US Senators propose bill to address sexual abuse at universities, hold leaders accountable

Sami Sparber

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including Texas Republican John Cornyn, introduced legislation last week holding public universities accountable for sexual abuse committed against students.

The bill, called the Accountability of Leaders in Education to Report Title IX Investigations Act, requires university leaders to certify they have reviewed any reports of sexual abuses perpetrated by employees and confirm they have not interfered with or inappropriately influenced an ongoing investigation.

“University officials must be responsible stewards of students’ trust, especially when they come forward with unthinkable allegations of abuse,” Cornyn said in a press release. “This legislation would ensure reports of sexual misconduct against campus employees have been thoroughly reviewed by university leadership.”

According to a press release, the ALERT Act was proposed in light of the abuses involving Larry Nassar at Michigan State University and Jerry Sandusky at Pennsylvania State University.

“(I)n both the Nassar and Sandusky cases, university leaders failed to take action on or even claimed they were unaware of reports of sexual abuse by university employees,” the press release said.

A study conducted by UT’s Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault last spring found that a number of UT-Austin students have experienced faculty or staff-perpetrated sexual harassment.

According to the report titled Cultivating Learning and Safe Environments, 24 percent of female undergraduate students and 15 percent of male undergraduate students experienced sexist gender harassment by faculty or staff. Unwanted sexual attention harassment by faculty or staff was experienced by four percent of female undergraduate students and two percent of male undergraduate students.

“I think we see right now through the #MeToo movement that sexual misconduct is a pervasive social issue,” said Caitlin Sulley, director of the Sexual Assault Research Portfolio at IDVSA. “From this research, we know that UT is a part of that.”

UT’s current policies regarding sexual misconduct perpetrated by University employees do not mandate that President Gregory Fenves or an equivalent officer review all incidents of sexual misconduct reported to the campus Title IX coordinator or confirm that they have not interfered with investigations of those incidents, said Shilpa Bakre, UT communications strategist.

“Our policies don’t have that exact requirement,” Bakre said in an email. “However, the President is informed of anything significant regarding employees and is the final appeal in student Title IX cases. Thus, he is informed throughout the process in any matter that is contested when it comes to students.”

Because Title IX processes vary from campus to campus, Sulley said she has some operational questions regarding how the reports would be reviewed by university leaders. However, she said the proposed legislation is a step in the right direction.

“Policy is one part of the solution,” Sulley said. “Moreover, evaluating those policies and using evidence (like the CLASE report) to drive policy decision-making is key.”

As dialogues about sexual misconduct perpetrated by those in a position of power become more commonplace, and with research showing UT is no exception, Bakre said the University is supportive of measures which will better protect its students.

“In general, we don’t weigh in on specific legislation,” Bakre said. “However, we of course support all efforts to reduce and eradicate sexual assault on campus.”