Recounting my personal experience with the ebb and flow of social activism in the School of Social Welfare during four decades at Berkeley, it is tempting to see the current wave of political correctness as just another periodic tsunami battering the campus rather than a permanent change in the academic climate. In that case, it might be well to simply hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. Yet I have an uneasy feeling that this time campus activism is different. The ever-present minority of vocal student activists and some faculty supporters are not the only agents determined to transform the culture and mission of higher education.
Over the last several decades federal regulations and funds have created an alternative bureaucracy within universities that is devoted, not to the core academic mission of teaching and research, but to improving the social climate of university life. This is an estimable objective in the abstract. And in practice some of the measures taken are of significant benefit; for example, the range of efforts made to accommodate the academic needs of students with disabilities. However, many of the activities promoted by the campus-climate bureaucracy are costly well-intentioned efforts of questionable merit.
Consider, for example, the empirical reality and the policy responses to the renewed panic about sexual assault on campus. According to the FBI’s uniform crime reporting statistics, between 1995 and 2014 the rate of violent crime (which includes murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) in the United States fell by 42 % and the rate of forcible rape declined by 30 %.Footnote 7 The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ annual National Crime Victimization Survey shows that the rate of rape and sexual assault for female college students declined by more than 50 %, from 9.2 per 1000 in 1997 to 4.4 per 1000 in 2013. Footnote 8 This number (.0044) is much too small to make a dramatic headline. Since the surveys ask similar questions annually, whatever biases may exist are likely to be constant. Thus, the findings provide a reliable guide to trends in sexual assault over time.
Despite the significant increase in public safety, campus life in America continues to be depicted as alarmingly dangerous. So dangerous in fact that it is hard to imagine why any parents who believed the widespread claims of sexual assault on campus would pay $40,000–50,000 a year to send their daughters to college. A New York Times headline declares, “1 in 4 Women Experience Sex Assault on Campus,” according to findings from a 2015 survey commissioned by the American Association of Universities (AAU).Footnote 9 This often-quoted statistic seems to bolster the 25 % rate of rape on campus claimed 25 years earlier, except for the fact that the current figure is based on a definition of sexual assault that includes, forced kissing, touching, and rubbing up against someone in a sexual way, even if it’s over their clothes. Conflating an unwanted kiss or dancing too closely with forcible rape inflates the rate while it dilutes the meaning of sexual violence.
Why have the conceptual boundaries of sexual violence on campus expanded, as the depth of the problem has diminished throughout the nation? One explanation, as Irving Kristol observed, is that it’s a matter “of jobs, status, and power”.Footnote 10 To increase the social climate bureaucracy’s jobs, status and power, it must be shown that serious social problems exist on campus creating a hostile environment. Hence, this bureaucracy is perforce an embedded a source of institutionalized discontent; its existence is justified less by promoting the university’s core mission than by drawing attention to the alleged magnitude of social troubles on campus and the number of victims that need to be served. A perception reinforced by the media’s inclination to publicize research claiming that problems such as sexual violence on campus are rampant, while ignoring the definitions, measurements, and response rates on which these claims are based.Footnote 11
The AAU study that reported one in four college women as victims of sexual assault is a case in point. This widely-cited figure is based on an online survey which had a response rate of only 19.3 %. The study’s authors admit that the findings exaggerate the degree of victimization, since there was evidence that non-respondents were less likely to report being victims. How much these findings are biased is anyone’s guess. The biased sample aside, looking at the definition of sexual assault in this study we find that 57 % of these cases involved misconduct in the category of sexual touching, which included unwanted kisses. It is not surprising that when asked why they had not reported these incidents, 75 % of the women identified as victims responded, “I did not think it was serious enough to report.” What is surprising, however, is that almost 60 % of those identified as victims of forced penetration, also said they “did not think it was serious enough to report.” Even more curious, perhaps, is the fact that when asked: “How likely do you think it is that you will experience sexual assault or sexual misconduct on campus?” only 8 % of the women thought that it was “very” or “extremely” likely – even though according to the survey 25 % already had been victims of sexual assault and almost 60 % victims of sexual misconduct.Footnote 12 These incongruities underscore just how difficult it is to get a clear understanding of the scope and personal experience of sexual misconduct on college campuses through student surveys. Different pictures emerge from these surveys depending on how the questions are phrased and sequenced, the researcher’s definitions, response rates and how the findings are reported.
