Summit on Sexual Assault Plenary Address

The following speech was delivered by David Lisak, Ph.D. on July 14, 2014 at the inaugural Summit on Sexual Assault, which was held at Dartmouth College.


Thank you President Hanlon and Dean Johnson for welcoming us to Dartmouth. And thank you for stepping up as an institution to organize and host this conference, as well as the critical task of the working groups that will emerge from this gathering.

This gathering has been three years in the fermentation chamber, and there are many people who need to be thanked. Here’s the short list, because the entire list would take up most of my allotted time.

I first want to thank all of you who are present here today, for committing yourselves to the tough job of finding concrete solutions to the problems and conflicts that must be confronted by higher education. Confronting sexual violence means confronting those vexing, difficult issues. So I welcome you all to the very unglamorous part of the fight against sexual violence. The roll up your sleeves part. The part that has you reaching for the aspirin.

I would like to thank my dear friend and colleague, Claudia Bayliff, who has traveled the road leading to this gathering with me, as well as many other roads over the past 25 years.

I would like to thank Dr. Aurora Matzkin, who took the initiative to connect Charlotte Johnson and myself, thereby launching the major effort that has come to fruition today.

I would like to thank Dr. Sally Kenney, Director of the Newcomb College Institute at Tulane University, who took up the cause of this effort early on in the process, thereby keeping the dream alive.

Finally, I want to thank the staff here at Dartmouth who have worked tirelessly to make this event a reality, tapping into vast reservoirs of patience, competence and emotional intelligence. To the women and men from the Dean of the College Office, Student Affairs, Conferences & Events, the Hopkins Center, and the offices of the President and the Provost, my heartfelt thanks for your efforts.

The purpose for this gathering is simple. Colleges and universities across the United States are now facing a common set of challenges. We are being challenged to confront sexual violence more honestly, more conscientiously, and more comprehensively than we ever have.

That challenge is coming from the federal government, of course. But more fundamentally, it is coming from survivors of sexual violence. And it is coming from alumni. And soon it will be coming in force from the parents who pay for the ever-increasing cost of higher education.

There has always been a moral challenge to honestly confront the problem of sexual violence. But as with many moral challenges, it often takes something more concrete to make the challenge palpable. For us, that shift came with the publication of the Department of Education’s “Dear Colleague” letter in April, 2011.

In the turbulent wake of “dear colleague” I visited dozens of colleges and universities across the country. At virtually every institution I encountered the same anxieties and the same questions. Questions about how to reconcile seemingly conflicting obligations. Questions about how to interpret various mandates. And always: “What are other universities doing about this?”

I was in no position to answer any of these burning questions. But I was in the position of witnessing how each individual institution was wrestling with the same questions, and was somewhere between scared and terrified of making the wrong calls. With such intense scrutiny on the issue of sexual violence on campuses, making the wrong call can be costly.

I was also in the position of meeting so many intelligent individuals, conscientious men and women who were earnestly trying to make things right, but feeling stymied by the abundance of uncertainties. It seemed ludicrous for all of these individuals to be anxiously working in isolation, or near isolation, when collective action was clearly called for.

If we could come together on this, combine all of that intelligence and creativity and earnest effort, we would undoubtedly come up with better solutions.

So the answer was obvious. We needed to organize a gathering – this gathering. In the movie version of this, the editor would next cut to a scene of men and women from across the U.S. arriving in Hanover and taking their seats, ready to get to work.

In the reality version, it took about two and a half years to bring this gathering to fruition. Everyone I spoke to thought this type of gathering was a magnificent idea. Everyone wanted to be a part of it. But for some reason no one had a spare $100,000 or so to actually make the gathering possible.

Until, that is, Dr. Matzkin connected Dean Johnson and myself, and soon after President Hanlon endorsed Dartmouth’s sponsoring of this event.

So we are here. Now begins the work. This has been planned very much as a working conference. You will hear presentations over the next two days from leading experts from many fields, but we are expecting you to be an extremely engaged and involved audience.

In fact, I hesitate to even use the word, “audience.” The better word would be “participants.” You are here to participate in a creative process. You are here to contribute your expertise, to draw from your experience, to provide your perspective. Ask questions and share your experience and viewpoints with the presenters. Ask questions and share your experience and viewpoints among yourselves.

Many of you will be staying on after the conference to participate in the working groups. At that point we drop all pretense of entertaining you and we really put you to work. Each working group will identify key issues that need to be addressed within their domain, and will then begin the work of finding solutions, best practices, model policies, and protocols that address those vexing issues.

We do not expect to see completed white papers and drafted policies by Thursday afternoon – although please feel free to surprise us. Our goal for the working groups is that by Thursday afternoon the work of each group will have been framed out and articulated, and a process and a plan for producing a final product will have been defined. And we know that in accomplishing that, the members of each working group will be engaged in intense discussions of the many burning issues that we have all been confronting. And we know that through those intense discussions, solutions will begin to crystallize.

