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Why do graduate and professional students need a separate organization?

We share many of the same concerns as already existing organizations working to reform campus approaches to sexual assault and harassment (for example, Know Your IX and End Rape on Campus), and hope to foster communication between graduate and professional students and undergraduates. However, graduate and professional students have several specific concerns that it makes sense to address separately. We are partially students but often partially employees (whether recognized as such or not) which puts us in variable positions regarding Title IX and Title VII. Our available options can vary not only by campus but by program and department, and issues of reporting become murky at many universities: does one report to one's department chair? Or outside? How are cases involving faculty--an unfortunate reality that can even involve one's direct supervisor--handled?

Graduate and professional students are often more locked into specific universities than undergraduates. While transferring to avoid an assailant is never easy, in our cases changing programs can mean abandoning years of research, one's funding and healthcare, and possibly even the specific field one wants to study.

Reporting or taking action, moreover, can place the graduate or professional student in jeopardy of losing funding, the goodwill of their (often tight-knit) program, and professional opportunities. At the moment there are few safeguards in place against such retaliation.

Since sexual assault is a criminal matter, why have universities handle it rather than the police?

First, university involvement should not necessitate closing off the option of a legal response. However, universities are obligated under Title IX and the Clery Act to address sexual assault and other gender-based violence. Education, regardless of gender, is a civil right to which sexual violence can be an impediment. More on the civil rights requirements can be found here at Know Your IX, and on the swifter and helpful options schools offer as opposed to the criminal justice system here.

Separate from being required by law, most universities pride themselves on offering an education as opposed to merely information, evinced in honor codes and in mission statements. In doing so they are claiming responsibility for molding the character of their communities--which involves setting expectations for those communities' members. Condoning sexual assault and harassment, as happens through inaction and the conferring of degrees and honors on perpetrators, runs counter to many universities' commitments to values and causes such as social justice.

What is the distinction between "preponderance of evidence” and “beyond reasonable doubt,” and why does it matter?

Under Title IX, universities are required to determine cases based upon whether or not there is a "preponderance of evidence," meaning that the accusation is more likely than not to have occurred. This differs from sexual assault cases that go through the criminal justice system, where the much higher standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt" applies. The stakes differ significantly: a university can, at most, expel a student, whereas a court can imprison perpetrators.

Sexual assault and harassment are notoriously difficult charges to prove, and most cases brought to court (already a minority) do not end in a conviction. The "preponderance of evidence" standard makes it significantly more possible for a survivor to obtain results such as campus restraining orders, and more likely that universities can recognize and remove serial rapists.

Why haven’t I seen grad activism around this issue?

Activism on campus sexual assault and harassment has experienced a surge in interest these past few years; the conversation about graduate and professional students' place in campus policies is only just beginning. There may be multiple factors at work in our lower profile, including concerns about professional retaliation, the often overwhelming nature of graduate and professional students' work, and the insular tendencies of departments and programs.

How can I help?

At the moment we are looking for allies and discussion. Would you like to join our listserv? Use the contact form to get in touch. Do you have ideas on which policies may benefit graduate and professional students? We would love to hear your thoughts. Does your school have something which works well? Tell us!

We are also collecting narratives from different campuses regarding the problem of graduate or professional students and sexual assault and harassment. If you would like to share your story, please let us know.