Does Dartmouth Have a Problem?

It feels like it happened months ago, but in fact it was just 13 days ago as of this writing that a group of Dartmouth students burst into the Dimensions show claiming that Dartmouth had a problem. While the protesters touched on issues like shoddy racist graffiti popping up biannually around campus, the most memorable shouts within their protest were claims regarding the College’s sexual assault rate. And so, the Monday after their protest, The Dartmouth Review decided to explore this issue in depth. 

The Dimensions protesters had three concrete claims regarding sexual assault contained within their chant. First, that Dartmouth has had fifteen reported sexual assaults in the past three years. Second, 95% of sexual assaults are not reported, and so the true number of assaults in the last three years is something on the order of 300. Third, they complained that, in the past decade, only three students have been expelled for sexual assault. 

To take on the last bit first, technically speaking, Dartmouth does not “expel” people. In a lovely case of euphemism gone wild, condemned students are “separated” from the College, calling to mind Soviet prisoners who were punished not with execution, but merely being shot in the head. In any case, the protesters were correct that only three students have been “separated” for sexual assault in the past decade. First, in the 2002-03 academic year, two men were separated after being found responsible for repeatedly overriding both physical resistance and verbal non-consent to have sex with a third student. The other case ending in separation involved a student who engaged in repeated “sexual misconduct,” including entering a student’s room while they slept, following explicit denials of consent. This low number of “separations” is consistent with a general unwillingness to “separate” students in Hanover for other crimes. There have been separations for major financial fraud, repeated severe substance abuse, and a handful of other matters, but in most years there are no separations whatsoever at Dartmouth and it remains a punishment applied only in particularly egregious cases. 

Counting only separations is a little misleading, however, as in addition to the three completed proceedings, four students voluntarily withdrew from the College prior to the completion of proceedings. Thus, the number of students leaving the college due to sexual assault claims is more than double what activists have claimed, though still probably lower than what they desire. 

Besides the three separations and the four withdrawals, there were twenty-six other Dartmouth undergraduates who faced college judicial hearings related to sexual misconduct, according to Committee on Standards’ own summary data. Of those twenty-six, eleven cases ended in the acquittal of the accused student due to insufficient evidence. According to COS, most of these cases dealt with disputes over the level of consent to certain acts and whether a reasonable person would have considered a partially inebriated student able to give consent. 

That leaves fifteen cases where students were found responsible for misconduct but punished with something less than expulsion. Three cases ended with only permanent College Probation; unsurprisingly these were somewhat less severe cases. For instance, in one of the cases a pair of students essentially engaged in sexual badgering, repeatedly asking another student for sex despite being told to leave. However, the harassment ended there and did not escalate. 

Twelve students faced suspensions. These cases were severe but still clearly fell in a different category than those cases ending in expulsion. Several cases involve students clearly too intoxicated to give consent, while others involve coerced sexual contact that, in the College’s lingo, fell short of intercourse. Despite occasional assumptions that suspensions amount to a “slap on the wrist” or a “six month vacation,” eight of the cases required suspensions of at least one years, and some required six or eight consecutive leave terms. It’s unclear how many students, if any, decided to transfer rather than serve out their lengthy suspensions. 

While just over three sex offense cases go before COS each year, this total is well below the overall number of sex offenses that are reported at Dartmouth each year. Safety and Security’s crime logs found fifteen sexual assaults between the years 2009 and 2011 (this presumably is the same source RealTalk cited in their protest). The College’s 2012 Clery Report, a summary of campus crime mandated by federal law, shows even more as it incorporates claims brought to entities besides Safety and Security. According to the Clery Report, Dartmouth had fifteen forcible sex offenses (a category combining rape and forcible fondling) in 2011 alone, preceded by twenty-two in 2010 and ten in 2009 for a total of forty-seven reported forcible sex offenses in the past three years. 

If we want to claim that “Dartmouth has a problem,” it’s helpful to compare these statistics with similar colleges. Harvard, with 6,500 undergraduates in Cambridge, had twentysix reported forcible sexual offenses in 2011, very close to Dartmouth’s number when accounting for its larger size. With the rest of the Ivies, however, Dartmouth fared quite poorly. In comparison, Yale had eighteen such offenses in 2011, but that was a significant spike from ten and seven in the previous two years. Brown, on the other hand, had a mere seven reported offenses in 2011, despite having several thousand more students and being located on the relatively mean streets of Providence, Rhode Island. Columbia and Cornell had just four offenses each in 2011 despite being very large. 

So Dartmouth looks pretty bad matched with the other Ivies, then (besides Harvard, that is). Surely, however, we must be better than some other class of schools. How about the sexually repressed kids at those Catholic universities? Nope! Notre Dame had just nineteen offenses from 2009-11 for its eight thousand undergrads, and Georgetown had twenty-one with about the same student count. Franciscan University, a small college of 2,000 in the recently infamous town of Steubenville, Ohio, has had only two reported sex offenses in the past three years! Well, what about the unwashed, unprivileged masses crowding large state schools? UNH’s Clery Report lists forty results in the last 3 years, less than Dartmouth’s forty-seven, and UNH has twice as many undergrads! How about Ohio State, with 42,000 undergrads packed into a school with tons of elite athletes? A scant sixty-one forcible sex offenses over three years, just 50% more assaults with ten times the population. 

On the plus side, Dartmouth did not finish in dead last in my admittedly non-rigorous search. Amherst College had an identical count of fifteen reported forcible sexual offenses in 2011, but Amherst only has 1,800 undergrads. 

