Diversity and Democracy

Shifting Culture to End Campus Sexual Assault

As attention to campus sexual assault has grown in recent years, much of the groundwork necessary to create significant social and cultural change is already under way. Student activists, legislators, the White House, the Justice Department, and the press have created a climate of heightened awareness, pressuring and prompting colleges and universities to address sexual assault on campus. Collectively, members of our higher education communities must embrace this moment of awareness and combat campus sexual assault—holistically, comprehensively, and directly.

Sexual Assault and the Learning Environment

Sexual assault is devastating. It leaves young women and men who are brimming with talent reeling from its repercussions, rather than flourishing in an environment that supports their goals and dreams. Sexual assault changes lives and frequently denies students a safe environment in which to learn. A survivor might have to face his or her assailant in a small academic seminar, or might need to navigate the hurdles of reporting and moving through the adjudication process without proper emotional, psychological, or academic support. Survivors of sexual assault and rape are more likely to suffer anorexia, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder and to abuse alcohol and drugs (Krug et al. 2002). Unsurprisingly, many survivors experience severe difficulty continuing on their academic and professional paths in the wake of an assault.

Sexual assault is not new to campus life. But the focus is now on colleges and universities to address this public health challenge in ways that are pervasive across campus and that build equitable and inclusive learning environments. Colleges, with their tremendous intellectual capacity, are poised to shift campus cultures and imbue them with humanity and respect. College presidents can lead this change, calling on all stakeholders to participate in a shared effort to create campuses that are free from sexual assault and committed to educational equity.

Holistic Cultural Change

To accomplish holistic cultural change focused on sexual assault, college administrators need tangible, on-the-ground solutions that are adaptable to their particular contexts. At its core, cultural change requires commitment, time, and accountability. A framework for holistic cultural change should include six primary areas of focus:

1. Positive survivor support with options for reporting: To enact systemic cultural change on their campuses, colleges and universities should engage all constituents. Survivors need to feel safe to report an assault, and they need to be fully informed of the available reporting options: a survivor may choose to report to the police, to the school, to both, or to make a confidential or anonymous report. For survivors, disclosing sexual assault can be an intimidating, terrifying, and retraumatizing experience. All campus staff, particularly sexual misconduct staff, should be trained in responding to trauma and equipped to offer, in a nonjudgmental manner, emotional support as well as information about medical and mental health resources and academic, housing, or financial accommodations.

2. Clear policies on campus investigations, adjudications, and sanctions: Institutions need to examine all aspects of their sexual assault policies and procedures. In addition to engaging experienced, trained investigators, institutions should have and abide by clearly written, strongly worded sexual assault policies that are available to all campus constituents. Ideally, these policies will spell out an institution’s adjudication methods and clearly state the sanctions for those found to have violated school codes of conduct. Because serial offenders commit the majority of sexual assaults (Lisak and Miller 2002), schools also need to conduct broad investigations to identify evidence of other assaults committed by an accused student. Finally, policies should ensure that the investigative process is well documented, fair, thorough, and timely. Through such a comprehensive approach, institutions can provide students with a just investigative process and reduce Title IX and Clery Act liability.

3. Robust, multitiered prevention education at all levels of the institution: It is important that prevention education occurs regularly throughout all four years of a student’s education, starting at orientation and continuing with consistent messaging and education until graduation. Bystander training is a promising approach to transforming social norms to make sexual assault intolerable within peer groups (Katz and Moore 2013). A student may receive bystander training from a social role model (such as a senior student athlete) during the first year, participate in an educational booster program in the sophomore year, receive training in prevention education as a junior, and become a trainer teaching incoming first-year students in the senior year. Ideally, students will receive reinforcing messages across all four years that sexual assault is not tolerated on campus. Additionally, faculty, staff, and key student leaders—from professors and coaches to resident advisors and fraternity presidents—should receive prevention education and training to reinforce these messages. 

4. Public disclosure of sexual assault statistics and related information: Schools are required by federal law to report incidents of sexual assault, but sexual assault is vastly underreported by those who experience it (Kruttschnitt, Kalsbeek, and House 2014). Survivors may hesitate to report their experiences due to stigma, victim-blaming, a misunderstanding of sexual assault, and a lack of faith in the system to produce justice for sexual assault survivors. Institutional policy and practice is essential to creating an environment where students feel confident about reporting sexual assault. Institutions can strengthen data collection, gather more reliable statistics, and increase transparency by implementing (1) campus climate surveys, (2) regularly released campus assault reports, (3) comprehensive reporting practices, and (4) means of sending clear messages to parents and to the campus community.

5. School-wide mobilization in partnership with campus organizations and student leaders: Creating a campus that adopts and values a culture of respect requires involvement and support from all constituents. Students, survivors, athletes, campus leaders, the Greek community, the LGBTQ community, faculty, administrative staff, campus police, and other employees can work together to create and enforce a positive culture. Changing the culture to promote gender equality, reduce homophobia, and challenge practices that contribute to sexual violence is critical to reducing the incidence of sexual assault on campus. Students, faculty, and staff can together set norms that condemn sexual violence and promote a culture of respect. Institutions can promote school-wide mobilization against sexual assault by providing (1) visible, ideological, and financial support for student organizations engaged in sexual assault prevention and service provision, (2) a diverse range of sexual assault prevention programs, and (3) a defined leadership team for campus prevention and service provision that includes student leaders and faculty.

6. Ongoing self-assessment: Self-assessments provide crucial information as colleges and universities work to strengthen their responses to sexual assault. Institutions should engage in regular self-assessment using a variety of data sources to benchmark their progress and to identify gaps in programming and services.


The pursuit of an equitable and inclusive learning environment on college campuses will take focus, dedication, and time. Just as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) reduced incidents of alcohol-related deaths through a multipronged approach involving education, policy, survivor support, and national dialogue (Fell and Voas 2006), so too can colleges eradicate campus sexual assault. Culture of Respect, a nonprofit organization focused on eradicating sexual assault on college campuses, is helping institutions work toward this goal.

Culture of Respect’s CORE (Culture of Respect Engagement) Blueprint, following the six-pillar strategy outlined above, is a roadmap to changing campus cultures. Culture of Respect is launching a pilot program to assess the outcomes of the CORE Blueprint and accompanying CORE Evaluation on college campuses. We are currently recruiting institutions of all kinds to participate in this program and encourage readers to contact a.tombroskorman@cultureofrespect.org for more information.

Working holistically, comprehensively, and directly, we can transform campus cultures that foster sexual violence against students into cultures where sexual assault is intolerable and unacceptable.


Fell, James C., and Robert B. Voas. 2006. “Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD): The First 25 Years.” Traffic Injury Prevention 7: 195–212.

Katz, Jennifer, and Jessica Moore. 2013. “Bystander Education Training for Campus Sexual Assault Prevention: An Initial Meta-Analysis.” Violence and Victims 28 (6): 1054–67.

Krug, Etienne G., Linda D. Dahlberg, James A. Mercy, Anthony B. Zwi, and Rafael Lozano. 2002. World Report on Violence and Health. Geneva: World Health Organization.

Kruttschnitt, Candace, William D. Kalsbeek, and Carol C. House, eds. 2014. Estimating the Incidence of Rape and Sexual Assault. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Lisak, David, and Paul M. Miller. 2002. “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists.” Violence and Victims 17 (1): 73–84.

Allison Tombros Korman is executive director of Culture of Respect.

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