In the summer of 1998, I carried a good friend off the roof of a University of California, Berkeley, frat house. I didn't belong to the frat. In fact, neither of us was a Berkeley student. We'd taken a road trip there for "welcome week" because, among my high school friends, the incoming freshmen at Berkeley were scheduled to begin college before anyone else. The men in our group drank Keystone Ice from a keg. The frat guys mixed drinks for the women. As the party was ending, I noticed my friend passed out on a futon. As I tried to rouse her, one of the frat brothers suggested that we carry her to his bed. At the time, I was naive enough that the possibility of him raping her never particularly occurred to me. But I wasn't so naive as to leave my friend with strangers. It took time to rouse her, and she was so wobbly on her feet that it took us nearly an hour to stumble past sleeping homeless men back to the dorm floor where we were sleeping. It would be years before I looked back on that night and suspected that she might've been drugged. She might have been fine without me. But we were both glad we didn't have to find out.
That fall, I matriculated at Pomona College. Had I seen a fellow freshman passed out drunk on a senior's bed at the end of my first dorm party, I'm fairly sure I wouldn't have done anything, partly because that tiny, residential campus seemed like an idyllic bubble, but also because I didn't yet know anyone, I was shy, and even if intervening had occurred to me I would have felt it wasn't my place.
A year later, my reaction would've been different.
An unusual feature of residential life at Pomona was the "sponsor program," wherein two sophomores (one male and one female) are assigned to live in every freshmen hall. Sponsors didn't enforce rules like residence advisors. Indeed, sponsors often used their upperclassmen friends to get fake IDs or knowledge of local liquor stores to help their new freshmen friends to obtain alcohol. But part of sponsor training involved being taught how to help or intervene in circumstances as varied as clinical depression, alcohol poisoning, an eating disorder, or a drug addiction. For the most part, you avoided butting into anyone's business on campus, even if that person was breaking rules. But you also did your best to prevent anything catastrophic from happening, being just slightly older and wiser. Even a light touch could accomplish a lot. "Dude, you're drunk. Leave her alone. Eat this pizza."
Most people who did the job felt an extra responsibility to look out for the freshmen in their hall, especially in their first semester. My first year at school, there were times when I made sure a drunk friend got home safely, but as a sophomore, there were two occasions when I sat up in guys' rooms playing FIFA '99 as they slept because their roommates were out and they were drunk enough from hazing that I worried they might roll onto their backs and vomit in their sleep. I remember discretely warning a female "sponsee" that a particular guy who'd cornered her at a Halloween party was sketchy and best watched closely. On another occasion, I happened to encounter a friend's very high "sponsee" at a party at Harvey Mudd, an adjacent campus, and I stuck around an extra hour to make sure he got home all right. This was standard behavior for the people who made up the sponsor program. Some sponsors were better than others. The program didn't come close to averting every traumatic experience that happens on a campus.
But I can think of a lot of traumas that were averted merely by increasing the number of men and women who felt a particular responsibility to be good bystanders and cultivating a culture that would let them. Once, one of my charges was drunk and smoking a joint while sitting on a third floor balcony with his legs dangling over the side. I heard a fellow freshman pleading with him to get down.
"Shut up, mom!" he said laughing.
Then I walked out to the balcony.
"Are you kidding me? Get the f___ down!" I told him. "You fall down and they'll take my job and my single room." Not true, but citing my responsibility as an excuse was helpful.
He got down.
With campus rape and sexual assault in the headlines, due most recently to the passage of California's affirmative consent law and a report about scandalous fraternity culture at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, I've been reflecting on different ways that the number of assault victims might be decreased. I suspect something like the sponsor program would improve conditions on many campuses. Like doctors on a plane, men and women cast in this role would be more likely to be proactive when someone around them needed help (and to be supportive, per their training, if someone had been victimized).
I also wonder if the power of changing the perspective of students might not have even broader applications. Were I a university president, I'd try an experiment. I'd mandate that every fraternity designate a board of eight members—two from each pledge class—charged with ensuring that no one is sexually assaulted by their frat brothers and that any assaults that do happen are reported promptly. They'd be required to complete an annual training session designed to open their eyes to the damage sexual assault does to victims and the way repeat offenders operate–and would have to affirm that they're taking on an ethical responsibility to prevent and expose abuse as best they can. Perhaps this system wouldn't change anything at problem fraternities, but I think there's a chance that nudging even a small number of members from "not my problem" to "my formal responsibility" would have a significant effect on the culture of at least some frats.
These suggestions are hardly cure-alls. But I submit that they're worth trying as part of the broader effort to address the prevalence of rape and sexual assault on campuses. Relying on students to look out for one another on their own just isn't enough.