Diversity and Democracy

Collaboration for Change: Building Alliances to Advocate for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention

In recent years, campus sexual assault has risen to the forefront of the national agenda, not only as a policy concern but also as a cultural shift in values toward the freedom to pursue one’s education without fear of violence. In 2011, the Obama administration issued its first set of guidelines to colleges and universities for dealing with issues of sexual misconduct, such as requiring campuses to provide more avenues for reporting and more resources for survivors. Motivated by renewed national interest and pervasive media coverage of sexual assault cases, students have since led advocacy efforts for more transparency, fairness, and inclusivity in how their campuses handle issues of sexual assault. As student advocates during our time at Vanderbilt University, we promoted collaborative activism, bringing together administrative figures and student representatives to pursue mutual goals of safety, dialogue, and justice.

Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Throughout this article, we define sexual assault to include nonconsensual sexual intercourse and/or contact, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, stalking, dating violence, and domestic violence. Under Title IX, schools must ensure that all students have equal access to education regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Sexual assault is a form of gender discrimination prohibited by Title IX. This view of sexual assault as an issue of gendered violence is informed by thirty years of statistical peer review of reporting data, which conservatively estimate that one in five women will experience sexual assault during her collegiate career (Koss, Gidycz, and Wisniewski 1987; Fedina, Holmes, and Backes 2016). Continued data collection and analysis indicate that women are vastly more likely to experience sexual assault than men and that, across all genders, members of the LGBTQI+ community are at higher risk than their non-LGBTQI+ counterparts (Walters, Chen, and Breiding 2013). Thus, if a school knows or reasonably should know about discrimination or violence that is creating a hostile environment for a student based on gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity, Title IX requires the school to act to eliminate it, remedy the harm caused, and prevent its recurrence.

In April 2011, the Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL), which reminded colleges and universities nationwide of their obligations under Title IX. The DCL also set forth specific guidelines for colleges to follow in developing policies to address, prevent, and respond to instances of sexual assault. The department made clear that if schools failed to comply with these guidelines, they would be placed under investigation and might lose their federal funding. In 2014, the Obama administration reaffirmed its support for survivors when it released a list of fifty-five schools that faced civil rights investigations related to their handling of sexual assault reports. Vanderbilt University, our alma mater, was among the schools on the initial list.

Vanderbilt’s inclusion on this list was one of two major events that brought sexual assault to the forefront of campus dialogue. The other was the horrific gang rape of a student by four football players in a campus dorm room during summer 2013. This event sent shockwaves throughout campus and resulted in a series of highly publicized criminal trials and widespread media attention, which brought criticism of the ways in which Vanderbilt responded to issues of sexual assault.

An Opportunity to Collaborate

Following the initial coverage of the 2013 rape case, student groups and campus administrators at Vanderbilt began focusing more closely on issues of sexual assault. The university administration began allocating more time and resources to this issue, and in fall 2014, the Project Safe Center for Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response (PSC) opened as a stand-alone center committed to preventing sexual assault and other forms of power-based personal violence. Prior to 2014, Project Safe existed as a program under the auspices of the university’s Women’s Center. The opening of the PSC brought with it an increase in personnel solely dedicated to issues of sexual and interpersonal violence. The advocates at the PSC—namely Cara Tuttle Bell, Sirajah Raheem, Sarah Jordan Welch, Otis McGresham, and Sarah Watson—devoted substantial time and resources toward supporting student activists, counseling and directing us to helpful educational tools.

In the midst of these shifting campus priorities, individual students had unprecedented opportunities before them. I (Kait) gained a seat on the student government’s Sexual Assault Task Force of 2014, which had a direct line to key stakeholders within the university administration. As the only activist on the task force, my opinions and expertise carried significant weight but were narrow compared with the vast experiences of the student body. Countless individuals and groups on campus were working on issues related to sexual assault, including Vandy Fems (Vanderbilt Feminists), Take Back the Night, Vandy Sex Ed, and Vanderbilt Students of Nonviolence. In order to better connect with those activists and establish continuity of advocacy from year to year, I lobbied the student government executive board to establish the task force as a standing committee. In 2015, I was appointed founding chair of the Vanderbilt Student Government’s Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Committee (VSAP). Asheeka, my coauthor and friend, was one of my first selections to the committee body.

Student Advocacy and Collaboration

VSAP brought student stakeholders together for the first time to produce policy guidance on sexual assault prevention and education. The key to VSAP’s success was the way in which we bridged the gap between administrators and students in their shared goal of reducing sexual misconduct on campus. Students met with key members of the administration at the time, including Dean of Students Mark Bandas, Provost Susan Wente, Vice Chancellor George C. Hill, Dean of the Commons Vanessa Beasley, and General Counsel Audrey Anderson. The committee also developed a close, trusting relationship with the PSC—a relationship that provided a key link between the students on the committee and university administration. It was through this link that the committee achieved several of its most important goals.

