Failure to Act Is Not an Option

Boards Must Help Safeguard Campuses Against Sexual Predators

By Janice M. Abraham    //    Volume 30,  Number 3   //    May/June 2022
Takeaways

  • Sexual abuse incidents have a devastating impact on college and university communities. Higher education leadership’s failure to develop a culture of accountability only further enables these incidents to occur.
  • To curtail sexual abuse incidents, governing boards must ensure their institutions develop a robust “risk enterprise” program that fosters a culture of abuse prevention and reporting in which people feel empowered to report sexual misconduct.
  • Trustees can: ask administrators to assess training programs on child abuse and sexual abuse; ensure policies addressing sexual misconduct are consistent and cover all members of their community; ensure their institution’s process for reporting abuse is easily accessible, and all investigations are fair; and provide resources critical for survivors’ well-being.

Colleges and universities nationwide receive reports of sexual abuse on campus each year. While some of these incidents occurred decades ago, trustees and administrators often are surprised to learn that many involve current students, staff, or faculty. Thus this is not just history, but a reality on today’s campuses. Incidents are devastating for community members who suffered the abuse and can have lasting consequences for you as a board member or president, and for your campus.

Duty of care is a responsibility of all trustees, as well as presidents. As a parent and university trustee, my own commitment to help keep our educational communities safe is personal and professional. My more than 30-year career serving education has made me painfully aware of the bad things that can happen. Incidents can be made all the worse when there is a culture that overlooks, fails to report, or fails to investigate reports of sexual misconduct that allow serial sexual predators to continue their misdeeds.

Nell Gluckman’s November 2021 report in the Chronicle of Higher Education included findings from several researchers on factors driving increased awareness of and attention to the problem of sexual abuse in higher education. These include easing the stigma of reporting, an erosion of trust in institutions, and a public push for accountability building off the #MeToo movement.

Failure of leadership oversight involving incidents of sexual abuse puts vulnerable populations at risk, puts institutions at risk for massive claims, and causes reputational damage. Depending on the actions of a president or board of trustees, they may be held accountable in the court of public opinion if not in a court of law.

As board members we aren’t expected to be on the front lines handling com- plaints, but we do play an essential role. When we ensure that our institution’s administration has undertaken recommended risk-management practices, we can help the community develop a robust “risk enterprise” program. This means encouraging campus leaders to proactively work to safeguard their institution by fostering a culture of abuse prevention and reporting—regardless of whether incidents involve students, faculty, staff, or volunteers. That includes empowering people and holding them accountable for reporting to the board even the most scandalous cases involving high-profile employees such as tenured faculty, campus healthcare providers, or prominent coaches.

America’s colleges and universities are complex, decentralized organizations, complicating the challenge of identifying serial predators and preventing sexual abuse. The power imbalances that are inherent in many college experiences—especially in athletics and student-faculty interactions—must be proactively managed so that predators do not take advantage of them. In addition, these institutions serve vulnerable populations, through health and wellness centers and programs such as camps and childcare facilities. Special care must be taken to protect individuals and root out any threats.

Recommended Risk-Management Practices

Ask your administrator to assess your institution’s training program.

All employees and students should receive training on child abuse and sexual abuse. Training topics should include:

  • Specific examples of inappropriate behavior
  • Details about discipline for policy violations
  • Signs of child abuse and information on how predators groom victims within their communities
  • Information about how to report on campus and to police, and what situations require mandatory reporting

Training about boundaries is also important for employees and students. This includes:

  • Examples of low-level boundary violations, so students and staff learn how to recognize them and realize that reporting must start with the small incidents
  • Bystander-intervention training
  • Details about campus reporting options In addition to students and employees, the following groups should also receive training:
  • Members of your institution’s board of trustees, board of directors, or similar body
  • Everyone who participates in escorting students or minors during domestic or international travel, including trip leaders and chaperones
  • All volunteers who work directly with students or minors

To help prevent and address sexual misconduct, United Educators, a risk-management and insurance company that I serve as president, draws from 35 years of data, expert analyses of claims trends, and extensive conversations with our college and university members about their prevention practices. This includes a UE-hosted symposium in 2019 with experts from higher education who collaborated on concerns, strategies, and effective risk-management practices for confronting the challenge of preventing sexual predators. Symposium participants included risk managers, general counsels, Title IX coordinators, and specialists in protecting minors.