Based purely on looking at reports, then, it looks like Dartmouth does indeed have a problem, relative both to other schools and to the population at large as well. If this data can be accepted at face value, Dartmouth is genuinely in need of improvement. However, there’s a major complicating factor that is the source of heav
y doubt and disagreement: Report rates. Rape is frequently said to be a heavily underreported crime, if not the most underreported crime. According to the protesters and many others, 95% of sexual assaults at college are not reported to the authorities. This is a major claim and if true drastically alters our understanding of Dartmouth’s sexual assault rate. The fifteen assaults officially recorded in S&S’s crime logs would balloon to 300. 

The prime piece of evidence for the 95% claim is a report by the Department of Justice released in 2000, entitled “The Sexual Victimization of College Women.” The report draws upon a survey of over 4,000 women who were attending colleges and universities in the year 1996. Said survey was quite exhaustive in just about every way one could hope. It was randomized to take women from universities all across the country, rather than from just one or a handful. The response rate was over 85%, keeping non-response bias to a minimum. The questions were relatively well-designed, leaving as little as possible to interpretation or vagueness. In a deft touch, they even told survey respondents to limit their responses to the beginning of the 1996 school year and later, thus avoiding the effects of memory decay. 

The results of this robust survey were grim. 1.7 percent of college women claimed to have suffered, in the previous school year alone, experiences that the researchers classified as “completed rapes.” Several more were victims of attempted rapes or lesser sexual coercion.  

These stats, if true, would be utterly flabbergasting relative to conventional measurements. 2% of college women being raped every year would translate to a rape rate of 1,000 per 100,000 people. Given that there are 20.3 million college students in the United States, that would come out to 203,000 students being raped every single year. According to the FBI’s National Crime Victimization Survey, on the other hand, America had less than 90,000 sexual assaults, total, in 2011, and even RAINN, an independent anti-sexual assault organization, estimates that only 207,774 rapes or sexual assaults occur each year. Clearly, somebody’s numbers are way off. 

The reason the DOJ report could estimate a rape rate so much higher than conventional totals is linked with the other bombshell of the report, cited by the RealTalk protesters: According to the study, 95% of “completed rape” victims never report the incident to authorities. This is a dramatic claim; by comparison, the FBI estimates that about half of rapes are reported, and even another DOJ study in 2006 upped the report rate to 12%.  

There are other reasons to feel doubtful of the DOJ survey’s numbers. One reason is simply time. The survey itself concerned events in 1996 and 1997, and in the sixteen years since then rape rates have fallen significantly and there has been a great deal of campaigning to encourage the reporting of sexual assault on campus. As a result, the report rate may have risen. That would explain the 2006 study’s increased number. While the increase seems small, it makes a big difference; if Dartmouth’s report rate were 12% then the fifteen assaults reported to S&S from 2009 to 2011 would extrapolate to 125 total assaults instead of 300. Still a tragedy, but fairly different numbers. 

Reading closely into the 2000 study finds other interesting data nuggets regarding the low report rate. Women were given a large array of reasons they could offer for why they chose not to make a report. Many women decided not to make reports for very unfortunate reasons, such as a fear of reprisal or a fear of bothering the police. 

The most commonly stated reason for not reporting, cited by a full 65% of respondents who were listed as victims of “completed rapes,” was that they “did not think it was serious enough to report.” Nearly half also did not consider what had happened to them to be rape, despite the surveyor’s classification. There are several reasons this could be so. Some of it may stem from an unwillingness to identify a boyfriend, family member, or friend as a rapist, or from a belief that rape is committed by strangers. However, it’s also very possible that many of the incidents were indeed not that severe in some way or another, and the survey overreached in classifying certain acts as rape when the average person does not. Also worthy of consideration is the factor of punishment. Rape is a major crime that leads to years in prison and a slot on the sex offender registries, and it is conceivable that some women may have refused to report because, even if they felt wronged, they did not believe the assault warranted destroying the attacker’s life. In other words, the more seriously we treat rape, the higher people may raise their personal threshold for what rape is. This is all speculation, however, and to make any strong assumptions would be hubristic. 

This matter of punishments, though, brings us back to a major complaint of the protesters, the fact that only three students have faced expulsion for sexual assault in recent history. Some, such as the group Dartmouth Change, have advocated mandatory expulsion for all students found guilty of sexual assault. Of course, such mandatory expulsions can be more troubling than they appear at first glance, since college sexual assault hearings are far from the criminal courts that most people associate with rape hearings.  

Legal professionals have a minimal role and nobody would mistake the proceedings for constitutional due process. Perhaps most troubling is the evidence standard. A normal criminal conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In collegiate hearings, even the more rigorous proceedings will require a charge only meet the standard of “clear and convincing evidence,” which is supposed to represent about 75% proof (how one assigns a percent value to evidence has never been particularly clear). However, many activists favor the use of a “preponderance of evidence” standard, where a simple majority of evidence is sufficient to declare guilt. This is the standard Dartmouth already uses.  

The argument has been made that the preponderance standard is necessary because the use of a stricter standard implies that the accuser’s word is not equal to the word of the accused. Relying on preponderance, so it goes, puts the two sides on equal footing. This may be the case, but what it ignores is that the consequences of a COS hearing are far from equal for the two sides.  

We require proof beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal trials because the punishment of citizens by the state is an awesome power that should only be applied in places of relative certainty. Similarly, expulsion from college is a severe, life-altering event with effects comparable to a brief prison stint. If we mix mandatory expulsions with the preponderance standard of evidence, it is inevitable that we will end up expelling more than one innocent student.  

This is part of the reason why sexual assault is often punished with suspensions instead. When the threshold for guilt is lower, punishments must be less severe to compensate. Dartmouth can have a higher conviction rate, or it can have expulsions, but to try having both would be destructive. 

Dartmouth has a sexual assault problem. How severe, it is hard to tell. A solution must be found, but mass expulsions is not it. 

–Blake Neff