Commentary: From crisis to opportunity at Utah State University: A model for schools in the #MeToo Age

We both recognize that the path forward comes through actions that would turn that horrible experience into a moment of reform.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State University Old Main Building, Friday, July 22, 2016.

A crisis provides a chance to reevaluate the status quo and make powerful changes that affect the future, signaling that even during times of challenge there is opportunity. Today, we — a rape survivor and former student, along with a university president — come together out of a resolve to transform crisis into an opportunity to positively change the Utah State University campus community.

In 2015, one of us, Victoria, was raped by a fellow USU student at a fraternity party. Three years later, we both recognize that the path forward — our journey to impactful change — comes through actions that would turn that horrible experience into a moment of reform.

Our journey has not been easy, but it has been meaningful. USU is working hard to revise policies, change processes, and train staff so students are better protected and understand their rights, and employees are better prepared to deal with issues of sexual violence. Many of these changes are the result of Victoria and other survivors coming forward to share their stories and demand that USU lives up to its obligation to make certain that all USU students have equal access to an education and that students whose conduct interferes with these opportunities are held accountable.

Until now, USU’s efforts have been aimed at the general campus community. Today, with the support of Victoria and our Greek community’s leadership, USU is unveiling a series of substantial changes to the organization of the Greek system at USU. These changes will provide greater oversight, accountability, education and support for the Greek community.

In the coming academic year, all Greek organizations will be required to apply for recognition as official student organizations. Although they will remain separate, private entities under their own national organizational structure, in order to be recognized on campus, sororities and fraternities will have to join our student organization system so USU can directly monitor and hold them to the same standards of conduct as other student organizations.

In order to do this, USU is adding a position for a full-time Fraternity and Sorority Life Coordinator whose job will be to routinely monitor Greek organizations to ensure compliance with our policies and the law, to make sure those who feel unsafe or mistreated at those houses have a way to report abuse and violence, and to oversee comprehensive training and education programs for Greek chapter leaders and members on issues related to sexual assault and violence. And because we know that alcohol abuse is linked to sexual violence, the new coordinator will work with Greek chapters to ensure participants act responsibly and comply with the law.

In addition, USU will provide annual trauma-informed training to employees likely to receive reports of sexual assaults. While incoming students are already required to complete sexual assault prevention training, the university will also require all students to complete prevention training. The university will further require all Greek life students to complete prevention training annually. This will help make sure that students involved in Greek life are properly informed and equipped for all aspects of their membership and understand the kind of behavior that is expected of them as USU students and the consequences for not living up to those standards.

We both recognize that the voices of survivors are important in moving forward. Victoria will be working with the university on its efforts to improve its prevention of and response to sexual misconduct. This will include serving on an advisory committee comprised of survivors, experts in the field, and other advocates to provide feedback and expertise to USU.

Nothing can wipe away the pain and trauma that survivors of sexual violence endure and live with every day. But working through that trauma together can lead to reforms that prevent such painful history from repeating itself over and over again. That’s what we hope our partnership, and the changes we’re announcing today, will do. For those of us at USU, these changes are an opportunity to underscore the fact that we take student safety seriously and a recognition that we can do more.

As our country grapples with issues related to sexual violence, we are especially proud that a survivor of sexual violence and a university president have been able to come together and implement important changes that make us all stronger, safer and better at what we do. We hope this model, of turning struggle into opportunity and crisis into change, will serve as a model for other students and schools striving to make their own campuses more welcoming communities for all.

Victoria Hewlett

Victoria Hewlett is a former Utah State University student.

Noelle E. Cockett | President of Utah State University.

Noelle E. Cockett is the president of Utah State University.