Maeve Sheridan often thinks about how fellow students might have changed the course of the night she was sexually assaulted as a freshman in Chicago.
After an evening of drinking, could a friend have talked her out of going to another student’s dorm room? Would she have waited three weeks to report the assault if others hadn’t told her she was to blame for it?
“It’s never just two people in a room,” said Sheridan, now a senior at the University of Minnesota. “There are ways to step in before and after.”
Enlisting bystanders to take action is central to President Eric Kaler’s initiative to prevent sexual misconduct on campus — a top priority in his final year on the job. The effort, which costs more than $740,000 in its first two years, culminates this academic year with a public awareness campaign and workshops guiding department heads in addressing harassment, featuring actors from Minneapolis-based Illusion Theater. “The bystander intervention training is the most powerful thing we can do,” Kaler said. “I think we’re really moving the dial.”
Hundreds of colleges in Minnesota and around the country are embracing bystander intervention programs as they face mounting pressure to respond more forcefully to sexual misconduct. Some research shows they have promise, but even supporters such as Sheridan caution they also have limitations. Those include the chilling effect that campus power imbalances have on calling out misbehavior — an issue the U confronts amid an outcry over faculty harassment of graduate students.
The U prevention effort ramps up as the campus is trying to put behind it bruising headlines, from rape and harassment allegations in its athletic department to the case of a Chinese billionaire arrested but not charged after a student alleged he raped her. Officials and critics alike agree the initiative’s success hinges on how decisively the university responds when sexual misconduct does happen.
Actors and role-playing
The idea of bystander intervention informs every aspect of the U’s prevention push. “Sexual assault stops when you step up,” posters featuring a diverse cast of students and others declare all over campus as part of a student government-inspired $80,000 public awareness campaign this winter.
An online training course, required for all U employees since last spring, covers simple techniques — from distracting someone who is making aggressive advances by asking for the time, to staring to let offenders know their actions have not escaped notice.
This fall, the university and Illusion Theater developed the workshops for faculty leaders to build on the online training, which all students also take. The actors and U officials present a string of scenarios, such as a department chairman confronting a veteran professor, a self-described “hugger” who freely comments on female students’ outfits and romantic relationships. Then, attendees discuss and role-play.
“You have agency,” Laura Bloomberg, the Humphrey School dean, tells them. “You have opportunities to intervene in many ways.”
University officials, who recently required almost all employees to report evidence of sexual misconduct, say reporting is a key way of stepping in.
The change has been controversial, though in most cases the university will not start an investigation unless the victim gives the go-ahead. Students have voiced concern that it might make peers more reluctant to turn to faculty and staff for advice and support.
John Finnegan Jr., the School of Public Health dean who co-chairs the initiative, says an emphasis on bystander intervention makes the campus feel safer and tighter-knit. The approach has gained traction nationwide, getting a boost from a celebrity-studded 2014 White House campaign to counter campus rape titled It’s on Us.
Some local private campuses have long embraced bystander intervention, touted in a 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report and other studies: At Gustavus Adolphus College, freshmen and sophomores have received training for seven years. Federal law now requires assault prevention training for students.
But the U’s effort might be among the most thorough on large public campuses nationally, says Alan Berkowitz, an expert who consults with the U and other universities and federal government agencies.
“The University of Minnesota is clearly on the front lines because its efforts are comprehensive and science-based,” he said.
Praise and skepticism
Sheridan, the U senior, uses the “tampon trick”: She has approached fellow students and strangers who look uncomfortable with someone’s advances in bars and at parties and told them she has the tampon they asked for. She says the interruption gives them an out from tense, potentially risky situations.
Sheridan, a regional adviser for the It’s on Us campaign, transferred to the U after she said DePaul University investigated her allegation that a fellow student raped her in his dorm room and suspended him for part of the year.
Many students at the U have embraced the active bystander idea — from athletes who displayed the “It Ends Here” logo on the field to fraternity and sorority members, 3,000 of whom gathered in October for a prevention event.
Others have been more skeptical. At the U’s Aurora Center for Advocacy & Education, which offers bystander intervention workshops, director Katie Eichele says research shows people are more likely to intervene when the perceived offender is a person of color or LGBTQ. “Bystander intervention is a really important tool, and our marginalized communities recognize that,” she said. “But those communities also bear an additional weight.”
Then, says Eichele, there are power imbalances — between students and faculty, or freshmen and upperclassmen — that can make victims and bystanders reluctant to step in. Faculty harassment of graduate students, who can depend on professors for research funding, dissertation input and more, looms large in the Illusion Theater training.
“So much of a graduate student’s success and ability to thrive relies on this one relationship,” said Vice Provost Rebecca Ropers-Huilman, who helped design the workshops.
Alanna Pawlowski, the professional student government president, says graduate and professional students have shared stories of inappropriate behavior by faculty, and cases of faculty who remained at the U after multiple investigations have been publicized. But little is known about the scope of the problem, and student leaders have called on the U to better track it. The U’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action received 37 reports of employee sexual misconduct and conducted 19 investigations in 2016-17 — the only year for which data is readily available, with no detail on employees’ job descriptions.
Some on campus raise broader questions about how the university will gauge whether its efforts are paying off. Reports of misconduct on campus are up markedly, both at the Aurora Center and its EOAA office — but that’s likely a positive sign that a push to encourage reporting is working, says Dave Golden at the Boynton Health system.
The U added questions on sexual harassment in its student climate survey and launched a new employee survey. One of the findings the U has flagged showed relatively low confidence in its ability to prevent retaliation and respond properly when an incident happens.
Advocates stress that prevention efforts would work only if the university responds forcefully and consistently when misconduct does occur. Eichele says Aurora still fields complaints about employees who switch departments after a sexual misconduct investigation — only to engage in similar misconduct.
University officials stress the initiative is a long-term effort. Kaler’s chosen successor, University of South Carolina Provost Joan Gabel, has vowed to keep up the momentum.
“We are on track, but that’s not enough,” said Simran Mishra, undergraduate student body president. “These conversations and this work have to continue.”