One thing is clear, the alarming rate of sexual assaults on campus claimed by some studies such as the AAU survey does not bear the faintest resemblance to the palpable level of victimization reported by students on the ground. According to the California State Auditor’s report from 2009 through 2013 there was a total of 241 student-related sexual harassment or sexual violence complaints made to the campus authorities at the University of California, Berkeley. That is an average of 48 complaints a year on a campus with an enrollment of more than 18,000 women. (A similar rate was reported on the UCLA campus.) Moreover, the auditor’s report indicates that a significant number of these cases may be duplicative as, “for example, the 49 complaints in the University of California Berkeley’s student conduct office may be included in the 120 total complaints tallied by its Title IX office”.Footnote 13 And it should be recognized that these complaints were not all verified. From 2008 through 2014, for example, 76 complaints of sexual misconduct were resolved by the U.C. Berkeley Center on Student Conduct; in 22 % of the cases the allegations were not verified; the vast majority of the 76 cases involved sexual harassment/stalking; non-consensual sexual intercourse averaged less than two cases annually.Footnote 14
If we accept the California State Auditor’s overall figures (leaving aside that some of the cases may be duplicative), the annual average of 48 complaints of sexual misconduct reported on the Berkeley campus translates to a rate of 2.5 cases per 1000 female students, which is relatively small compared to various survey findings. One explanation, of course, is that when behaviors such as touching and unwanted kisses are included, many instances of sexual misconduct go unreported. Still 48 reported cases a year involves a substantial number of potential victims and should be taken very seriously. In fact considerable resources are devoted to providing a safe supportive atmosphere for reporting incidents as well as professional services to deal with these cases. There are six different offices on the Berkeley campus that are officially designated to receive reports of sexual misconduct and at least 18 mental-health professionals, available to assist victims of sexual misconduct. These positions do not include four counsellors in the student health center who work with victims of sexual violence, administrative assistants or any of the relevant personnel in the campus police department.
Moreover, in May 2016 the Berkeley administration announced plans to hire ten additional social climate professionals to deal with sexual violence on campus. Just for a sense of proportion, consider that in 2007 public prosecutors throughout the United States carried an average of 94 felony cases per attorney.Footnote 15 Unlike sexual harassment, fondling and unwanted kisses, which represent many if not most of the cases reported on campus, felonies are crimes including murder and rape, which are punishable by imprisonment for more than one year or death. If the 10 additional staff had to work in the real world of criminal violence they would handle on average a total of 940 cases a year, compared to the average of 48 cases of sexual misconduct reported at Berkeley over the last several years.
The resources devoted to the problem of sexual violence on campus appear to be quite high compared not only to the number of cases reported annually but also to resources available in many other communities where the risks of sexual violence are greater. Although poor and minority women are more likely to be victims of rape than middle-class college students, their communities typically receive considerably less public support for counselling centers and prevention programs.Footnote 16
In addition to investigating sexual misconduct complaints and providing supportive services for victims, the non-academic staff are also engaged in prevention training. Every student coming to Berkeley is required to complete an in-person course and an on-line module on sexual assault education. There is not a scintilla of evidence that this training has any impact on the rate of sexual misconduct. Yet, those who do not complete these requirements have their registration blocked, a penalty more severe than any imposed for failure of an academic course. This symbolizes the remarkable shift in the balance of power between the university’s academic mission and the social climate bureaucracy’s agenda, which is seen even more clearly in the allocation of resources. Between 2000 and 2015 the number of full-time ladder-rank teaching faculty at Berkeley increased by 1 % while the number of full-time staff providing student services and health care increased by more than 100 %, at which point they outnumbered the teaching faculty by 13 %.Footnote 17
Faculty are also required to participate in “sexual harassment and sexual violence prevention and awareness training.” Unlike students who can evidently retain whatever they learn from one course, faculty are obliged to repeat their training annually. Many faculty not just at Berkeley, but across the country, consider this periodic genuflecting to the campus climate bureaucracy a serious waste of time. Laura Kipnis describes her reaction to the list of guidelines handed out in a faculty sexual harassment workshop at Northwestern University. The first imperative was “Do not make unwanted sexual advances.” Never hesitant to voice the politically incorrect thought on everyone’s mind, Kipnis inquired, “But how do you know they’re unwanted until you try?”.Footnote 18