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Time For Change: Improving Approaches to Sexual Harassment Prevention in Academia

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brittany Keegan and Sarah Jane Brubaker
December 6, 2019

It’s no secret that sexual misconduct is prevalent in academia. The hierarchical structure of the academic workplace, as well as power differences between professors and students, tenured professors and those without tenure, etc., lends itself to creating an environment in which sexual misconduct can occur. In fact, studies indicate that of all occupations, academia has the second highest prevalence of sexual harassment—surpassed only by the military.

This problem has gained attention in recent years. In 2011, the United States Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague Letter framing sexual misconduct through Title IX and mandating that colleges and universities follow Title IX guidelines in order to receive federal funding. In light of this, institutions of higher education are reconsidering the ways in which they not only address, but also prevent, sexual misconduct from taking place.  While policy creation, implementation and enforcement are important aspects of addressing this issue, the way in which we approach trainings related to sexual misconduct is also important.

Many colleges and universities provide faculty, staff, and students with some form of Title IX training. Unfortunately, the training is often cursory. Colleges and universities may require a once-per-year online Title IX training course, and provide a welcome week information session for new students. However, this type of training can appear to be a checkbox rather than something aimed at actually changing ingrained societal norms. In addition, trainings tend to focus on the needs and experiences of groups with more privilege (e.g. white, heterosexual students and students without disabilities) while ignoring the experiences of marginalized students who are more at risk of experiencing sexual misconduct (e.g. students of color, LGBTQ students, international students and students with disabilities).

The questions then become—how can colleges and universities do better? How can we create Title IX and other anti-harassment trainings that will be worthwhile, memorable, and effective? Some promising practices for how sexual misconduct trainings can be improved include:

  • Defining sexual misconduct broadly rather than using narrow definitions, and discussing how sexual misconduct can take many forms, including physical, verbal and electronic misconduct.
  • Considering intersectionality rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach, and understanding that those of different social locations will experience sexual misconduct differently. Trainings should reflect the diversity of our schools and communities.
  • Considering the gray areas, in which it may not be obvious if sexual misconduct has occurred or not. In some cases, sexual misconduct can occur due to miscommunication or misunderstanding between two individuals. One way to address this is to use an affirmative consent policy, in which anything other than, “Yes,” means, “No.” In addition, trainings can provide specific examples and scenarios to give the participant a better understanding of what sexual misconduct is (and what it is not).
  • Using a survivor-centered approach, where those participating in the training gain an understanding of how to center the needs and preferences of those who experience sexual misconduct.
  • Addressing sexual harassment that occurs at conferences in addition to on campus. The conference environment is one in which sexual misconduct can have a higher risk of occurring due to unfamiliar environments and the prevalence of alcohol, among other reasons. As an example, a survey of 2017 APSA conference attendees found that a sizeable minority of attendees experienced harassing behavior while at the conference. In addition, it found that a much higher percentage of women than men experienced harassment.

It’s also important to recognize neither training nor policy can ensure a safe environment. In some cases, taking a strong stand against sexual misconduct will mean questioning previously accepted norms and making difficult, controversial and unpopular decisions. As an example, a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education discussed how, “[W]hen a student has the incredible courage to come forward [about experiencing sexual misconduct by a faculty member], the university has to decide between the faculty member who’s bringing in all the money and the student.” We can expand this to consider all who experience sexual misconduct in addition to students. As we’ve discussed, it is often those who are most marginalized who experience sexual misconduct. They are also the ones who may feel the least empowered to take action or to file a complaint, and those who have the least amount of trust in the system because of historical mistreatment.

Improved trainings are just one aspect of how we can address and prevent sexual misconduct in academia. We must all recognize that there’s a problem, and that behaviors that may have been accepted in the past are no longer okay. This is especially true for college and university leadership, who are often the ones determining if change will take place. Sexual misconduct causes real harm and, while it’s being taken more seriously in academia today than in the past, there is still much work to be done. We must ensure that those who commit sexual misconduct are held accountable, given appropriate sanctions, and prevented from causing further harm – regardless of how much money they bring in.


Brittany Keegan received her Ph.D. in December 2018, with her dissertation examining the roles of nonprofit organizations in promoting the refugee integration. She is now the Director of Research and Outreach for VCU Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy, and was named as one of Richmond, VA’s Top 40 Under 40 in 2018. Research interests include nonprofit organizations, gender-based violence, and refugee policy. Email: [email protected].

Sarah Jane Brubaker is a sociologist and professor of criminal justice and public policy at VCU’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. She directs a Certificate in Gender Violence Intervention and conducts research on campus sexual assault, juvenile justice reform, adolescent sexual and reproductive health, and criminalization in schools using an intersectionality and social justice lens. Email: [email protected].

Twitter: @BritKeegan and @BrubakerJane

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