Consider This: How support interventions on campuses have shifted at universities

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Over the past ten years, I have seen three major shifts in how universities handle reports of sexual violence, misconduct, or concerning behaviour, whether on the part of students, faculty, or staff. Some of these changes in perspective have come about as the result of working with support experts and advocates who bring energy and new ideas to the conversation. These changes have helped us make timelier and more effective interventions. They don’t solve all our problems, and they haven’t been completed, but they are well underway, and they help. They are progressing at different rates in different institutions, and in different parts of individual universities. They include:

Fostering support and fairness. 

We can provide support to those who report being affected by sexual violence, without presuming anyone’s guilt. It isn’t so long ago that merely providing support services to someone who disclosed misconduct by someone else, was seen as presuming the guilt of the person under allegation. Universities now realize that we can provide support to those who come to us for help, while at the same time ensuring that persons under allegations are treated in a procedurally fair manner. There is no inherent contradiction between giving support to those affected by alleged misbehaviour, and providing procedural fairness to those under allegation.

Having and pursuing options even if we don’t have a formal complaint.

There has been a persistent myth in university administration, and in other sectors of society, that without a formal complaint supported by clear, convincing, and reliable evidence, we can’t or won’t do anything. We have been realizing that we can, and that we should. An allegation creates a concern. We can and should take reasonable action based on a concern that is supported by credible information. The nature, source, and credibility of the information determine our range of available options, but not whether we can act at all. The choice is not binary.

Finding room to help.

When confronted with an allegation of sexual violence, we increasingly ask ourselves not whether our policies and legislative context compel us to act, but whether they allow us to do so. When we have a concern, we ask ourselves what we can do, rather than whether we should be doing anything at all.

These changes in philosophy have affected our practices in very concrete ways. In the past, when confronted with a disclosure of misconduct, for example of systematic harassment in a lab, universities might have monitored, but probably not acted unless a complainant came forward. We now acknowledge that the disclosure creates a concern, and that we should act on that concern. 

First, we can and should offer support to those who disclose. Second, we may be able to corroborate at least some of the information contained in a disclosure. While we can’t and shouldn’t impose sanctions or discipline without a complete and procedurally fair complaint process that results in a finding of responsibility, we can manage the privileges of a person under allegation in order to address a legitimate concern and ensure an environment that feels and is safe for those involved. We may, for example, seek voluntary conditions from the person, such as not meeting alone off-campus, or restricting their hours in the workplace.

For situations in which the concern is more elevated, many universities now have policies that allow the imposition of interim conditions which are not disciplinary, but whose purpose is to address a safety concern. These might include restrictions on where and when someone can be on campus, with whom they can interact, or what kind of supervision they require. These interim conditions are designed to respect a person’s rights, to as little impact as possible on their ability to complete their normal duties, while at the same time securing the environment and alleviating a specific, documented concern.

With a formal complaint, we can use the full range of conduct policy options available to us, and investigate a complaint against an alleged perpetrator. As the years have gone by, however, I have found that the proportion of disclosures that lead to complaints has actually gone down. Those who disclose often (but not always) seem to find that the support we can provide, and the limited measures available to us, in the form of voluntary conditions and interim measures, meet enough of their needs.

This also has a downside. It means that in many cases, those who disclose make the cost/benefit analysis that enough of their needs are met by support and interim measures, and that the cost of pursuing a complaint would be too high for the additional benefits it would bring. In some cases, that can make it more difficult for us to protect the community through the use of disciplinary measures against perpetrators. On the upside it has encouraged us to explore alternatives such as restorative and alternative conflict resolution approaches.

The balance between the costs and benefits of different strategies to those affected, to the community, and to those under allegation is evolving, and our approaches and practices evolve with it. Working together through these changes, we are and can continue to better support our post-secondary communities.


André Costopoulos is vice-provost and dean of students at the University of Alberta.