Obama Promises Governmentwide Scrutiny of Campus Rape

Mandel Ngan, AFP, Getty Images

President Obama signs a memorandum establishing a White House task force that will coordinate federal efforts to help colleges deal with sexual assault on their campuses.
January 23, 2014

President Obama pledged on Wednesday to develop a "coordinated federal response" to address campus rape and sexual assault, calling for more-transparent enforcement of applicable laws and greater emphasis on developing effective campus policies to prevent and respond to sexual assault.

Although "an inspiring wave of student-led activism" has spurred more students to report such assaults, Mr. Obama said during remarks at the White House, colleges need to do more to keep students safe. Government agencies can help them come up with better policies and put those ideas into practice, he said.

The White House Task Force on Protecting Students From Sexual Assault, which the president created on Wednesday in a memorandum to executive departments and agencies, will lead the new effort. Its objectives are to:

  • Provide colleges with evidence-based best practices for preventing and responding to rape and sexual assault.
  • Make sure institutions "comply fully" with their legal obligations in the area.
  • Increase the transparency of federal enforcement.
  • Broaden public awareness of individual colleges' compliance with relevant laws.
  • Facilitate coordination among federal agencies involved with the issue.

The group's membership will include the U.S. attorney general and the leaders of several other cabinet-level agencies, among others, and it is expected to submit recommendations to the president in 90 days. A full report on putting those recommendations into effect is due in a year, and will be produced on an annual basis after that.

"My hope and intention is that every college president who has not personally been thinking about this is going to hear about this," Mr. Obama said, "and figure out who is in charge on their campus of responding properly, and what are the best practices, and are we doing everything that we should be doing."

"And if you're not doing that right now," he concluded, "I want the students at the school to ask."

Mr. Obama's scrutiny comes at a time when students are driving the debate over how colleges should prevent and respond to sexual assault. Over the past year, activists and rape survivors across the country have publicly faulted colleges—which are legally required to respond to reports of sexual assault—for what they see as inadequate responses. In many cases, the students have filed federal complaints under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the law meant to bar sex discrimination at institutions that receive federal funds.

Last summer the students found an audience in Washington. A group of activists met in July with officials from the White House and the Department of Education to ask for stricter and more-transparent enforcement of Title IX among colleges and collaboration among federal agencies in doing so.

Their words appear to have resonated. On Wednesday morning, Dana Bolger, a recent graduate of Amherst College and a leader in the student movement, received a phone call. To her surprise, it was Tina Tchen, executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, calling to thank Ms. Bolger and other activists for their work and to alert them to the president's announcement. (The council also released a broader report on Wednesday, "Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action.")

"I feel that our pleas have been heard," Ms. Bolger said in an email. "That said, we're still waiting to hear details, so it's difficult to know now what kind of difference these efforts will make."

'A Unique Moment'

For Holly Rider-Milkovich, the president's remarks—and the fine print of his memorandum—represented an unusual turn of events.

"I do not know of another president who has spoken out directly on this issue, and who has tasked his brightest minds … to put their attention to providing best practices and guidance and greater clarity of information to college campuses," said Ms. Rider-Milkovich, who is director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. "It's a unique moment."

"I was as surprised as everybody," she added.

Ms. Rider-Milkovich said she was most enthusiastic about the directive to provide colleges with "promising practices," grounded in evidence, for preventing and responding to sexual assault. A dearth of research in those areas, she said, makes it hard for campus officials to know that they're using the most-effective approaches when it comes to, say, conducting an investigation of a report of sexual assault, or levying sanctions when a student is found responsible.

Alexandra Brodsky, a law student at Yale University, attended the meetings in Washington last summer. She was not sure then whether the students' requests would register with federal officials and yield tangible results. By Wednesday those feelings had evolved.

"I'm really excited about this," said Ms. Brodsky, who survived an attempted rape as an undergraduate at Yale and joined 15 classmates and alumni in filing a Title IX complaint against the university in 2011. Still, she felt cautious. "This could end up being just another administrative body," she said. "The task force isn't an end in itself. We haven't ended the violence just because Obama mentions it."

But among survivors, who often feel as though their experiences are brushed off, the impact of the president's talking publicly about campus rape can't be underestimated, she said. The trauma such students experience is often trivialized by friends, family members, professors, and college presidents, she said. "And now Barack Obama is on TV recognizing us," she said. "That's pretty huge."