Massachusetts has always led the way on higher education. Right now, we need to lead when it comes to the appalling crisis surrounding sexual assault at colleges and universities across the country.
As parents, brothers and sisters, or friends—simply as caring human beings—we cannot hear and read the stories coming out of our colleges and universities with anything short of outrage. As the father of a college-age daughter, I am appalled when I hear of students hurt first by an assailant, then assaulted again by a system that fails to help or to even listen.
Leaders across New England have an obligation to take action, and there are some hard-nosed, pragmatic reasons to take a leadership role in this crisis. Higher education is one of the economic sectors that fuels our prosperity and underpins our future. We have the best colleges and universities in the world and they touch virtually every part of our local economies.
So when President Obama points out, correctly, that young women stand a better chance of being sexually assaulted on a college campus than in the world outside, we have a problem that needs to be addressed not simply on campus, but at the highest levels of government. I strongly believe that the Massachusetts Office of Attorney General (which I hope to hold after the fall’s elections) is the best place to run that effort, to coordinate a campaign that will make the state’s college and universities not just the best in the country, but also the safest.
The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office has a history of leading the country when it comes to the creation of laws and regulations that protect the innocent, whether on guns, housing, the environment, LGBTQ rights or consumer protections. And when you survey the different ways that each college or university handles assault—the lack of defining principles, the need for better direction on what to do, how to do it and when—you see that this is a place where leadership is badly needed.
The next attorney general needs to consider some common-sense steps to help provide that leadership.
- We need to get every single higher education institution in this state on the same page when it comes to defining and reporting sexual assault. Why should two similarly sized colleges with similar demographics have significantly divergent numbers of reported assaults or follow-up prosecutions? I’m not suggesting a failure of good faith; I’m saying the rules and procedures are being understood and implemented differently from campus to campus. That’s not fair to high-reporting schools playing by the rules; it is not fair to students and it should not stand for schools that are caught hiding problems.
- We should convene an annual summit where colleges and universities can share best practices and better understand what their peers are doing, such as training students in bystander intervention. I’ve traveled to numerous campuses while this controversy has raged, and I know firsthand there is a willingness to find solutions, but there are also real questions about complex issues—and frustration at the lack of answers.
- To help create those answers and to give colleges a place to go with their concerns, I will also create the position of Liaison on Campus Assault within the AG’s office.
It’s encouraging to see he Obama administration taking proactive steps to improve accountability and make our campuses safer, but we can be doing more.
This is not about bludgeoning campuses for failure to act or slapping on yet another layer of bureaucracy on schools that already have plenty of it. It is the opposite. We need to provide colleges and universities with an office that can partner with higher education on how to adequately deal with sexual assault reporting, prosecution, discipline and protections.
We should not hesitate to take action against a college or university that refuses to confront this serious problem. The attorney general is uniquely positioned to hold colleges and universities accountable, as the office has broad authority to oversee nonprofits, protect consumers purchasing an education, and take action against a school creating unsafe conditions. Colleges and universities likely understand the gravity of the issues on their own campuses and the attorney general’s office should be able to work collaboratively with them to develop solutions. A spotlight shining on a sexual assault problem at a specific campus can ruin that institution’s reputation and lead to a decline in student applications.
Improving campus safety must be a top priority for our state’s leaders.
Warren Tolman is a lawyer and former state legislator from Watertown, Mass., who is running for Massachusetts attorney general.