Against the backdrop of those stories, damning findings from an internal investigation into sexual harassment and assault at Louisiana State University dropped recently.
Each of these stories sheds light on the ways that institutions can further the harm of sexual harassment and assault. But, it doesn’t have to be this way.
As trauma researchers who have studied intimate violence and institutional responses, including here in Colorado, there are specific actions that institutions should take in the face of credible allegations. Doing so is good for survivors and good for institutions.
When victims of sexual assault and harassment disclose what happened, they are often met with disbelief, blaming, minimizing, and other negative reactions. As bad as the assault was, these negative reactions make outcomes such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) even worse.
In the wake of allegations, institutions tend towards silence. Reporters are told matters are ongoing and protected under student privacy laws; or that the incident was an internal personnel matter involving a small number of employees who did not follow protocols.
We understand that staying quiet during lawsuits and investigations seems prudent to protect the institutions and their processes. However, institutional silence perpetuates the very dynamics that allow violence to happen and puts survivors at risk of retaliation.
The women who came forward at LSU documented years of trauma, ongoing threats, outright denial when they did disclose. When institutions are complicit in sexual violence or indifferent in responding, survivors’ suffering is compounded.
Keeping quiet does not save institutions from having to account eventually for the very real harm suffered by survivors. Increasingly, survivors have come together to tell their stories and provide evidence to investigative reporters. Years before the investigative reporting into LSU, women told their stories of abuse and harassment by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein to investigative journalists, for example.
In the face of credible reports of sexual assault and harassment, then, how should institutions respond?
Fortunately, there is a model for the kind of institutional responses needed to restore trust, help survivors heal, and prevent future violence.
In 2014, Brenda Tracy contacted Oregon State University to ask about the outcome of a sexual assault perpetrated against her by men, including two who were student athletes at the school. In response, then-university President Ed Ray did something remarkable.
He apologized “for any failure on our part in 1998 in not helping her through this terrible ordeal.” He reiterated Oregon State’s commitment to Title IX and acknowledged aspects of legal prosecutions he could not control.
And he went further: He met with Tracy, acknowledged that the “horrific assault” and “terrible emotional and physical harm” happened, and called the statute of limitations law that prevented prosecution “appalling.” He asked Tracy to provide education on sexual assault.
Because he made his apology public, it lives on as an example for institutional leaders to this day. The result was twofold: stopping institutional betrayal and modeling the kind of institutional courage that helps survivors heal.
President Ray’s response was in line with advice from more than 200 sexual assault survivors’ about responding to disclosures – from communicating clearly and with compassion to offering resources and recognizing the impact of trauma.
Even in the midst of sorting legal settlements, nondisclosure agreements, and investigations, business and institutional leaders can take survivors’ seriously with straightforward action. Meet with survivors personally. Apologize, personally and publicly, on behalf of the institutions. Speak out against rape myths that harm students and institutional missions.
Put another way, institutions have the power to reduce the serious health consequences of sexual assault by changing how individuals and institutions respond to disclosures. Along with primary prevention of the assaults themselves, active support of survivors is one of the best public health interventions available to reduce the burden of negative health consequences of sexual violence.
Where institutional cowardice harms, institutional courage can stop sexual violence and promote healing. President Ray said, “There is no statute of limitations on compassion or basic human decency.” Likewise, there is no waiting period.
In an email to his university community about the internal investigation, LSU interim President Tom Galligan wrote: “It will be hard to hear and even harder to read, but if we are to fix our future, we must first face our past.” Later, he apologized to survivors at a legislative hearing, and thanked them for coming forward. Meanwhile, LSU Athletics, Director Scott Woodward, announced some promising actions.
These are important initial steps after many years. The lessons from OSU, though, show that it is possible for institutions to take prompt action to support survivors who disclose and work to end sexual violence. We should expect no less.
CORRECTION: This essay was revised at 9:22 a.m. on March 15, 2021, to correct Andrew Cuomo’s name as well as to note that Tom Galligan is interim president of Louisiana State University, and to add details about Galligan’s apology to survivors.
Kathryn Becker-Blease, Ph.D., is associate professor and director of the School of Psychological Science at Oregon State University. Anne DePrince, Ph.D. is distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Denver.
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