Brodie Farquhar: Columnist distorts facts about college sexual assaults
September 13, 2017
Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, is at it again – distorting or ignoring the facts and context surrounding difficult subjects.
This time, Stephens is lauding Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her action last week to revise Title IX guidelines on campus sexual assault, developed by the Obama Administration. DeVos believes that due process for the accused sexual assailants has been curtailed too far.
Stephens said it is a laudable goal to fight campus sexual assaults but says evidence of the crime is sketchy and good data is hard to come by. He adds that in 2015, "89 percent of colleges and universities reported zero incidents of rape."
Stephens doesn’t follow up on this last factoid, asking how that’s even possible in an environment where young men and women are out on their own for the first time and dating is awash with alcohol.
Fortunately, some responsible journalists at Mother Jones looked into the issue of reported sexual assaults and found that the number is grossly under-reported. Working with survey data developed by the Association of American Universities, Mother Jones found a vast discrepancy between AAU survey answers by 150,000 students at 27 major universities, and official statistics gathered by those institutions under the Jeanne Clery Act of 1990.
According to Mother Jones, "271 Ohio State University students said in the AAU survey that they reported a rape in the 2014-15 academic year, but the school’s Clery Act filings said only 22 students reported a rape during the 2014 calendar year. At Michigan State University, the numbers were 256 to 15; at the University of Michigan, 256 to 21.”
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So how can one account for this data mis-match? Stephens didn’t pursue it, as he was more interested in bashing the Obama Administration for over-reach and relating anecdotal stories of young men whose lives were ruined by false reporting and kangaroo-like trials.
The mis-match between AAU and Clery data is that the Clery Act process is systemically flawed, counting only on-campus incidents when most students live off-campus. Further, mental-health counselors and religious advisers are exempt from reporting sexual assaults.
As a result, many young women think they’ve reported a sexual assault, when the information is never passed on. Finally, many victims of sexual assault never report it to anyone, for a variety of reasons including fear and embarrassment.
Due process is important, but so is the goal of removing sexual predators from campuses. The implication I get from the AAU and Clery data is that there are more sexual assaults going on college campuses and communities than anyone wants to think.
As someone who has earned both bachelor and master degrees, and with a stint as a college administrator, I’ve seen and heard too much to believe that colleges and universities are rape-free, as Stephens comes close to implying. There’s a lot going on in dorm rooms and college apartments, consensual and non-consensual in nature.
Colleges can be conflicted between the goals of maintaining a safe environment for students and avoiding PR nightmares over rape incidents that might scare off prospective students from coming to school or persuade victims to leave.
Clearly, higher education administrators and communities need to get better data about what’s happening, so we can find the correct balance between due process for the accused and protecting sexual assault victims from being victimized again in campus and/or judicial proceedings.
I seriously doubt if DeVos or Stephens can be trusted to find that balance. It is up to us.