Penn State President Eric Barron says he wants to see the university be a leader in how it handles sexual assault.
On Tuesday, Barron announced that he was accepting every one of the 18 recommendations made by the Task Force on Sexual Assault and Harassment in January.
The task force, made up of faculty, staff and students, put forth a slate of suggestions including hiring for key new positions, instituting additional training and overhauling the student conduct process that addresses allegations of abuse.
“I found that every recommendation has merit and that when combined, these actions present a strong and comprehensive response to sexual violence and harassment on our campuses,” Barron said in a statement. “This report sets our expectations at an extremely high level — it’s a level I know we can achieve. It is a well-thought-out road map for moving Penn State into a national leadership position in the struggle to address sexual misconduct.”
In an interview with the Centre Daily Times, he addressed how and why he thinks it will work.
The first step, he said, is the hiring of a full-time Title IX coordinator and the creation of the separate office that will ensure that all campuses have access to the money to follow through on the recommendations.
“Setting up that office is a transformational element of the recommendations,” Barron said. “That’s someone who is going to have this be their entire focus.”
Shifting the student conduct process to a more investigational process, including hiring an investigator, has already been done, attaching former Penn State police detective Spencer Peters to fill that role. The search for the coordinator will begin immediately. Other recommendations will occur in phases, most within a year.
Barron thinks taking those steps will feed into completing many of the additional recommendations, including mandatory education for faculty and staff and a required freshman class on safety and well-being.
“There are a lot of things here that look relatively simple,” he said. However, what he says he wants to do is create a system that is more open and more accessible. “Right now, if we have a report of sexual assault, the community doesn’t know. We have learned from experience around the country that then people believe nothing happens. To report it signals to everyone in the community that there are consequences.”
Over the past year, sexual assault on campuses has been a big issue, from Oregon State to the University of Virginia, with weigh-in from Congress to the White House. Barron thinks the task force’s recommendations, taken together, are a significant way to address it.
“I think there are a couple of different ways to look at it. There are a few campuses out there looking at this investigative model. I think we are going to see more of that. But we are certainly among the leaders. If you put these together, see how comprehensive they are ... the number of these that act as a preventative, you can easily say that Penn State is a leader. Even some of the individual components, we will be leading,” Barron said.
The preventive aspects include the training as well as an attempt to shift the culture to one of shared responsibility. If someone sees an instance of possible abuse or questionable behavior, the task force wants to see people encouraged to share that.
“It becomes people’s duty to report. ... That hasn’t gotten much attention nationally,” he said.
Barron believes that duty, as well as teaching students and employees more about the dangers and realities of sexual assault, can make a real difference without falling into pitfalls of victim shaming and casting blame.
“We aren’t the kind of university to sit back and watch,” he said. “We owe it to our students and we owe it to the institution.”