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Who Protects Us: How the Collegiate System Proliferates the University’s Lack of Accountability in Cases of Sexual Assault

Illustration by Elysia Stent

CW: sexual assault

A simple question, posed by a second-year (admittedly underqualified) law student at Corpus, on behalf of us all. Every fortnight this question will be posed toward a different but specific group of individuals, each of whom separately contributes to a survivor’s experience in the weeks, months, and years which follow their assault.

In this first article, I pose the question to our higher education system: our individual decanal bodies, our individual colleges, and also, our university at large. A university whose structural delegation system, discharged through inconsistent collegiate bodies, perpetually fails to hold perpetrators of sexual assault accountable.

This series will explore the ways discrepancies of justice manifest in individual cases as a result of the lack of upheld policy from a centralised body regulating sexual assault accusations.

These injustices stem from a deeply disparate collegiate system and, as a necessary consequence, my experiences will not be representative of everyone. These experiences do, however, reveal significant failures in the university’s wider methods of delegation that turned the process of reporting assault for me—and many of the sources I consulted in the creation of this series—into a labyrinth.

Positive experiences of reporting within colleges are not unheard of, so why can a handful of colleges manage reports with clarity and care, when many fail so miserably? Even if such injustices took place at only one college, or failed only one individual, this non-regulated approach is still worth investigating; worth changing. One victim’s story is enough to raise a riot. But the tragic chorus of voices created by the countless students victimised by similar miscarriages of justice in their colleges should be enough to not only raise a riot, but to create change. 

If the central university insists on upholding an unregulated, college-delegated system that passes a blind eye over justice and accountability, who protects us? 

Tell me, why?

Worry not! This isn’t a poor attempt to relate the traumatic experiences of reporting sexual assault with the 1999 Backstreet Boys classic.

Instead, tell me why colleges have failed to adopt methods that have been part of police and criminal justice approaches for years. As most survivors will know, there is one key method to make the process of reporting sexual assault easier: support. Friends make the process less intimidating, less triggering, less isolating. A ‘student member’ policy—which the university claims to allow in their general disciplinary procedure for non-academic misconduct—allows the victim, and the accused, a support system in a very harrowing procession of meetings. 

All well and good. 

Flash-forward to June 2021, when I was informed that the ‘sensitive nature of the [college] process’ meant I was not allowed a ‘student member’ to support me, even in silence. Tell me, why?

But most importantly, tell me why the individual reported for sexual assault was allowed to be accompanied by a friend for support.

Tell me why an alleged rapist is allowed support, but a survivor is not.

This is the reality at my college, who have reassured me they are in the right as they are ‘not going against university procedure, since [they are] following [their] own procedure’ –their own procedure which favors the accused over the reporter. A procedure which overtly favors an alleged rapist over a survivor.

Why are we, as survivors, not offered the same kindness? 

Why can’t colleges protect us all? (If I were to insert a pun here it would be something along the lines of ‘I want it that way’, but I digress).

But surely colleges have some redeeming grace?

Surely individual colleges have good intentions; perhaps they are simply attempting to protect the privacy of both the accused and the reporter during the process? Once the investigation then draws to a conclusion, it follows that the report outcome would also be kept confidential, outside of the students involved of course.

However, do colleges go too far in protecting this supposed confidentiality? 

In an alleged aim of upholding confidentiality, in my college not even the reporter is allowed to see the outcome of their own investigation. The accused is allowed a full meeting with the decanal committee and a written copy of the report outcome, and yet the reporter is allowed absolutely nothing.

Let me repeat that. An alleged rapist is given a full copy of the college decanal decision, yet the survivor is left grasping for mere scraps.

Maybe I am being too harsh. Maybe we survivors should show some gratitude for a change. As, at least in my case, my college was kind enough to inform me via email that they could only ‘share some details…as a courtesy’ with me, at the conclusion of my report. The rest of the report, however, was deemed ‘personal and private information between the college and [redacted]’. As I was not the one being investigated, I was asked why this information should even concern me.

Yes, I am well aware that the university policy states the reporter is to receive a copy of such a decision letter. But as we already know, individual colleges are quite open with the fact they are not required to follow central university recommendations.

In essence, it does not matter what the university-wide policy states.

It does not matter if this policy is updated regularly, nor if student opinions can contribute, nor if the policy contributors are leading experts in this area.

The reality is this: it does not matter what the university procedure states if individual colleges are free to directly contradict it.

Some colleges do adhere to the university policy, and regularly update their own procedures to match wider provisions. But that is not the point. It should not be up to individual colleges to decide to do the right thing and voluntarily adhere to a centralized procedure. 

The university should protect all of us: regardless of which college we happen to be assigned to. We should not have to rely on our chances in the ‘pool’ to be assigned to a college that will protect us. We should not have to worry that our college will overtly favor alleged rapists over survivors.

Otherwise, who protects us?