Based on our risk-management and claims-litigation experience and our members’ expertise, we’ve devised strategies that will help institutional leaders identify and immediately address common gaps in sexual-abuse reporting and oversight. If leaders deeply understand your institution’s culture and engage in vocal support for reporting, you will be able to help create an environment in which predatory behavior is unwelcome and boundary violations aren’t tolerated. Together we can move from looking the other way to a culture of “if you see something, say something.”

The action items I outline here draw on our experience and incorporate practical steps you can take as a board member to safeguard your community. To ensure your institution provides proper leadership oversight involving allegations of abuse, educate yourself, your president, and trustees about:

  • Training programs
  • Reporting options
  • Policies with clear guidelines
  • Victim resources (See box below.)

Recommended Risk-Management Practices

Review sexual misconduct policies.

In higher education, intimate relationships between employees and students that are or appear consensual complicate institutional efforts to prevent and respond to sexual harassment. Unequal power and authority between an employee and a student who become personally involved can create serious problems for them and the institution.

Your policies must be consistent. For example, if your general sexual-harassment policy prohibits romantic relationships between professors and students enrolled in their classes, the faculty handbook should state this. In addition, ensure that adjuncts, visiting faculty, or others who teach students but aren’t permanently employed have a written copy of your current policy on consensual relationships.

Ensure that your institution’s policies include:

  • A prohibition against sexual abuse of students and minors by anyone affiliated with your institution, with an explanation of the scope of the prohibition (for example, all on-campus activities and institution-sponsored activities off-campus)
  • A statement that your institution will comply with all state-mandated reporting laws relating to minors
  • Information about the application of Title IX and the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA)/Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act
  • State requirements regarding mandatory reporting and any additional mandatory reporting by individuals designated by your institution, along with details about the process for making these reports and discipline for failure to report
  • A statement that all third-party contractors whose employees will have access to students and/or minors must agree in writing (at a minimum) to comply with the same conduct and reporting requirements regarding sexual abuse as employees

In crafting policies, seek advice from experienced attorneys who are familiar with your applicable state and local laws.

Ensure Consistency in Policies and Procedures

Become well-versed in your institution’s policies addressing sexual misconduct and abuse. Consider whether the policies cover all members of your community.

For example, are faculty, medical professionals, volunteers, and contractors included? If so, assess how you convey policies to them and whether signed acknowledgments are required to show they have read the policies.

Confirm that the policies require all reports to be investigated and adjudicated using consistent procedures, without exception. Any exceptions from your strict compliance can lead to predators avoiding accountability despite allegations against them. Investigations shouldn’t stop simply because the respondent denies the action or because someone powerful wants the investigation to end.

This includes departments such as athletics, whose student-athletes and staff are sometimes excused from following institutional requirements. Don’t make exceptions in policy or practice, even for employees in highly visible positions, prominent departments, or those who bring profit or prestige to your institution, such as doctors, scientists, and scholars. Remind staff that preventing harm to students and the campus community is always the top priority, even if it comes at a cost to your institution’s reputation. (See box above.)

Update Processes for Reporting Abuse

Ensure that your institution has easily accessible reporting options. This is an important indicator that your institution encourages reporting. Check whether your reporting channels are well-pub- licized, easy to find on your institution’s website, and include an anonymous reporting channel, if possible.

As an additional avenue for reporting, consider making avail- able the email address of at least one board member.

Review as well how your institution handles reports, including which office or person processes reports and launches investigations. If possible, give one staff member oversight of all reports so trends and repeat offenders are identified, or establish a process that looks for these patterns. Inquire about guidelines for notifying high-level administrators, legal counsel, and others when more than one report is made against a person.

Ask whether your institution has any policies regarding the reporting of allegations to external law enforcement, especially with victims who are minors.

Scrutinize the Handling of Background Checks

Increasingly, institutions are implementing processes requiring background checks of all employees when hired, to screen for people whose pasts present red flags.

Review your institution’s policy to see which positions or groups are subject to background checks, and what those checks entail. Calling references—asking fine-tuned questions about the applicant’s respect for boundaries in interactions with students and children—often serves as the best source of information to weed out possible predators.

Determine whether faculty, coaches, volunteers, and third parties receive the same screening as regular employees. Consider whether some employees, depending on job function, should have their back- ground checks updated routinely during their employment.

