In a recent Washington Post story, Grinnell College President Raynard S. Kington was quoted making a rather uncomfortable admission: Reports of campus rape recently shot up in his small Iowa college — and he was happy about it.
"If anything, this is evidence we are doing a better job, creating a supportive environment, where more people feel more comfortable reporting," Kington said of his school's high number of reported sexual assaults. Grinnell had recently launched a campaign educating its student body on the importance of reporting rape, he explained, and any chance the higher numbers would make the school look bad was easily outweighed by the benefits of a pro-reporting campus culture.
Sen. Claire McCaskill is hoping to alleviate misperceptions stemming from these statistics in her new legislation to battle sexual assault on campus. The bill, announced Wednesday by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, would require every U.S. college to be surveyed about its sexual violence, creating what McCaskill has dubbed an "apples-to-apples approach." It would also require campuses to have a uniform process for disciplinary proceedings and coordinate with local law enforcement agencies to discuss responsibilities and share information.
"To curb these crimes, students need to be protected and empowered, and institutions must provide the highest level of responsiveness in helping hold perpetrators fully accountable," McCaskill said in a statement on Wednesday. "That's what our legislation aims to accomplish."
Grinnell was just one of a handful of prestigious liberal arts schools to report high numbers of offenses in rankings recently compiled by The Post. After the rankings ran, some of the schools listed received a spate of unflattering coverage. An article in Oregon's The Register-Guard, for instance, came out attacking Reed College, long known as a bastion for peaceful hippies, for its high number of reported incidents, which topped reported offenses at every other higher education institution in the state.
"No one is happy with the numbers," Reed spokesman Kevin Myers told the paper at the time, "but people are happy that victims are coming forward. The goal is to reduce and prevent sexual assault from happening on the campus, but another goal is to respond in the most effective way."
Indeed, McCaskill has suggested that high rates of reported assaults do not necessarily reflect badly on schools. What should be much more worrisome, she posits, are schools with no reported offenses at all.
"We've got to explain to the public that they should not hold a university responsible for some failure if the number of sexual assault reports go up," she told the Post following the publication of their rankings. In short: If a school has zero offenses, it could well mean the institution isn't doing enough to encourage students to speak out.
The concerns echoed those of Jennifer Freyd, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, who recently wrote a column condemning the way the rankings have been used. "Each college and university now has a choice: Nervously guard its reputation at the profound expense of student well-being," she wrote, "or courageously invest in student safety, health and education."
McCaskill's legislation, which could be heard on the Senate floor as early as September, would make it so schools don't have to choose.