The work of the working groups will extend far beyond Thursday afternoon. We are already at work to find the necessary funding to support the ongoing efforts of the working groups, including a second gathering at which the working groups will present their findings and their products.

Where will that funding come from? I think many of us have gotten used to turning our gaze toward Washington when that type of question is asked. And certainly, we will be seeking some support from the federal government. But a part of me is not all together happy with that solution. The problem of sexual violence on college campuses is OUR problem. It is OUR problem to solve. Dartmouth stepped up and in so doing made this gathering possible. There are other institutions – represented in this room – that have the necessary resources to do likewise. Please expect to be challenged in the coming months to be the next Dartmouth.

So that’s the history of how we have come to be gathered here, but there is still more to say about the “why.” I think it is very safe to say that we would not be here were it not for the publication of the “dear colleague” letter three years ago.

So we need to thank the Department of Education for firing a shot across the bow of higher education.

I note the tepid applause to that statement. Dear Colleague has been an annoyance and a vexation. But it has been a necessary one.

If you think Dear Colleague has been a pain, I invite you to consider what your colleagues in the US Military have been contending with for more than a decade of intense scrutiny about their problems with sexual violence.

I have worked extensively with the services, and much of that work has been with senior leadership – the men and women who are routinely called to testify before various Senate and House committees. I have received many late-night emails from senior staffers asking for sources and research as they prepare their bosses for tomorrow morning’s testimony.

Being scrutinized. Being questioned and challenged, is not fun. It makes you anxious, and inevitably somewhat defensive. I felt bad for the men and women who had to answer those questions and challenges. In many ways, they were doing the best they could; they were trying hard to make necessary changes. But inevitably there were always major shortcomings; major foul-ups. And they routinely took it on the chin; sometimes from politicians; often from the media.

But here’s the thing. As bad as I felt for them as human beings, I understood with crystal clarity that the scrutiny and the unrelenting questioning – as unfair as it was sometimes – was absolutely necessary. That unrelenting scrutiny drove the changes that were and still are taking place.

Scrutiny is pressure. And major institutions do not make hard choices, do not make difficult changes, without significant pressure.

Like the Military, higher education must make some hard choices and difficult changes, and it will not do so without intense pressure. So, to the representatives from the various agencies of the federal government who are with us here today, I say: Thank you for dear colleague.

But dear colleague is an incomplete answer to the question of why, why are we gathered here.

The deeper reason is this: survivors of sexual violence are no longer willing to be shamed into silence. They are raising their voices. They are showing their faces. And yes, in some cases, they are shaking their fists. They are saying emphatically that the shame that has attached itself to sexual violence, the shame that has been forced onto victims for so many centuries, that shame does not belong to them. And so they will speak, and they will demand to be heard.

It is the survivors who have shifted the landscape such that we find ourselves here today, preparing to roll up our sleeves and get to work on the hard, nitty-gritty details of engineering the changes that must be made.

And survivors of sexual violence are not alone. They are finding allies among faculty, among alumni, and among the parents who send their young women and men to college. I invite you to step back for a moment – visualize what is happening in higher education from a long perspective – in the Air Force they call this, from 30,000 feet. There are many constituencies in the ferment about sexual violence on college campuses. Sometimes university administrators are pitted against survivor-activists; against some of their faculty; against newly-organized alumni groups; against government regulators; against civil attorneys.

Viewed from a perspective on the ground, we inevitably see these constituencies as in conflict with each other. But from 30,000 feet, and after taking a few calming breaths, you can begin to see that all of these constituencies are integral parts of the ferment that will produce the changes that are so urgently needed. The ferment that produces change requires all of these ingredients – the shouted demands of survivors who are rightly fed up with the status quo; the outrage of politicians; the scrutiny of government regulators; and also the hard, careful work of university administrators who are responsible for taking the urgency of change and translating it into fair, legally sound policies and protocols.

From 30,000 feet, all of these constituencies are actually not in conflict. From that perspective, they are working together. And one of the great potentials of this gathering here at Dartmouth is that we have brought that 30,000 foot perspective right into this room. From this podium, I see all of the constituencies I just described. Our challenge is now to work together to begin a process that will make urgently needed change a reality.

I’m standing up here at this podium this morning because Dartmouth graciously offered me this opportunity. I stand here as a researcher, but more importantly as someone who has been fighting sexual violence as a professional for the past 25 years.

But I also stand here as a survivor of sexual violence. I was raped, repeatedly, when I was five years old. And so I know, in my mind and in my heart, in my body and to the depths of my soul, what it means to be raped.

And so what I have to say this morning comes from the melding of these professional and personal experiences. And one more source I need to mention.

