SPOTLIGHT: A Response to Chancellor Gallagher’s Statement on Sexual Assault in the University of Pittsburgh

Max Chis

On September 21st, the University of Pittsburgh’s Chancellor Patrick Gallagher released a statement on the Association of American Universities (AAU) National Campus Climate Survey on sexual assault and sexual misconduct. In the statement, Gallagher said, “The data tells a sobering story…[and Pitt] has a serious problem with sexual harassment and violence on our campuses.” Although the Chancellor does not indicate what the data specifically says in his statement, the survey reports unsettling results.

  • By their senior year, 23.6 percent of female undergraduates at Pitt reported experiencing non-consensual penetration or sexual touching by force or incapacitation.
  • Fifty-nine percent of female undergraduates indicated they had been victims of sexual harassment. Thirty-nine percent of male undergraduates said the same, as did 38 percent of female graduate students and 27 percent of male undergraduates.
  • Seventy-nine percent of victims said sexual harassment had occurred in the last academic year. Twenty-five percent of female graduate students indicated the offender was a faculty member.

Alongside the high rates of sexual harassment and violence are dismal numbers about students’ faith in the university to redress or prevent sexual harassment and violence.

  • Less than 57 percent of female students felt it was “very or extremely likely” that their safety would be protected.
  • Only 54 percent felt optimistic that campus officials would conduct a fair investigation. Forty-seven percent thought it was likely that campus officials would take action against the offender.
  • Only 42 percent felt that campus officials would take action to prevent sexual assault on campus in the future.

Meanwhile, student knowledge of available resources is low.

  • Only 26 percent of students consider themselves “very or extremely knowledgeable” about how Pitt defines sexual assault and sexual misconduct.
  • Only 27 percent know where to find help if they or a friend are victims of sexual assault or sexual misconduct.

These results are staggering, but unsurprising. Sexual assault and harassment is a commonly regarded issue on college campuses throughout the United States. Its presence in our educational institutions is nothing less than a disgrace.

Gallagher wrote in his statement that the University of Pittsburgh is already working towards making its campuses safer:

We have worked to educate and prevent sexual misconduct through tailored programming and consistent messaging. We launched a campaign to increase the visibility of the University’s available resources and services. We have significantly expanded the University’s Title IX office and are currently designing a holistic education, prevention, and response program for students, faculty and staff. For example, all new students were required to attend training on alcohol use, sexual assault, and bystander intervention during New and Transfer Student Orientation this fall. In addition, nearly 10,800 faculty and staff have completed a course to provide them with tools needed to recognize and handle sexual misconduct.

These measures are valuable, and should not be understated. And Pitt is following through on them, having just recently hired its first full-time Title IX coordinator. But they are geared towards preventing further incidents of sexual assault, and not addressing the damage that sexual assault has already caused on campus.

Chancellor Gallagher discussed a campaign to increase visibility of the University’s available resources and services, but he neglected to discuss the ways Pitt can improve the quality and quantity of those resources and services themselves. Students already struggle to even schedule appointments with the student health center, while support groups for sexual assault remain underfunded and understaffed.

I spoke with one student about their* experiences with sexual assault services on campus. Their account gave a stark, though anecdotal, insight into how severely unhelpful the University was when it came to coping with sexual assault:

It takes a long time to schedule a triage appointment (it took me nearly a month). … [Staff] were sympathetic on a basic level but they would laugh if they thought a certain mental health issue I had developed seemed ridiculous and could be quite thoughtless.
… I did not feel like I got anything out of it. I saw a regular (and expensive) psychiatrist later, and I was diagnosed with several severe mental illnesses. At Pitt, I got a moderate depression diagnosis. For whatever reason, my psychiatrist seemed quite unwilling to diagnose me with more severe illnesses, although she acknowledged I fit some of the symptoms.

Increased visibility for student health services is insufficient if there are not enough resources to meet the increased visibility, or if the quality of those services is so inadequate. For psychiatric services to fail to recognize the seriousness of a person’s condition, and to act so callously to a survivor, is unacceptable, even if such treatment only occurred once. If Gallagher wishes to fully address sexual harassment and violence on campus, expanding the resources and quality of student health services, particularly the student counseling services, is integral.

Because such basic university services for managing sexual assault are so flawed, it is disheartening that the Chancellor devotes so much attention in his official response to the responsibility of students:

…it will take effort and involvement of every member of the University community to create an educational environment free from sexual misconduct…each of us must take responsibility for our own actions as well as demonstrate care and support for all members of our community by being responsible for each other.

What exactly are students expected to do? And why is it the responsibility of students to do it? Bystander intervention is valuable in preventing sexual assault, but how are students supposed to be prepared and able to intervene? Why must students be constantly on guard against the violation of their or others’ bodies? Why is preventing sexual assault dependent on our own vigilance, and not the creation of a space where sexual assault is not tolerated? The responsibility for preventing sexual assault and harassment, including educating the student body about what to do, lies on the University, not just the students alone. Bystander intervention training is not enough – the University must teach its students a new culture that dispels sexual assault.

The AAU Survey demonstrates that sexual assault remains pervasive on our campus, and the seriousness of the issue demands an equally serious response. The University cannot move forward on this issue by instituting half-hearted policy changes and dodging responsibility.

*This student prefers to remain anonymous
because of the personal nature of the interview,
including their gender.

Max is a senior psychology major. Like most millennials, he has no idea what to do with his life and is terrified of adulthood.

Check out more from this month’s issue here.