The Rise of Compliance Culture: A Dead End for Ending Campus Sexual Violence

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By Susan B. Marine and Z Nicolazzo

Imagine this scenario: Two college students on their first date, engaging in intimate contact.  Chris feels suddenly uncomfortable with the pace of the interaction, and the insistence with which Sam is pushing them toward their limits.  Feeling unsafe, threatened, and increasingly anxious, Chris declares, “Sam, you’re in violation of Title IX right now.  You have to stop.”

Having a hard time imagining that scenario as realistic?  We do, too.  Some higher education professional associations, however, are hoping it resonates.

On March 26, ACPA—College Student Educators International announced its partnership with Compliance U to its membership.  In the promotional video for this partnership, Professor Peter F. Lake announced, “We have entered into an era of compliance.”  Against a backdrop of images from the U.S. Civil Rights movement, ACPA Executive Director Cindi Love agrees, stating, “During this particular era, what we know is that [legal] compliance is the area that is affecting more people in Student Affairs and Higher Education, and potentially students, than virtually anything in our most recent history.”  The implication: Campus sexual violence, responses to it, and its prevention, is mostly an issue of compliance with Title IX.

The suggestion through the video is that by focusing on compliance, higher education administrators can advance liberation and social justice, especially in relation to sexual violence on college campuses.  By knowing, and enforcing, particular mandates issued by the federal government, violence committed by students against other students will be abated, as if the root cause of such violence is in fact a poor understanding of law.  However, the work we have undertaken regarding sexual violence prevention indicates the exact opposite: using compliance frameworks will never get us to the liberatory futures we desire in higher education.  In fact, we agree with Sara Ahmed, who equated to such compliance focused work to “tick box diversity” in her book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.

Recently, we completed a national study exploring how sexual violence prevention educators (SVPEs) conceptualize gender in their work.  As both former community and university-based sexual violence prevention workers, as well as being scholars who focus on trans* equity and justice, we wanted to know how—if at all—the gender binary was being deconstructed through sexual violence work.  In other words, while current research indicates that trans* and gender non-conforming students face incidents of sexual violence at higher rates than cisgender women, we were troubled by the continued focus on sexual violence prevention through an exclusively gender binary framework which consistently foregrounds cisgender women as survivors.

An unintended outcome of our interviews was that participants kept talking about their need to focus on aspects of compliance.  This compliance culture (as we discuss our work)—or what Lake and Love termed the era of compliance—came at the detriment of a more liberatory sexual violence prevention framework.  The increased needs of SVPEs to focus on compliance foreclosed the possibilities of their recognizing and addressing the needs of those who are most vulnerable to sexual violence: trans* and gender non-conforming students, especially trans* women and trans* femme people.  As one participant in our study, Cate, clearly stated, “I view myself as a compliance person.”  Mac, another participant, said, “I quickly learned that being a sexual violence prevention educator on a college campus is having to know and understand … all of those bajillion different legislations at a federal and state level that really mandate a lot of the work.”  Here, it is quite clear that Cate and Mac’s focus was less on gender-based violence prevention and more on tick-box diversity due to the overwhelming press of the current era of compliance.

It is important to note that we don’t fault the SVPEs for adhering to this focus, but rather, the relentlessly marketed promotion of the notion of compliance as the primary focus of the work happening on campuses currently.  In addition to ACPA, other organizations such as The Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA), The Education Law Association, and PaperClipWebinars rely heavily on compliance-focused language in their offerings.  PaperClip, for example, warns of 10 Lawsuits That You May Not Be Aware Of: Protect Your Institution & Mitigate Risk” and “Conducting Trauma-Informed Investigations: Avoid Re-traumatization, Improve Disclosure & Meet Compliance Obligations.”

It seems strange to us to invite an overt focus on compliance through the front door.  To be clear, neither of us think complying with federal, state, and local policies regarding sexual violence is wrong or should not be done.  However, we assert that if compliance becomes the only—or primary—framework through which we understand and address sexual violence, we will never achieve the liberation we seek.  Compliance does nothing to address the harms of the cultural backdrop, often called rape culture, that encourages hostility toward survivors, and that advances a particularly insidious form of masculinity that centers sexual aggression as normative, even desirable.  Compliance does nothing to engage students, faculty, staff and alumni—and our surrounding communities—in the hard work of deconstructing this culture, and building new ones based in personal agency, respect, and consciously chosen, reciprocal intimacy in its place. Moreover, our research indicates that compliance culture serves as a significant barrier to addressing sexual violence prevention through a liberatory, most-vulnerable-first framework that must be our guide.  Indeed, this is the only way to move forward with sexual violence work, as doing so will provide a platform through which we can begin to realize college campuses free of sexual violence.

