Whether a small liberal arts school, a local community college, or a large-city university, each college has its own unique persona that attracts specific types of individuals. Factors such as location, campus size, and academics distinguish a college and work in conjunction to give it that certain type of “personality” by which it is identified. Unfortunately, these representations of colleges—frequently grinning, bright-eyed teenagers featured on college brochures—can still mask certain characteristics of the school.
Among the problems universities face today, on-campus sexual assaults and the administration’s handling of such crimes are among the biggest concerns. For example, at Columbia University, Emma Sulkowicz walks around campus carrying her mattress in order to bring the issue of sexual assault to the administration’s attention. Similarly, as revealed in the Rolling Stone exposé on the University of Virginia—although the magazine recently issued a partial retraction of its story—some institutions have attempted to silence victims of sexual assault in order to uphold their reputations. Because of this repressive response, the communities at these schools view rape as an unavoidable outcome of their party culture, and thus sexual violence often fails to trigger any deep concern where needed.
With prestige at the essence of their identities, universities are preoccupied with the potential loss of applicants or unfavorable media attention, valuing the well-being of their appearance over the well-being of their students. As a result, this creates an apathetic environment, in which, the White House estimates, only 12 percent of US college sexual assault crimes are reported according to the January 2014 Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action report by the White House Council on Women and Girls. This gap in sexual assault reports can also be spurred by discouragement from fellow students towards reporting a crime, among other reasons. In some cases, reporting systems are bureaucratic or shaming, leaning more towards victim-blaming than protecting. Therefore, going public about rape incidents is often interpreted as a betrayal by not only the administration but also by peers, showing how society, as a whole, is oriented towards valuing reputation over welfare.
The mentality that reputation is more important than well-being has affected more than sexual assault cases as it has also affected mental health issues. Instances of depression and suicide attempts also go largely ignored by universities—instead of addressing the issue and helping students, administrations disregard such reports because they believe it will tarnish their images, just like they do with sexual assault cases. Some universities even prevent students who have attempted suicide from returning if the administrators find out about their self-destructive behavior. This occurs even if the students have received treatment, according to Tyler Kingkade’s article in The Huffington Post, “Using College Mental Health Services Can Lead To Students Getting Removed From Campus.” Since administrations value outward appearance to such a large extent, students are unable to seek help for their problems, creating an environment of unhappiness.
Some precautions have already been taken to address this issue. The White House Council on Women and Girls has prioritized the prevention of campus sexual assault by heightening college investigations and threatening to withdraw funds from schools that fail to handle reports. There are currently 86 American schools under federal investigation for the handling of sexual-violence complaints. But this is not enough. Both the institutions and their students should be aware of the growing problem as well as various ways to address it. Colleges must issue harsher penalties to those indicted of sexual assault. For instance, all American universities have a clear punishment for violations of the academic honor code: expulsion. Yet, in contrast, those accused of sexual assault can often go by with only a warning. These lenient penalties further illusion that sexual assault crimes do not carry any weight. A clearer, harsher stance must be taken to show that student safety is more important than the reputation of a school or individual.
In order to stop sexual violence, not only do college administrations have to be more willing to punish perpetrators, but students must end the culture of victim-blaming. Most importantly, schools—and society—must realize that, that in all cases, well-being is far more important than stature.