I was raised by a single mother, a refugee from the Nazis who rebuilt a shattered life and raised two sons on her own. She was a tough woman, and she was prone to bluntness. I guess she was too acutely aware of the fragility of life to waste time circumventing any issue. So she spoke plainly, and more so with age.

And now as the years accumulate in my own life, I find myself becoming more and more like her. At least when it comes to bluntness.

So here goes.

I have one overriding message to deliver this morning, and it is this.

We – the institution of higher education – are facing an historic decision point. One that will define us. One that will point our ship in one of two directions.

We will either define ourselves as just another corporate institution, focused on self-protection, self-aggrandizement, and self-promotion, focused on the immediate bottom line. Or, we will define ourselves as an institution worthy of the label – higher education. An institution guided as much by moral integrity – no, more so – than by self-protection and self-promotion. An institution that serves the rest of society not only by educating the next generation, but also by serving as a beacon, an example, of how institutions can and must behave when faced with moral challenges.

Many institutions have been confronted with the problem of sexual violence, have faced this same moral choice, and have failed. The failure of some of these institutions is all the more painful because they are institutions that lay claim to moral authority; to a central role in moral education.

We have witnessed religious institutions, including the Catholic church, repeatedly failing to meet their moral obligations. These failures do immense harm to these institutions; to their moral authority; to their standing within our communities. But these failures also do immense harm to our society; to the culture that we are always shaping and re-shaping. These failures are teaching moments – terrible teaching moments – for millions of young people who look to these institutions for guidance in the setting of their own moral compasses.

When an institution like the Catholic Church spends decades responding to its problem of sexual violence by stonewalling, covering up, stalling, and even attacking individual victims, do you really think that our young people aren’t noticing? Do you really think they aren’t absorbing the message? Do you really think they don’t see the stark hypocrisy of an institution that claims to be an authority on the setting of our moral compasses behaving as though it has lost touch with its own moral compass?

I know that some of you are likely feeling a little sensitive right now, maybe even offended, by my singling out the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is not alone in losing its way when it comes to responding to sexual violence. There are many, many other institutions that have behaved equally badly.

Which brings me to what should be an even more sensitive point. I spent nearly a quarter century in higher education, and so it pains me to count higher education as among those institutions with a claim to moral authority and moral education that has failed to meet its – our – own self-proclaimed standards. We, collectively, have not responded to the sexual violence in our communities with honesty, and with the moral integrity that we claim guides our own moral compass.

So what does it mean to act with moral integrity when it comes to this challenge of honestly confronting our problem of sexual violence?

Here are a few examples:

  1. We must listen – with open minds and hearts and a welcoming spirit – to the voices of survivors. The activists who are shaking their fists at you are not your enemies. They are the voices of those who have been harmed. Their outrage should be your outrage. Their courage will give you courage to make the difficult choices that lie ahead. You must include them. You must welcome them. You must ask them to sit on your committees and task forces. They must be involved in the process of change.
  2. We must move forward transparently. Open the windows and the doors. This is a collective problem – it belongs to all of us – let us all work together to find the solutions. No secret committees. No closed meetings. No restricted access to the data we will need to find the best solutions to our problems.
  3. So, speaking of data. Do you know that the three service academies – West Point, the Air Force and the Naval academies – conduct regular climate surveys that assess the incidence of sexual violence within their communities? Do you know that the Department of Defense publishes those data? Do you know they also publish the number of reported sexual assaults each year?Can anyone here name a single civilian institution of higher education that publishes an annual audit of both the surveyed incidence of sexual assault and number of actual reports? Isn’t it a bit ironic that the service academies – and the US Military more generally – has borrowed from higher education the technology and methodology to conduct their climate surveys, and yet higher education itself has never implemented those same technologies for the same purposes in their own communities? It is flat out time for us to start collecting data – openly and transparently – and publishing those data. We have great minds to draw from right within our hallowed halls. Let’s give them the data they need to work on this problem. To find the best solutions. We are institutions guided by the magnificent principles of the scientific method. One of those principles is the free and open dissemination of data. We publish our data so that our colleagues – and yes, even our competitors – can scrutinize and evaluate the data, and through that process advance our collective understanding of a problem.
  4. I am aware that universities are afraid of such openness. Afraid of so openly addressing their problems. Of publishing their data. They are afraid of being singled out. Of appearing to have a big problem compared to other institutions. Well, I have some welcome news. Those same survivors and activists who you view with such ambivalence have done you an enormous favor. By raising the public’s awareness about sexual violence on campuses to such a new level – congressional hearings; a White House news conference and task force – they have changed the landscape. The question is no longer which campuses have a problem. We know, everyone knows, that every campus has a problem. The question now is, which campus is confronting their problem with honesty and with moral integrity. That is how each of our institutions will now be judged.
  5. Sexual violence is not minor problem or a small irritant. It is a very large scale problem; it causes immense harm to individuals; and it represents a profound threat to the moral fiber of a community. It is therefore a problem that deserves – in fact, it demands – intense involvement from an institution’s leadership.And yet, historically – and by that I mean up to the present day – higher education leadership has not stepped up. For too long, the fight against sexual violence has been left to small cadres of highly motivated but under-staffed, under-funded and under-powered individuals who occupy the lower rungs of institutional power charts. They labor hard, but they labor without the resources and without the support from leadership that is necessary to effect the deep changes needed within communities to both respond to sexual violence and to prevent it.

