Universities have long enjoyed the privilege of educating successive generations of young people. This comes, of course, with the responsibility to uphold essential values and to address society’s problems through our institutional leadership and our scholarship. Our constructed communities are drawn from and reflect society at large, so it is inevitable that the issues of the day are our issues as well.

The problem of gender-based misconduct, including sexual assault, is both similar to yet different from the typical work of universities on these issues, in that it involves the safety and well-being of young people in our care as well as larger questions for thought and research. Indeed, the first and highest priority for all credible people who devote their professional lives to higher education is to ensure that students—and all community members—have the opportunity to learn and thrive in their educational environment.

As faculty members, leaders within our institution and parents ourselves, the need to prevent sexual violence is something we feel urgently, both personally and professionally. No person who comes to a university or college to learn and live should have to endure gender-based misconduct today, particularly the young women who most frequently sustain these violations and already are saddled with gender-based burdens in their lives and interactions with others that remain deeply embedded in society even as we make great progress on this front.

In this context, the national attention to issues of sexual assault and other gender-based misconduct is both welcome and long overdue. And its intensity has provoked a re-examination of accepted norms in many sectors of society from the U.S. military to the National Football League. 

The conversation as it relates to universities and colleges is distinct in many ways, perhaps most significantly in the widespread public misunderstanding about what happens on campuses and what our schools can and cannot do as a matter of law and sound institutional policy.

There is a prevailing misperception that universities elect to handle sexual assault allegations when they should instead defer to police and local prosecutors in the resolution of these matters. The reality is very different. In fact, federal law mandates that universities and colleges provide a forum for hearing such complaints precisely because campuses must do all they can to create a learning environment free from sex discrimination. These processes must be both fair and sensitive to all involved.

Students are free to file a criminal complaint with police alongside, or instead of, engaging a university’s disciplinary process. At Columbia and at many other schools, a trained staff person or peer advocate will, if requested, support the student throughout the reporting process and prosecution, if one occurs. One other point worth noting: few police reports of sexual assault result in prosecution, and even fewer prosecutions result in conviction. So it is critically important that even if a student reports to law enforcement, they have access to campus-based support and disciplinary processes.

The picture of gender-based misconduct on campus is complex. University-based education efforts need to focus prevention efforts not only on scenarios where students have a one-time sexual encounter but also on situations where sexual coercion and other forms of violence and intimidation form part of ongoing relationships and post-breakup behaviors.

Universities also have a specialized understanding of their students’ needs within a semester-based life. This enables them not only to handle complaints more quickly than law enforcement but also to provide immediate and ongoing accommodations related to academic schedules and living arrangements that are outside the scope of law-enforcement’s capacity. Indeed, at Columbia and elsewhere, these accommodations are available to students regardless of whether they seek resolution through the institution’s disciplinary processes.

This helps explain, too, why colleges and universities do not—and should not—discuss individual students or their cases in the press or public. In addition to federal laws protecting student privacy, we understand that students in need are less likely to get help on campus if they worry that the university might one day comment on them. This is true even if some students speak publicly about their own experiences.

An absolute rule of never commenting can help lay the groundwork for students to feel comfortable confiding in the medical or rape crisis counseling professionals who can help them, or to engage the university disciplinary process. In an environment of substantial underreporting of sexual assault, whatever value could be gained from adding the University’s perspective about any one student’s case is far outweighed by the importance of protecting all students’ access to resources.

As law professors and members of a university community, we believe criminal behavior can and should be prosecuted in our criminal justice system, though it is important to realize that many of the behaviors we address on campus are not criminal matters subject to reporting requirements. Still, the essential question remains: What steps should universities and colleges be taking to build safer and more respectful campuses, contribute to lasting and meaningful change across society, and deliver the leadership that institutions of higher education rightly are expected to provide?

First, we must do what we can to create environments in which all students find ways, if they choose, to participate in these conversations. Universities increasingly stand alone in society as forums for open community-based discourse and that surely is the correct and useful path here.

Second, we must measure our efforts not by how we fare in the context of short-term media coverage focused on individual cases, but rather by the lasting quality of the initiatives we launch now and continue to develop, and by the degree of their effectiveness in changing campus culture long after the attention of the press has waned.

Third, we must act boldly, creatively and energetically. This means a commitment to dedicating the financial resources and personnel needed to effect change, coupled with a willingness to explore different initiatives and replace those that prove ineffectual with better ideas. In the past few months, Columbia has opened a second rape crisis center; more than doubled the professional staff there; ensured around-the-clock access to those staff while preserving our valuable cohort of peer counselors; announced a new gender-based misconduct policy designed to be easily accessible to students; reinforced due process protections by providing counsel to students seeking such support in the disciplinary process; created and hired staff in our gender-based misconduct office whose sole responsibility is to support students in arranging accommodations, accessing resources, and educating them about the disciplinary process; and expanded consent and bystander training for incoming undergraduates.

Still more work remains to be done. One immediate goal is the creation of targeted training for our diverse population of undergraduate, graduate and professional students to be developed and made mandatory by next semester.

There is a long history in America of movements seeking to change deeply rooted behavioral norms that show promise and then, disappointingly, produce only marginal recalibrations of the status quo. No one can guarantee that the present public focus on sexual assault and other forms of gender-based misconduct will result in the degree of prevention and culture change we seek across society. What we can and must do, though, is sustain the effort to make our campuses safer over the long term and to encourage and train students to contribute thoughtfully to these changes in their own communities, both while they are in school and as they take their place in the broader world.