So how could we do this, then?  How could we actually focus on gender-based equity and justice in sexual violence prevention efforts?  Based on our findings and the troubling trend of compliance-speak, we offer the following ideas.  First, those responsible for combating sexual violence on campus must actively resist the incessantly promoted “product” that says that focusing on compliance with federal law is the way to end sexual violence on campus.  It is temptingly straightforward to engage in “tick box diversity,” and can yield a false sense of mastery over a complex, multi-faceted social problem.  It is messy to unpack the interlocking strands of the abuse of power, the miasma of campus alcohol abuse and hegemonic masculinity that conceals predatory behavior, and the persistent rejection of survivor agency and truth-telling.  It’s perhaps the hardest work we’ll ever do to enact change on our campuses—and it can’t be accomplished, or even remotely affected, by participation in over-priced webinars that tout “best practices” without evidentiary support.  Only by concerted, collective effort at all levels of institutional life to name the causes and conditions that portend sexual violence, and ensuring that students of all genders are included in cultural change work to reduce and eventually eliminate sexual violence, can we meet our most important mandate: The bodily safety and emotional thriving of all of our students.

The truth is, when sexual violence is perpetrated, it isn’t because Chris and Sam are locked in a disagreement about “compliance.”  It’s time we moved our commitment to ending violence beyond this empty notion, as well.

#CampusJustice: Rewriting the Script through Hope

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By Robert J. Razzante

I teach a small group communication course in a university located in the southwestern region of the United States. Each classroom has at least two things: the United States Constitution and a United States flag. In addition, both “patriotic” symbols are located at the front of the classroom. The strategic location of these artifacts works to maintain a patriotic ideology that privileges some students while oppressing others. The university also requires instructors to withdraw our own ideological beliefs before we enter the classroom. Consequentially, the post-Trump election (known as 11/9 by some) has turned our classrooms into a potential hotbed for any post-colonial body.

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Description: Photograph of a hand-held U.S. flag displayed from a bookshelf.

I consider myself an able-bodied, white, European-American, cisgender, heterosexual male. My very body re-presents colonial oppression. My very body may serve as a threat to some body: colored bodies, immigrant bodies, queer bodies, trans-bodies, and disabled bodies. My body is no longer some body. Rather my body has become some body that may threaten through my being. My body may re-present the oppression encoded in the United States Constitution and flag. How do I, in my body, work to create an environment where all bodies are welcome? How do I use my body to rewrite the script when it comes to colonial and neoliberal oppression? How do I encourage students who identify like me to rethink the workings of their own bodies?

Studying critical pedagogy can often take a hit on the soul; this field of study is not for the faint of heart. Cornel West (2008) provokingly noted that an alternative to both optimism and pessimism is hope. Under a Trump presidency, critical pedagogues need to foster their own sense of hope. Hope is what allows us to stay engaged in the tension between teaching in a neoliberal educational system and teaching for our students’ and our own fulfillment. I am hopeful that our students will engage in their own hope-making after they observe the struggles we go through ourselves. Praxis is contagious. When we vocalize the questions above, we encourage our students to do the same.

Robert J. Razzante, a doctoral student at Arizona State University studying critical-intercultural communication, focuses on ways dominant group members work to resist oppressive social systems through their communitive behaviors.

Notes

West, C. (2008). Hope on a tightrope: Words & wisdom. Carlsbad, CA: Smiley Books.

#CampusJustice: Addressing the “Past That Is Not Past”

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By Sharon Stein [*]

They say “don’t normalize Trump,” but what if Trump is what is normal? What if the first step is admitting that? What if, at the end of the blind alley that is America, there is Trump?[1] Trump’s victory is both exceptional – and not. The “and not” matters because it should shape how we respond. So let’s start with this: The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.[2]

And what should our conception of history be if we read back-then and the over-there as constitutive of what happens right-now and the right-here and what is yet to happen?[3]

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Description: Close of photograph of dozens of old, metal chains hanging in a row.

