Dear Members of the Pitt Community:
This summer’s news broadcasts from the business, education, entertainment and political worlds were filled with allegations of sexual misconduct. Today, these broadcasts continue—with wall-to-wall news coverage of allegations surrounding U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and a criminal sentencing trial for actor Bill Cosby.
Much of the media coverage has focused on providing sensational details, acting as a forum for character attacks, and assessments of who is “winning” or “losing” at a given moment. From my perspective, these stories are missing some important marks.
At the University of Pittsburgh, sexual harassment and sexual assault prevention are common topics—and we’ve learned some valuable lessons in tackling these tough topics on our campuses.
This problem is real and far too common. When Pitt participated in a national survey of students, along with other AAU universities in 2015, we learned a few key facts. First: incidents of sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct are not rare. In fact, it is estimated that one in four students experience some type of sexual misconduct during their time at Pitt. For faculty and staff, we do not have a comparable survey, but we know that they are affected. In fact, the larger public dialogue shows that these incidents happen across our society, including in business, sports, entertainment, doctor’s offices, churches, and in our government.
This is an underreported problem. The seriousness of old, previously unreported allegations that have emerged in news reports over the last year have fueled the common thinking that if those charges were true, they would have been promptly reported to law enforcement or other authorities at the time. Our own experience, including our survey results, reveal that most incidents involving sexual misconduct or even violent sexual assault go unreported. This is true whether for alleged victims, bystanders and witnesses. There are real barriers to reporting, including concerns for privacy, fears of retaliation and social stigma. Too frequently, those who report an incident of sexual assault or sexual violence feel alone. As a university and a society, we should do everything we can to support those who come forward rather than acting to suppress or even silence these individuals.
The harm is very real. We know from our own programs that victims of sexual violence or harassment experience trauma that can negatively impact their health and wellbeing for the rest of their lives. We also know that negative impacts are not limited to victims. These experiences can ripple into a victim’s relationships with their partners, friends, family and future friends. Even bystanders can be negatively impacted by these incidents and their aftermath. As an institution, all of our efforts to address incidents that have occurred simply attempt to limit the damage and prevent future occurrences. They cannot undo what has happened.
The only way to improve this problem is to tackle it openly and comprehensively. This is a problem where there are no easy answers. This is a widespread problem that can and does cause life altering harm. It is a problem that mixes the realms of individual responsibility, culture and society. The only approach we can take here is to tackle this issue openly and comprehensively. Certainly, this means we must effectively and fairly address allegations of sexual assault and misconduct. But, it also requires us to tackle the root causes so we can lower the likelihood that these incidents occur in the first place. Such a comprehensive approach is not easy or fast. In my view, this is a continuous effort—one where everyone has a role to play and that informs how we operate every day.
While the challenges are big, the stakes are even higher. How we respond to this topic says a lot about our values as individuals and as a society. And how we respond as a university says everything about our values as an institution.
I believe that a university is—above all else—a community dedicated to advancing human understanding and to making our society better. This mission means that every member of our community has a right to belong, to be safe, and to act free from fear of violence, intimidation or harassment. As news events continue to drive a national dialogue, I hope that we continue to share and act upon this communal value. And I hope that we continue our hard work toward eliminating sexual assault and violence on our campus.
If you have been impacted by this issue and need support, we have resources available and ready.
Students: Contact our Office of Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education
Faculty and staff: Contact Work Partners with Life Solutions or 1-866-647-3432