Chancellor, provost's office host forum on sexual assault

Friday, September 19, 2014

LAWRENCE — Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and the provost’s office hosted a panel discussion Thursday afternoon to encourage continued dialogue on how the University of Kansas community can work together to confront sexual assault.

“Sexual assault is a topic that makes me angry, makes me sad, and makes me frustrated,” the chancellor said to an audience of around 120 faculty, staff and students in the Commons at Spooner Hall. “We all have a responsibility to ensure the University of Kansas is a community in which everyone feels safe.”

The panelists were Jeffrey S. Vitter, executive vice chancellor and provost; Tammara Durham, vice provost for student affairs; Nathan Thomas, vice provost for diversity and equity; Jane McQueeny, Title IX coordinator and executive director of the Office of Institutional Opportunity & Access; and Ralph Oliver, chief of KU police. Each panelist was selected because of the role their office plays in the university’s sexual assault policies and procedures.

The discussion began with panelists addressing questions submitted before the event through the chancellor’s website. Panelists then took questions submitted at The Commons from audience members and then those brought up in an open-mic format. All questions and comments submitted on notecards at The Commons will be answered and posted online and provided to members of the university's sexual assault task force.

Audience questions spanned various topics, including the definition of consent, the difference between the terms “rape” and “nonconsensual sex,” and how the university investigates and sanctions instances of sexual assault.

A crucial point in the event was when panelists explained why the university uses the term “nonconsensual sex” rather than rape: The university’s power extends only as far as upholding student conduct codes in all cases, not to try a case in a court of law.

“Audience members had some great questions, and I’m glad we had the chance to share with them our current processes and solicit their feedback on ways we can improve,” Vitter said after the event. “I strongly support our KU tradition of open and free dialogue on difficult topics. We’re all seeking a common goal — for KU to lead the way in creating an environment where every member of our community feels safe.”

In her opening remarks, Gray-Little said that the people who work in positions that investigate charges of sexual assault have the best interests of our students at heart. She also explained that KU already has robust policies and procedures in place – policies and procedures that have been approved by the U.S. Department of Education and are as good or better than those of many of KU’s peer institutions.

“But that does not mean we cannot improve their implementation,” she said.

The chancellor also emphasized that sexual assault is a national issue, but one that requires a local response to address it a KU.

“We need to address the responsibilities that each one of us has as a member of this community to look out for one another, to speak up when we see something, and to do our part to shape the climate in which we live, study and work,” she said.

McQueeny fielded a number of questions related to IOA’s investigative processes. She explained just how complex these investigations can be, particularly when individuals involved have consumed alcohol and the survivors’ experiences of trauma. McQueeny also said that in 2013, her office received 12 complaints of sexual violence, six of which resulted in recommended suspension or expulsion.

Panelists used the event to discuss some inaccurate statements about sexual assault that have appeared in media outlets and on social media in recent weeks. Vitter spoke specifically to one audience member’s suggestion that a student is more likely to get punished for plagiarism than for sexual assault.

“Last year, we had 397 cases of alleged plagiarism,” he said, “and of those, two resulted in expulsions. In contrast, there were 12 complaints of sexual assault, for which six resulted in expulsion.”

According to Oliver, KU’s Office of Public Safety continues to prioritize sexual assault-related issues.

“KU Public Safety has been sensitive to these types of crimes for years,” he said. “Last year, our officers had a combined 800 hours of training on sexual violence-related crimes.”

Last week, in a campuswide email message, Gray-Little announced she was taking several steps to address sexual assault at KU. Among those steps is the creation of a campuswide sexual assault task force comprising students, faculty and staff to review our current policies, practices and sanctions, and to provide recommendations on how they can be improved. This task force will be co-chaired by Angela Murphy, a student in the Department of English, and Alesha Doan, chair of the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies and associate professor of political science.

Thursday’s panel discussion was the latest in a series of recent discussions in The Commons that encouraged KU involvement in national issues. In March, The Commons hosted a panel discussion on free speech in an age of digital media. Last month, The Commons hosted a forum to discuss the escalating situation in Ferguson, Missouri.

“This is part of what we do as a public university,” Gray-Little said. “We want our campus community to be engaged in important societal issues. It’s part of our mission to educate leaders, build healthy communities, and make discoveries that change the world.”