UT System to fund campus safety through bystander initiative

Matthew Adams

The UT System will fund $1.4 million to its Bystander Intervention Initiative over the next three years, the System announced last week.

The program will address problems such as hazing, academic integrity, high-risk drinking and sexual assault at the eight academic system institutions in the UT System, said Chris Brownson, System-wide Bystander Intervention Initiative project leader. The System will allocate funds based on student enrollment, Brownson said, and UT-Austin will receive the most funding because it is the largest campus. Brownson said he does not currently know the exact costs of the program.

The System will use UT-Austin’s bystander intervention program, BeVocal, as a model, according to Brownson. BeVocal is a university-wide initiative which gives bystanders instruction on how to intervene, prevent and reduce harm for students, according to the program.

“The Board of Regents and the chancellor was really keen on the bystander intervention approach to reducing these incidences of harm on campus,” Brownson said. “They funded the $1.4 million over three years to take what we have been doing with BeVocal and work with the campuses to develop their own bystander intervention program.”

Wanda Mercer, UT System’s associate vice chancellor for student affairs, said each campus will implement three fundamental bystander initiative steps with the funds.

“There are three steps the campus have agreed to adopt and [originally] adopted in Austin,” Mercer said. “All the campuses are using the three steps of recognizing the harm, choosing to respond and taking action.”

While BeVocal is a model for system campuses, the initiative will fund customized bystander initiatives tailored to each individual campus, because student needs vary across different campuses, Brownson said.

Brownson said each campus will contribute to the overall development of the initiative within the whole UT System.

“One of the things we wrote into this allocation is that each campus is required every year to create a shareable project,” Brownson said. “So over the three years, we are going to have 24 great ideas that we can use across the System and get schools collaborating.”

Co-chair of BeVocal Erin Burrows said, before the program launched in April 2014, program leaders studied what other institutions were doing and applied that to UT.

“We landed on developing a homegrown initiative to look at a multi-issue, campus-wide version of bystander intervention,” Burrows said. “We really honed in on some of the original social science that ground other bystander intervention programs.”

Burrows said they used this information to create a definition of bystander intervention that was best for UT, while fusing this concept with other programs and department centers on campus. Co-chair of BeVocal Marilyn Russell said orientation staff members in particular have spoken about BeVocal to incoming freshmen and transfer students.

Going forward, Mercer said the initiative can train students to prevent harm on campus.

“It is all about changing the culture of the campus toward responsibility for each other,” Mercer said. “[For] suicide attempts, research shows that a student is much more likely to talk to a colleague, a friend, [or] a student as opposed to taking it to a counselor. If we are astute and learn to recognize something that is going on, I think we can prevent harm in some way.”