We’d have to rethink our origin stories. American colleges were not innocent or passive beneficiaries of conquest and colonial slavery…. Human slavery was the precondition for the rise of higher education in the Americas…. The fate of the American college had been intertwined from its beginning with the social project of dispossessing Indian people.[4]

Racial violence is the rule; it is the ongoing emergency. White entitlement, white resentment, white accumulation is the rule. We white folk think we are owed “the rule of law” – security, assurances, “a peaceful transfer of power.” We take credit for the good and disavow the rest, as if the law was not the stuff of violence too. What does it mean to describe the transfer of power as “peaceful” if the power that is transferred is the power to make live and let die, to murder, bomb, occupy, poison, incarcerate, displace, drone, deport, extract?[5]

The slogan on the Left, then, universities, not jails,’ marks a choice that may not be possible. In other words, perhaps more universities promote more jails.[6] In that case we must ask the new form of the question – what is wrong with our education?[7] Ask how much of the knowledge that universities produce rationalizes living off of someone else’s loss, and what it means if all the things called “public goods” are also theft. Lands, lives, labor. Entire worlds obliterated, or forced into hiding, to make way for this one.

This sense of society with limitless possibilities for all, largely (though not exclusively) through higher education, is what is usually meant by ‘the American dream.’ The end of the American dream is continually proclaimed, usually by intellectuals who never believed in it to begin with, and wished no one else would.[8]  Yes, it is premature to declare the death of the dream, but it is also past time to hospice it, which is not about “not believing” but becoming disenchanted with its promises, and dismantling the architectures that, in the process of making this world possible, necessarily refuse other worlds – worlds that nonetheless exist, insist, persist. No, not “limitless possibilities for all,” just one possibility, which is really only possible for a few. As for the rest, I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.[9]  What would higher education be without the nation-state, without capitalism, without humanism, without America?

In her book, “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being,” Christina Sharpe writes of trying to articulate a method of encountering a past that is not past, and points to the failure of institutions like museums (or universities) to do this work.[10] Further, even when these institutions try to account for slavery and colonialism, it is falsely presumed that these are past events that are now “over” and done, or at least progressing toward an inevitable end, rather than identifying them as the organizing logics of contemporary existence that continue to produce the present, the everyday. In response, Sharpe asks: How does one, in the words so often used by such institutions, ‘come to terms with (which usually means move past) ongoing and quotidian atrocity?[11] Universities are always trying to move past what is not past. But our efforts to address “#campusjustice in the wake of the 2016 election” will be incomplete if we do not frame our work as part of the effort to address #campusjustice in the wake of slavery and conquest, which have not only made the campus possible in the first place but which the campus also continues to make possible.

With this imperative at the fore, and inspired by Dean Spade, I will end with some questions to keep in mind when we are creating or assessing plans for campus justice: How does the injustice being addressed relate to longer histories of injustice, and how does the vision for resisting it connect to longer histories of resistance? Can we better integrate our efforts to address immediate campus concerns with long-term visions for transformative justice that address sedimented harms? In the proposed plan, whose visions of justice are affirmed and enacted, whose are silenced or tokenized, and whose still haven’t had the chance to be voiced at all? What/whose is the underlying theory of change and how it happens? Whose safety and comfort are prioritized? Whose/what kind of labor is being valued and devalued? What might be the unintended consequences of the proposed vision, including the possible effects of the proposal beyond formal campus boundaries? Are we denaturalizing and dismantling existing hierarchies of knowledge and humanity in curricula and campus practice, or just rearranging them? In our pursuit of justice, how do we account for our own complicity and foreclosures? What else might we build at the same time as we work toward transforming the institutions we have?

Sharon Stein is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia, where she studies the social foundations of higher education.

Notes

* Author’s Note: This composition combines my text with that of many others. For ease of reading, other authors’ words are in italics, and full citations are included in the endnotes. The non-italicized text is my own – insofar as any writing is ever “our own.”

[1] Césaire, A. (2000). Discourse on colonialism (J. Pickham, Trans., p. 37). New York, NY: Monthly Review Press. [LINK]

[2] Benjamin, W. (1940). On the concept of history (para. VIII). [LINK]

[3] Silva, D. F. D. (2016). The racial event or that which happens without time. In R. Cooper, S. Parmar, & D. Willsdon (Eds.), The two-sided lake: Scenarios, storyboards and sets from Liverpool Biennial 2016 (pp. 256-263). Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press.