Let me be a little more explicit in defining what I mean by leadership.

  • Leadership would be a university president convening an annual in-house conference on sexual violence; a conference for the institution’s board of regents and higher-level administrators to ensure that everyone in a decision-making position is properly educated about sexual violence, and briefed about what the institution is doing about it. In other words, a conference like those that have been taking place in the Air Force and the Army almost annually for the past decade.
  • Leadership would be wielding presidential power, when necessary, to ensure that crucial members of the university community are contributing to solving the problem, and are not impeding progress.
  • Leadership would be ensuring that sexual assault response and prevention offices are properly staffed so that they can accomplish the tasks demanded of them.
  • Leadership would be demanding that sexual assault prevention be a permanent and comprehensive, communitywide endeavor. That prevention programs be tailored and targeted to the many subcultures that make up a university community. That those programs be tailored to students’ developmental stage – we don’t educate first-year students in the same way we educate seniors.
  • Leadership would be ensuring that the institution’s prevention efforts be funded by the institution, not by a patchwork of short-term grants from the Office of Violence Against Women or the Centers for Disease Control. Grants are great. They are wonderful opportunities to test new programs, to evaluate efforts. But we can no longer rely on such temporary grants to fund prevention work. That work needs to be permanent. Those responsible for it need to have budgets they can rely on to build comprehensive, multiyear programs. It is often said that if you want to understand what an institution’s priorities are, study the budget; follow the money. I think it applies here.

I understand that in choosing to talk about moral integrity this morning I am taking a bit of a risk. Talking about moral integrity – even though we collectively view it as a lofty principle and goal – is not something we often do in this type of public forum. It can sound impractical, even naïve.

And so I want talk briefly about the work of a friend and colleague of mine, Lee Taft. Lee is an attorney and theologian who has worked with major institutions to find a different way, a moral way, of dealing with crises and mistakes that put institutions in both legal and financial risk.

The City of Dallas was rocked by a scandal more than ten years ago, in which dozens of people were falsely arrested and convicted on drug charges based on planted evidence. The City was facing a potentially disastrous crisis of confidence, one with sharp racial overtones. So the City Council worked with Lee and adopted a very non-traditional response to the scandal. They made a very public apology, they mandated an independent investigation, they took concrete steps to ensure that the failures that led to the scandal were remedied, they authorized the City Attorney to enter into expedited negotiations with the victims of the scandal to insure that they were fairly compensated, and they created a permanent record that would serve as a historical reminder of both the wrongdoing and the remedy.

The City’s response – the admission of wrongdoing and responsibility; the concrete taking of responsibility; and its openness and transparency – all contributed to ending the scandal much more quickly than it would have otherwise, and more importantly, it contributed to a restoration of the community’s trust in its criminal justice system. Lee has also worked with the Stanford hospitals to adopt a full disclosure policy when responding to situations in which medical errors have been committed. When a mistake has been made, it is acknowledged, and an apology is made. A team then works with the patient in an effort to make a fair accommodation for the mistake, to determine the cause of the mistake and to take steps to eliminate that cause.

The result of this change of course: a significant drop in the frequency of claims against the hospitals, and even more importantly, an increase in well-being among Stanford’s medical professionals. Instead of being parties to stonewalling and cover-ups, these men and women are part of a process that is in synch with their own moral compasses. They are doing what we all know is the right thing to do.

I truly believe that we too know what is the right thing to do.

We too must acknowledge that we have made mistakes in how we have responded to sexual violence, and that our mistakes have caused harm to individuals. We must apologize for causing that harm.

We must give that apology real meaning by engaging in an intense and honest process of developing the best practices and protocols for responding to sexual violence.

We too must acknowledge that we have not lived up to our own moral standards when it comes to doing everything possible to prevent sexual violence. And we must make that acknowledgment real – give it genuine meaning – by putting our energy and resources into a new era of sexual violence prevention research and evaluation.

If we can do this – and we can do it, if we can muster the will and the moral integrity – then we will not only correct an institutional failure. We will not only reduce the amount of sexual violence within our communities.

We will create an historic example for American society, an example of how a major American institution responded to a moral challenge guided not with the usual corporate self-protective tactics, but rather guided by its moral compass, and by its obligation to teach its students that moral integrity is not something that you write essays about, its how you live your life.

Thank you.