One of those goals was to change the reporting status of the PSC. Prior to fall 2016, the PSC was not a confidential resource, meaning that students could not seek assistance there without being referred to the university’s Title IX coordinator. Recognizing the silencing effect this had on students, VSAP members and PSC staff made advocating for confidentiality a top priority. For several years, fragmented student groups and individuals had pushed for this important change, and PSC staff had persistently requested more flexibility in their reporting requirements, but the administration had made no changes to the policy. VSAP, however, used our newly minted collaborative energy to exert pressure on the university. It was only after several meetings involving VSAP members, PSC staff, and top university administrators—during which VSAP argued that the university could both maintain its reporting obligations under federal law and make the PSC a confidential resource—that the university announced that the PSC would become a limited-confidential resource beginning in fall 2016. This important change was the result of a joint effort between VSAP and the PSC, made possible by the collaboration and trust between the two groups.

Our ability to achieve these policy changes was also rooted in the administration’s positive response to the Student Perspective Report, which VSAP produced with a handful of other student contributors (Spear et al. 2016). The report used Vanderbilt’s campus climate statistics to highlight previously overlooked opportunities to prevent sexual assault and support survivors. It also used best practices from peer universities and guidance from the White House to propose changes to existing policies and practices.

Within this report, VSAP recommended that we contribute to the annual revision of the university’s Sexual Misconduct and Power-Based Personal Violence Policy, offering a thorough line-by-line critique. Beginning in the spring semester, the policy goes through a revision process involving multiple faculty and administrators, ultimately leading to an updated version for the following academic year. Although it is not highly advertised, students may share their comments and concerns with any of these parties. By more formally securing VSAP’s involvement in the process, the committee was able to systematically communicate and address concerns that we experienced or heard about on a day-to-day basis.

The Student Perspective Report also recommended mandatory training for first-year students, to be produced in collaboration with Dean Beasley and her first-year programming office. The university had many sexual assault prevention programs, but not many offering support to students after an assault had occurred. Recognizing this programming deficit, VSAP designed a program that could be integrated with CommonVU, an existing set of trainings that occurs during first-year orientation. The program addressed these concerns and shed light on the largely opaque investigative process. The program also presented multiple points of view, including those of students’ friends, resident advisors, and professors. By the time we graduated, we had planned a pilot run of the program, which was implemented during the following fall semester.

A Safer, More Inclusive Campus

Although we have since graduated, the legacy of VSAP lives on at Vanderbilt. Now in its eighth semester of policy advocacy service, VSAP continues to provide student perspectives on the annual revision of the university’s sexual misconduct policy, hosts events to raise awareness of sexual assault issues, and brings together student advocates and administrators on issues of safety and freedom.

In the years since our 2016 commencement, Vanderbilt has made significant strides in creating a safer and more inclusive campus for survivors of sexual assault. For example, in January 2018, the university announced that the Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Disability Service (EAD) office would split into three separate offices: the Equal Employment Opportunity Office, the Student Access Services Office, and the Title IX Office. As a result, the university has hired additional staff dedicated to Title IX issues and now has greater capacity to investigate claims of sexual assault. Currently, the Title IX Office practices trauma-informed investigating, requiring staff to undergo training to make investigations less traumatic for all involved. Although the EAD’s split was not the direct result of VSAP’s work, increased student advocacy around issues of sexual assault over the past five years likely had a hand in pushing these important changes forward.

A Call to Action

Building on the foundation of collaborative activism that VSAP prepared for us, we continue to recommend that students organize around issues of campus sexual assault in similar ways. Not only should students build strong alliances with one another, but university administrations should encourage and actively facilitate such partnerships. Engaging students in the policies that directly affect them helps secure outcomes that will anticipate the needs of the population and ensure that solutions are relevant to survivors. Students won’t engage with interventions that don’t center their perspectives and needs, which administrators working in isolation can’t possibly understand or effectively represent.

Moreover, the potential for noncompliance-related funding losses and lawsuits is a factor that can motivate universities to become better environments for students, particularly women and members of the LGBTQI+ community. Students can leverage this motivation to advocate for change that both makes campuses safer and helps protect universities against issues of liability in the long run. In this way, the interests of students and administrators are deeply connected, and collaborative work between them is the most effective way to meet the needs of both parties.


Fedina, Lisa, Jennifer Lynne Holmes, and Bethany L. Backes. 2016. “Campus Sexual Assault: A Systematic Review of Prevalence Research from 2000 to 2015.” Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 19 (1): 76–93.

Koss, Mary P., Christine A. Gidycz, and Nadine Wisniewski. 1987. “The Scope of Rape: Incidence and Prevalence of Sexual Aggression and Victimization in a National Sample of Higher Education Students.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 55 (2): 162–70.

Spear, Kait, Asheeka Desai, Sara Starr, Sydney Silberman, Nicole Jenkinson, Erica Comer, Logan Brown, Samantha Garfield, and Carson Lystad. 2016. Student Perspective Report. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt Student Government. https://studentorg.vanderbilt.edu/vsg/project/student-perspectives-report/.

Walters, Mikel L., Jieru Chen, and Matthew J. Breiding. 2013. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_sofindings.pdf.

Kait Spear is a 2016 Graduate of Vanderbilt University and has a 2018 Master of Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Asheeka Desai is a 2016 Graduate of Vanderbilt University and has a 2019 Juris Doctor from the UCLA School of Law.

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