Mandatory 11 p.m. classes, a requirement that students had to live on campus for orientation, and repeated messaging that if you see something, do something. Those were some of the changes my colleagues and I at the University of Texas at Austin implemented last summer in an effort to keep students safe during our summer orientation, well before the recent call by the White House for greater attention to sexual assault on college campuses.
As professors, administrators and, perhaps most importantly, parents, we knew it was essential to run an orientation that put safety first for our newest and most vulnerable students. But the unfortunate reality is that universities have limited means for policing conduct that sometimes occurs away from campus. Even with a clear- eyed recognition of the problem, change sometimes requires creative solutions that seek to identify the places where a university does have control. So changing what we could control is exactly what we did.
As noted in the report released by the White House Council on Women and Girls, many rapes occur at parties that are fueled by alcohol. At UT, these parties frequently happen in off-campus locations, thus limiting our possible responses. Criminologists have long understood that crime is not a simple function of the behaviors and intentions of perpetrators, nor is it simply about choices that victims make. Instead, situations create opportunities for crime, and we had to find a way to cut down on these opportunities. Simply telling 18-year-olds not to go to parties or to be careful when they did was not enough.
In the summer of 2012, we undertook a careful examination of how off-campus activities affect students who attend our summer orientation. We instituted several major changes that we hoped would cut down on opportunities that might endanger our students. We required that students live on campus for orientation. We required students to attend an 11 p.m. meeting each night of orientation, a period that conflicts with the timing of most off-campus parties. What was the motivation for students to attend these late-night classes? Only regular attendance at these night meetings preserved the students’ access to priority registration slots, which was a major reason students attended orientation in the first place.
Orientation had always included a mandatory session on campus safety, but last session we also included repeated messages about the importance of bystander intervention. Using the tag line, “I saw something, I did something,” we created a video with UT students that emphasized the need for all of us to look out for one another. By repeating our bystander intervention message through videos, small-group discussions, speeches and other programs, we hoped to shift the culture, so that students would come to believe that it is their job to look out for one another.
The results were dramatic: more than 99 percent of our orientation students attended those late night meetings, attendance at our other evening events increased significantly, and, most importantly, we cut down on opportunities for risk. Although we do not have hard data on the full effect of these changes, we heard nothing but positive stories from this past summer’s program.
I know that we, as a higher education community, have a long way to go. But with Vice President Joe Biden’s recent remarks on these issues and the guidelines put forth by the White House task force, I have hope that we will see progress.
As the students featured in our bystander intervention video proclaim, “At UT, we take care of each other.” I firmly believe that if all students across the country heard and practiced that message, and other universities adopted the same kinds of changes that we did at UT, we would be on a firm path to eliminating campus rape across the country.
Musick formerly directed summer orientation for all incoming freshmen students at the University of Texas at Austin. He is an associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and a professor of sociology.