Stanford University administrators engaged in rare public dialogue with students about sexual-assault issues on campus during a town hall meeting Friday morning.
The town hall meeting, which was organized by Stanford's student government, the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU), was at times tense, with students giving voice to a rising tide of distrust and discontent with how their university addresses sexual assault. There's a perception on campus, students told the administrators, that the university is sweeping the severity of the problem under the rug, particularly in the wake of a campus climate survey that they felt touted an impossibly low rate of sexual assault.
"We have no desire to sweep anything under the rug," Provost John Etchemendy told the crowd of about 100 students, both undergraduate and graduate, as well as some faculty members.
"Whether or not you have the desire, it's still happening," one student responded. "I think that's being lost in translation. Whether or not you think that it's happening, whether or not there's the desire to do it ... we're experiencing that, so you need to address it."
Etchemendy, along with Senior University Counsel Lauren Schoenthaler; Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Stephanie Kalfayan, who served on the provost's Task Force on Sexual Assault; Stanford Law School Dean Elizabeth Magill, also a task-force member; Carly Flanery, acting director of the Office of Sexual Assault & Relationship Abuse Education & Response (SARA); and other administrators spoke briefly and then answered questions from the large crowd. The town hall was moved to a large dining area in the Arrillaga Family Dining Commons after the originally planned location, a small conference room, became packed.
The event was advertised as an opportunity for students to give input on the university's new pilot process for adjudicating sexual-assault cases, but it quickly turned to other topics of concern, both procedural and personal: the recent climate survey, Stanford's narrow definition of sexual assault, accommodations for student-survivors of sexual assault and sanctions for perpetrators, and institutional transparency and trust.
Many criticized the methodology behind and communication of the climate survey, which was released last month with a press release that began by stating that 1.9 percent of all students at Stanford both men and women, undergraduate and graduate experience sexual assault. Combining populations that experience sexual violence at very different rates produced a misleadingly low number, students and faculty have said.
And by relying on a narrow definition of sexual assault, which excludes sexual touching due to force or incapacitation, a range of acts from someone slapping a student on the butt as they walk by at a party to more extreme examples, like drugging a woman and then fondling her but not penetrating her were lumped together into the less-severe category of sexual misconduct. The survey found that 14.2 percent of all students and 32.9 percent of undergraduate women experienced sexual misconduct.
On Friday, students called the survey and press release "offensive," "deceitful" and "damaging" to ongoing prevention and education efforts.
"The numbers that you highlighted ... don't actually represent students experiences on campus," one female graduate student said. "It's unclear how serious the issue is."
Etchemendy defended the survey's findings and the university's press release.
"Every survey that you find will give (an) overall rate followed by the subgroups," Etchemendy said. "It was not a matter of trumpeting anything."
Since the survey came out, student activists and faculty have raised concerns that the survey definitions contributed to the very low rate reported of sexual assault and much higher sexual misconduct number.
Schoenthaler said Friday that the university's definition of sexual assault is aligned with California law and also tied to a recommendation from the provost's Task Force on Sexual Assault that expulsion be the default sanction for a student found responsible of sexual assault. Stanford now defines sexual assault as, specifically, vaginal or anal intercourse, digital penetration, oral copulation or penetration with a foreign object "accomplished by use of (i) force, violence, duress or menace; or (ii) inducement of incapacitation or knowingly taking advantage of an incapacitated person," university policy reads. Until October 2014, Stanford used a broader definition: an "actual, attempted or threatened unwanted sexual act" accomplished through force, violence, duress, fear or fraud or when a person is incapacitated.
Sexual misconduct, on the other hand, includes acts such as unwanted touching or kissing of an intimate body part (whether directly or through clothing); and recording, photographing, transmitting, viewing or distributing intimate or sexual images without the knowledge and consent of all parties involved, according to university policy.
One male student asked Friday why acts that would considered criminal under California law, Stanford includes in the sexual misconduct category.
"You are right," Schoenthaler told the student. "There is a criminal conduct that falls within the sexual misconduct definition," including sexual battery, she said.
She said that while expulsion is the expected sanction for sexual assault, that doesn't mean it's not on the table for students found responsible for more serious acts of misconduct. Stanford has only expelled one student in its history, in a case that involved multiple victims.
"I understand students have been saying you can find really horrible, awful conduct ... 'If five people come in and attack a woman and hold her down and masturbate on her, that wouldn't be sexual assault at Stanford.' ... I would certainly hope that would be an offense for which students would be expelled for doing that. I think that that would be the right outcome," she added.
Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Stephanie Kalfayan said the administration is in the midst of analyzing more survey data and plans to release the analysis publicly.
Several students stressed the importance of providing sufficient accommodations to students who have experienced sexual assault, many of whom suffer academically as well as psychologically and frequently take time off from school. Students have in the past spoken publicly about the toll that the university process itself takes, stretching on longer than the 60 days required under federal law, requiring expert (and expensive) legal advice and becoming what some students have described as a fight against the university.
The new judicial process was designed to be more streamlined, offers students up to six hours of free legal support and ensures students who file complaints are afforded accommodations including housing (i.e. if their alleged perpetrator lived in their dorm, the university would move that person elsewhere), counseling services, academic accommodations, no-contact directives for their alleged perpetrator, campus bans and escorts, among others.
One female student said Friday that six hours of legal advice is an insufficient amount of time, particularly for a student facing another party with more resources. Etchemendy responded that the university will provide a list of lawyers who will be trained in Stanford procedures and policies so they "will be able to get up to speed much more quickly than the average attorney."
The proposed adjudication process that Stanford plans to pilot in early 2016 was a top recommendation from the task force on sexual assault, which issued a final report with a series of proposals in April. One female student said a lack of communication around what's happened to the rest of those proposals and whether or not they will be implemented has contributed to students' "perceived distrust and perceived lack of action."
She asked for timelines around the implementation of proposals and more updates on the work of a committee charged with overseeing the roll-out of the task force's recommendations.
"Facts like that can help build trust," she said.
Etchemendy told her that he could "not agree more."
"We agree that first of all, the level of sexual assault we have on campus, the level of sexual misconduct is unacceptable," he said. "Any rate is unacceptable. We know we need to better educate; we know we need to do better adjudicating ... we know we need to do that and that's why we're making all these changes," he said. "I wholeheartedly agree with what you said."
Several students called on the administration to issue a new press release to address their concerns. Though Etchemendy didn't respond to those calls during the town hall, students who stayed after the event to speak with him ended said he told them he would issue a statement.
Sophomore Stephanie Pham, co-founder of a new student group working to raise awareness about sexual assault at Stanford, said in an interview after the event that the town hall itself planned for a room too small, with a late start, malfunctioning microphones that made it difficult to hear and lack of advance notice to students was emblematic of a broader deficiencies in the university's attitude toward sexual assault. She said she hopes there will be another town hall meeting.
Editor's note: This story incorrectly stated more than 50 students and faculty attended the town hall. About 100 people attended.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created an archive of past news articles, social media reaction and other content related to the ongoing sexual assault issues at Stanford University. To view it, go to storify.com/paloaltoweekly.