Sexual Assault and HBCUs: Deepening the Conversation
March 11, 2021
Felecia Commodore, from the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, offers up a response to a recent NPR article about sexual assault and HBCUs.
On September 29, NPR ran a story taking a look at sexual assault on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (“HBCU") campuses, wondering if they are doing enough to address sexual assault on their campuses.
I found it interesting that amid the larger conversation surrounding issues of sexual assault underreporting, and the mishandling of sexual assault cases by campus leadership, HBCUs were the institutional type that received special attention. I also found the subtle tone of perplexity — that HBCUs could have lower instances of sexual assault on their campuses than their Predominantly White Institutions (“PWI") counterparts (as if this could not possibly be the case on a campus densely populated with Black Americans and Black men in particular) — unnerving and tinged with racism. My qualms with the motivation for this piece aside, the subject did bring to the surface some good points for thought and conversation.
There could be an array of reasons for the lower rate of sexual assaults reported on HBCU campuses. These reasons range from campus culture, the culture of Black communities, sociological issues, college resources, and sexual assault education.
Some of these reasons are of a positive nature, and some point to areas of needed improvement. For instance, one known strength of HBCUs is the nurturing, familial, supportive environment. These characteristics are not just exhibited from the faculty, staff, and administration toward the students, but also between students.
HBCUs promote a campus culture where students are made to see each other as brothers and sisters, fostering respect and ethical care among peers. This pervasive culture of support could be a contributing factor to the lower number of assaults. When students see each other as extensions of themselves and fellow members of a community, as opposed to individuals with whom they have no connection, it is understandable that there may be less incentive to cause harm to another member of your community or your family.
However, approximately 40 percent of Black women report coercive contact of a sexual nature by age 18, and for every rape reported by a Black woman, 15 more have occurred that have not been reported. So, in general, it seems that the Black community is less likely to report sexual assault. It is also very possible that the same familial, interconnected community that could sway students to not engage in nonconsensual sexual activity could also create a sense of duty to remain silent in order to protect other members of the community.
The article also pointed out that there are lower rates of alcohol abuse on HBCU campuses than their PWI counterparts, and this might also contribute to the lower reports of sexual assault. Overconsumption of alcohol has been discussed as playing a significant role in campus sexual assaults. While we may not know the reason, rather than scrutinizing the statistics with an assumption that they are inherently flawed, policy makers, higher education leadership, and student affairs practitioners should be exploring potential lessons the larger community can learn from HBCU campuses in this area.
The NPR article asked if there was more that could be done. The answer is undoubtedly yes. There is always more that can be done around sexual assault prevention and education, regardless of institutional type. Consistent communication regarding sexual assault, the various types of sexual assault and rape, and the support systems in place for survivors of sexual assault on campuses, as well as consistent, clear, and strongly enforced campus policies regarding sexual assault, are all approaches that can be employed. Also, campus leadership must ensure resources are allocated not only for sexual assault education and prevention, but also to support and train staff to aid survivors.
Most importantly, an environment must be created where men and women feel they can report when they have been violated without being shunned, ignored, or feeling as if they have committed community betrayal.
For centuries, HBCUs have created communities of support for students. For just as long, these practices, though often successful, have been scrutinized. At a time when we must figure out a way to make all of our campuses safer for students, the higher education community should invite any opportunity to learn how to do so, regardless of the source. Simultaneously, we have a responsibility to make sure every campus, HBCU or otherwise, is doing everything in its ability to not only train great minds, but to produce healthy, whole, exceptional citizens.