Establish Clear Guidelines

Presidents and trustees don’t need to be involved in every allegation of abuse. But they should establish clear guidelines for receiving regular updates about critical situations such as:

  • Allegations involving more than one victim
  • More than one allegation against the same individual
  • Patterns of inappropriate behavior from teams or departments on campus
  • Allegations involving people in positions of power

Depending on your board’s structure, one committee could take responsibility for monitoring these sexual-abuse reports.

Similarly, presidents and trustees should establish guidelines for when they will be notified about settlements involving allegations with more than one victim or allegations involving people in positions of power. By working with the general counsel’s office or those responsible for negotiating settlements on your institution’s behalf, your president and trustees can ensure that they’re informed early in the process of negotiating settlements.

Staff are often reluctant to tell presidents bad news. Their first instinct may be to handle the matter so it doesn’t reach the president or board. But with issues of serial sexual assault, presidents and boards are often held accountable despite being unaware of allegations. Thus they must be actively engaged and require updates on allegations. This cultural change may require professional development to educate staff and shift attitudes. (See box below.)

Recommended Risk-Management Practices

Ensure investigations are consistent and fair.

Confirm that your institution has a written process governing sexual-abuse investigations, including:

  • A statement that all investigations will be thorough and impartial
  • A general description of the investigation process, including what types of evidence investigators will review
  • An explanation of who conducts investigations and how investigators are selected
  • Information about whether the investigator will prepare a written report, and if so, who receives the final report
  • A statement that all employees must cooperate with investigations

Ensure that all investigators:

  • Have the necessary experience and/or training to conduct a fair, impartial investigation
  • Have no stake or interest in the investigation’s outcome
  • Have the skills required to communicate effectively with a variety of people, including victims, alleged perpetrators, potential witnesses, other administrators, and school employees, parents, and law enforcement
  • Are familiar with your institution’s applicable policies and relevant state laws
  • Are prepared to coordinate with local police, child-protective services, or other authorities as necessary

Set Expectations for Your President

Presidents must uphold the administrative structure for reporting, investigating, and disciplining—and must set the tone for thorough compliance with policies. Presidents should make investigative or disciplinary decisions only if policy prescribes their involvement.

To effectively shape your campus culture, your president’s actions should include a no-tolerance philosophy for sexual abuse and provide strong support for reporting. By publicly voicing sup- port for survivors and proactively addressing topics surrounding sexual abuse, your president can serve as a catalyst for cultural change. If your community learns to be alert and report all boundary violations, this may stop or deter predators from further abuse.

Understand Your Campus Culture

Many institutions are already changing campus culture to encourage reporting, supporting victims, and placing the safety of community above all else. Shifting campus culture is a gradual process that requires intentionality and campus-wide participation. Engagement of board members and presidents is essential.

Foster Connections with Staff Who Address Abuse Issues

Make sure your president has made connections with the people tackling these issues on campus. Presidents must ensure they’re fully versed in the administrative offices and positions working to prevent sexual abuse and help victims. Student-affairs professionals often lead these prevention efforts and can be valuable liaisons for the president.

By developing relationships with staff who handle sexual-abuse reports and manage prevention efforts, your president also can establish the expectation of being informed of serious occurrences.

Provide Resources for Victims and Conduct a Climate Survey

Providing appropriate, easily accessible resources on campus is critical for survivors’ well-being. Review whether your institution’s resources adequately serve victims’ physical and emotional needs and whether referrals to off-campus resources are provided. Your commitment to survivor wellness helps foster an environment that encourages reporting and supports those who make reports.

It’s also important to steer campus culture toward an ethos that is alert about red flags, facilitates reporting, and supports victims.

To do this, your president and trustees must understand the current landscape. A campus-climate survey is an anonymous survey of students that assesses the prevalence of prohibited conduct, including sexual assault and abuse, and provides insight into students’ perceptions about the environment on campus. The survey results then can inform changes that improve your community culture and campus environment.

Conclusion

Incidents of sexual abuse devastate colleges and universities each year. This is, sadly, a past and ongoing problem. A failure to develop a culture of accountability can have lasting consequences for individuals, your campus community, and you personally.

Presidents and trustees play an important role. By working to ensure your administration is following recommended risk-management practices, you can help safeguard your campus community from sexual predators and help prevent sexual abuse.

Improved oversight will help ensure your institution puts in place a culture of abuse prevention and reporting—an environment in which predatory behavior is stopped and boundary violations of any kind aren’t tolerated.

Janice M. Abraham is president and CEO of United Educators, a trustee at American University, and trustee emerita at Whitman College.