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MIT president makes confronting campus sexual assault a 'central priority'

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  February 7, 2014 12:45 PM

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MIT President L. Rafael Reif announced Friday he has asked the institute’s newly appointed chancellor to make confronting campus sexual assault a “central priority” in response to an anonymous alumna who wrote in the school’s student newspaper last week that she was raped while at MIT.

He asked Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart to deliver a report back to him by the end of the semester to outline what more the institute needs to do to tackle the problem.

“The community deserves a rigorous assessment of the nature and extent of the problem of sexual assault at MIT,” Reif wrote in a letter to the campus community.

“We all need to be aware of what MIT is doing as an institution to try to prevent sexual assault, to respond with understanding and fairness, and to provide survivors with the help they need,” he continued. “And we need to decide where we should do more.”

The anonymous alumna’s column in The Tech described how she was raped by an older, higher-ranked colleague in her research group nearly three years ago, when she was a junior at the Cambridge campus.

The woman wrote that due to a mix of fear, confusion and depression, she did not formally report the incident for more than a year and a half. When she did report, campus and local police and officials from an MIT sexual assault response program were supportive. But, she wrote that a prosecutor she met with was “unsupportive” and downplayed what happened.

In response to the column, the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office issued a statement to this week acknowledging it investigated the alleged assault and defended its handling of the case and its decision not to file charges.

MIT officials had declined to comment, citing student privacy rules, until Reif’s letter Friday.

“The suffering she describes breaks my heart,” Reif wrote. “And — as we know from years of campus reporting about sexual assault and from the comments posted on her letter — she is not alone.”

“That such betrayals occur in our community makes me profoundly sad and angry,” he continued. “Nothing could be further from our ideal of a community founded on respect, decency, sympathy and kindness.”

“I admire her bravery in breaking the silence for all rape survivors in our community,” added Reif. “Just as important, she has brought this topic to the center of our public conversation.”

He wrote that the school over the last several years has done important work to raise awareness of sexual assault and harassment and to improve the support and assistance the campus offers to survivors.

“I am proud of and grateful for their work, and I believe we should use this moment to improve and expand our community efforts further still,” said Reif.

“Every one of us in the MIT community — faculty, post-docs, graduate students, undergraduates, alumni and staff — can contribute to the solution,” he wrote. “We need to care for each other, and listen to each other with compassion and respect. We need to intervene when we see a friend, student or colleague in a vulnerable situation, or when we sense an abuse of trust and power.”

“We should all take the time to understand what constitutes sexual misconduct,” Reif continued. “We must make sure that those who suffer sexual assault know that they have the full support of this community — and we need to create a culture and environment that minimize the instances of such assaults in the first place.”

“Most important, we must all treat sexual assault as a fundamental violation of our values that will not be ‘normalized,’ glossed over or tolerated at MIT,” he concluded. “Please join me in rising to this challenge for our community.”

The Globe on Monday reported that reports of sexual assaults at Boston-area colleges have risen over the past five years.

Campus safety experts say the rise in the reports suggests that many colleges – pushed by government agencies, victims, and new federal guidelines – are improving efforts to address the problem by expanding education and outreach and by more thoroughly reporting the widely underreported crime.

Still, even with the recent spike in reported assaults, the rates schools are reporting come nowhere close to figures in a 2007 Department of Justice-funded study which estimated that about 5.2 percent of college women are sexually assaulted each year.

Advocates say many schools need to do more.

Obama last month highlighted the epidemic of campus sexual assault and ordered a federal task force to target the problem. And, the Globe reported, that more than three dozen members of Congress wrote last week to the federal office in charge of enforcing the Clery Act, calling on it to do a better job of collecting data on campus sexual assaults.

Matt Rocheleau can be reached at Looking for more coverage of area colleges and universities? Go to our Your Campus pages.

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