[4] Wilder, C. S. (2013) Ebony and ivy: Race, slavery, and the troubled history of America’s universities (pp. 114, 150). New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

[5] Foucault, M. (2003). “Society must be defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976 (M. Bertani & A. Fontana, Eds.; D. Maey, Trans.; p. 241). New York, NY: Picador.

[6] Harney, S., & Moten, F. (2013). The undercommons: Fugitive planning & Black study (p. 41). New York, NY: Minor Compositions.  [LINK]

[7] Wynter, S. (1994). “No humans involved”: An open letter to my colleagues. Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century, 1(1), 42-71 (Originally written in 1992; pp. 57, 59).  [LINK]

[8] Trow, M. (2000). From mass higher education to universal access: The American advantage. Minerva, 37(4), 303-328 (p. 312).

[9] X, Malcolm. (1964, April 3). The ballot or the bullet (para. 10). [LINK]

[10] Sharpe, C. (2016). In the wake: On Blackness and being (p. 13). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

[11] Ibid. (p. 20).

Call for Contributions: #CampusJustice in the Wake of the 2016 Election

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praxis-logo-squareCHICAGO, Ill.  |  Nov. 17, 2016 –

The editorial board of the Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs (JCSHESA) acknowledges the anger, disbelief, fear, and sadness that many communities and individuals – ourselves included – have experienced since last week’s presidential election. In an effort to adhere to our mission to publish meaningful, intentional, and actionable scholarship, we release the following call for contributions to our new blog, PRAXIS:

JCSHESA and PRAXIS invite blog submissions that address the current political and social climate on campus and the future of higher education.  We welcome submissions from all individuals regardless of their affiliation with higher education. We are particularly interested in highlighting the voices of groups and communities who are working to transform their campuses into physically and psychologically safe spaces for all individuals.

Submissions will be reviewed and edited by the editorial staff (with authors’ final approval) and will be posted on the PRAXIS blog.  Through these contributions, we seek to demonstrate the agency and power of students in the ongoing battle for social justice on campus and beyond.  Submissions being accepted now and will be reviewed  and published on a rolling basis until February, 2017.

Guidelines for submissions:

  • All submissions must be written in plain, accessible language.
  • Target length should be 300-600 words.
  • We especially encourage submissions from current students, community members, and individuals who belong to traditionally underrepresented or marginalized communities.
  • Include your name, institutional affiliation, and organizational affiliation where appropriate/desired.
  • Contributors are encouraged to be creative and original and to take advantage of the web environment by including multimedia elements and embedding links to related materials.
    • NOTE: Multimedia resources submitted to PRAXIS must be the property of the individual submitting them.  Contributions including multimedia resources should specifically verify, in the submission, that the resources belong to the contributor and specifically authorize JCSHESA and/or PRAXIS to use and distribute them.
  • Contributors are expected to remain active members of the PRAXIS community and contribute/respond to comments for three months after a post is published.

Submissions should be sent as an attachment in Word formate (.doc/.docx) to JCSPraxis@gmail.com.  Please use “PRAXIS Guest Submission” as the subject line.  Further information about the PRAXIS blog may be found at https://jcshesa.wordpress.com

In solidarity,

JCSHESA Editorial Board, 2016-17

Announcing PRAXIS: the Blog of the Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs

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We are proud to announce the launch of PRAXIS: the Blog of the Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs.

The goal of PRAXIS is to support the mission of JCSHESA and provide an arena in which everyone with a stake in higher education — students, faculty, staff, and our partners in the general public — may share information and thoughts about our campuses and communities.  Our mission is to promote PRAXIS: critical reflection and conscientious action directed at transforming our institutions to be more just, equitable, and empowering.

We envision PRAXIS as a community space, where all of us can … contribute our voices on current issues and events on campus … explore the deeper meaning and goals of higher education and student affairs … share practices that enable all students thrive … develop ways in which colleges and universities can engage and transform our broader communities … and much more.

PRAXIS promises to be a joint effort.  We specifically invite all members of our campus (and surrounding) communities to contribute to the blog and engage with our submissions.

Please join us in this PRAXIS!

In solidarity,

Megan Segoshi, Editor in Chief, JCSHESA

Jim Neumeister, Editorial Assistant, PRAXIS