Boston University Has a Sexual Assault ProblemS

It's been a rough year for Boston University. BU police have received nine reports of sexual assault and five reports of rape so far this academic year, including two very high-profile cases involving former members of the men's ice hockey team. There have also been three Peeping Tom incidents, and one report of a public library groping. That's double the number of incidents over the previous two years combined, and that's not even all of it.

In addition to the aforementioned assault charges, Peeping Toms, and bookish groping, Boston University has also dealt with an alleged sorority hazing incident that sent a group of heavily intoxicated women to the hospital in March (the sorority, Sigma Delta Tau, was suspended; University police believe a fraternity — as yet unnamed — provided the alcohol, but no action has been taken against the house). Oh, and then there was that unfortunate "April Fools" edition of BU's independent daily paper that attempted to satirize sexual assault (Sample line: "Seven frat dwarves were arrested last night after they allegedly drugged and gangbanged a Boston University student") and resulted in the editor-in-chief's resignation.

And yet, while these incidents (alleged or otherwise) suggest a prevalent rape culture amongst the student body, over a dozen students told us that they blame the administration, not their peers, for perpetuating the problem.

Although only 10 percent of the nearly 19,000 undergraduates at BU participate in the Greek system, students say the university is widely considered to be a "party school" thanks to stereotypically "fratty bros" as well as "privileged" students who can afford to pay $42K in annual tuition. "Those kids are the loudest and most visible, and the school encourages them by putting more emphasis on athletics and vocational programs, such as communications, instead of critical education," said one male senior.

"The hailing of bro culture turns into an uglier, more violent culture, especially on nights and weekends, on and off campus," said recent BU graduate Allison Francis. Francis, whose account of punching a cat-caller near campus was published on Jezebel earlier this year, says she received near-constant harassment, often from her fellow students, while she attended the college. "It's just as you would expect at a huge school where sports are such an important part of the culture. There's an emphasis on praising the aggressive, violent aspects of sports culture" — which manifests itself off the field — at the expense of people who don't feel safe."

One female undergraduate who once wrote a paper on "Douchbaggery at BU" for an anthropology class said that "everyone has at least one story of a friend who had a bad run-in with a hockey player or rare frat guy." She cited a campus staircase that for decades students have jokingly referred to as the "rape stairs" — for a series of alleged assaults that may have taken place there in the 1980s — as an example of "the type of normalization [on campus] when it comes to sexual assault and rape." Still, she said, "BU isn't a campus that breeds this behavior." Most students agreed with that statement. The university doesn't actually feel less safe than other universities — it just seems that way thanks to increased media coverage following the high-profile hockey scandals.

The more pressing issue is that the school is ill-equipped to handle sexual violence and — perhaps even more problematically — doesn't seem to care unless it makes the university look bad. For example: Why did the administration only assign an internal task force to investigate the hockey team after a second player was charged with sexual assault? In a campus-wide email addressing the matter, President Robert A. Brown called the players' acts "reprehensible" but failed to use the terms "rape" or even "sexual assault" to describe the charges. He included a Boston Globe quote from the hockey team's coach, who said, "I hope [the charges are a] horrible coincidence. I don't want this to be the culture of our team, and if it is, we'll change it." Unsurprisingly, Brown failed to add that the same coach told the Daily Free Press that charges against one attacker were just "another incident" related to the player's known history of alcohol-related problems.

Students called the internal task force a step in the right direction, but the effort was "too little too late" and counterintuitive. "The task force doesn't address the problems of student culture, just athletic culture," said Michelle Weiser, a BU senior and public relations coordinator for the school's Center for Gender, Sexuality and Activism (BUCGSA). "It makes no sense whatsoever that the investigation is internal," said another female student. "Athletes are a huge investment for the university and it's in [their] best interest to protect them. I don't have faith that they'll be objective. What are they going to do if they find out the situation is even worse than they thought? Scrap the team?"

While the task force carries on — they've promised an update by summer — some students have launched their own investigations into BU's paltry crisis counseling services. In February, Francis called the Student Health Services' after-hours operator number, BU's only late-night support system for victims of sexual crimes, to test its effectiveness and documented the exchange. Things did not go well; the confused male operator who picked up said, "We don't have anything about sexual assault here," and led her through "a useless loop of automated menus that provide no real resources or response to sexual assault." Francis wrote about the exchange on her Facebook page (which she maintains under a different name), concluding that "Boston University has neither an emergency support system for victims of sexual assault nor staff members trained in responding to rape crisis situations." Margaret Ross, director of SHS Behavioral Medicine, told BU Today that the protocol now "explicitly directs the answering service to first inquire as to the safety and well-being of the caller." But SHS, which only has two professional crisis counselors on staff for 30,000+ students, does not anticipate adding any additional services.

Weiser and her BUCGSA cohorts were thrilled when SHS Director David MacBride told BUCGSA that he supports expansion efforts, saying in a meeting (via a BUCGSA press release) that "SHS is not able to do as much as I would like with our current staffing pattern." But when we tried to contact SHS to confirm some basic facts about their counseling services, Colin Riley, BU's Executive Director of Media Relations, told us that MacBride and the counselors were too busy to "discuss our system." He said the center was "very responsive, modern, and appropriately staffed" and that to suggest more counselors were needed would be like debating whether "you needed one or more gardeners." Riley seemed confused when we didn't equate the hockey team assaults with campus culture in general. "Why can't you just let the task force do their work?" he asked repeatedly.

President Brown and Dean Elmore declined to speak with us for this piece, since — according to Riley — "this may not be the right time, given the context of the way the issues are right now." But students say this is the perfect time to confront rape culture. "One positive aspect of all of this is that the student body is really learning about sexual violence," a female undergraduate said. "The problem is that they're learning way quicker than the institution."

Boston University, one of the largest independent, nonprofit universities in the country, has tons of cash to spend — not that we'll find out how they spend it anytime soon. BU is a private school and President Brown is a member of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, which is lobbying against a proposed bill called the Massachusetts Higher Education Transparency Act that would publicize the financial activities of the state's large private colleges and universities. That said, the university offers luxury dorms with skyline views and plasma TVs. A "much needed" $24 million sports field is planned to open in 2013. It's safe to assume that BU could afford to devote more resources to sexual violence. Why haven't they?

One recent graduate who was extremely politically active while at BU and now works for the White House has a theory. As a student, he worked for years to convince the administration that it was wrong to reserve the right to punish victims who reported sexual assaults if, during the course of a report, they acknowledged having violated the university's "zero-tolerance" drug and alcohol policy. Officials finally told him they wouldn't pursue such charges, but they wouldn't promise or publicize witness amnesty in writing in the student handbook. He believes that's because the university doesn't actually want more victims to come forward. "This is the really ugly truth, but I'm convinced that the administration is happy that ambiguity keeps their stats low," he said. "The higher the rates of reported sexual assault, the worse it is for them. It's better that it goes unreported." Weiser, who looks forward to potentially working with the administration to open a crisis center, hopes that's not the case. "I'd really like to think the university has the campus' best interests at heart," she said, "but it's true; no one wants the university to look bad."

Correction: Apparently juniors and seniors, not freshman — as first implied — typically live in the luxury dorms described in this piece. We regret the error.