There are certain subjects both men and women traverse with caution and trepidation, and rightfully so. Sexual assault is one such subject. This is a sensitive conversation because it involves a deep injustice, emotional trauma, and often, a loss of innocence. As Hillsdale students, we cannot pretend our campus — though atypically safe and community-oriented — is immune to sexual assault. This is a conversation we must have.
Hillsdale College is a small school with a deeply connected student body, and as such, the rumor mill never stops spinning. Stories are passed from one student to another, and with them, the hurt and anger they tend to produce. It’s easy — and even right — in these moments to demand justice for our wronged peers, to call on the college’s administration to do something.
It is also easy to assume that because the college does not publicly address specific allegations, it is either not doing anything or it is attempting to cover such stories up. Both of these assumptions are wrong and will only hinder the cooperation and mutual trust this subject requires. Silence does not amount to inactivity.
The Deans’ Office is responsible for handling the ramifications of sexual misconduct, and for both legal and moral reasons, it cannot publicly proclaim the names of accused perpetrators or the consequences the allegations against them require. But this necessary discretion often leads to speculation and misunderstanding among students. These are our neighbors, our friends, our sisters — why won’t the college defend them?
Dean of Women Diane Philipp said Hillsdale does fight for its women in ways that are often unbeknownst to the student body. Sexual misconduct of any sort is “treated with the utmost urgency and importance,” she said.
“Safety, justice, and well-being of students are the college’s priority in receiving, investigation, and responding to allegations,” Philipp said.
I spoke to a female student who said she experienced sexual assault on campus, and she told me there’s a misconception of how the Deans’ Office responds to allegations of sexual misconduct. “I don’t see it as a conflict between the deans and the students,” she said. “I never doubted, and I never had any reason to doubt, that they did want to help me. There are legal things that go on that we’re not allowed to know.”
Hillsdale’s distance from Title IX policies can also create confusion. Title IX is a mandated set of legal hoops federally-funded schools must jump through when addressing any matter related to the sexes, including sexual misconduct allegations. Since Hillsdale does not accept federal money, the school is not obligated to check the government’s prescribed boxes. So what, then, is Hillsdale’s policy?
Philipp said the administration goes “to great lengths to ensure the safety and well-being of our students and take claims of sexual misconduct and assault extremely seriously, responding swiftly and with compassion and respect for all parties involved.” Upon receipt of an allegation, Philipp said the deans “initiate an investigation, offer assistance in contacting law enforcement at the student’s discretion, and will implement any initial no-contact orders or interim measures as may be appropriate.” The deans work with external legal counsel when necessary and regularly meet with the “affected students throughout the investigation process.”
The absence of Title IX regulations allows the Deans to focus on connecting with people rather than focusing on a legal checklist. And in many ways, Hillsdale’s independence guarantees consistency: The government is constantly changing Title IX regulations and schools are then expected to conform to these changes, which often throws the whole process into turmoil.
But Hillsdale’s process is not without faults. It’s not well known to students, and its case-by-case approach leaves room for speculation. In the case of the female student I spoke to, she said there was little guidance.
“When it came to practical measures, I felt like I was the one spearheading that. And I was never told what the procedure was or even if there was one,” she told me. Though she said Title IX “would not be good for Hillsdale,” she said there needs to be an accessible, straightforward procedure students are aware of.
“If there aren’t procedures or a rubric of basic steps, no one’s going to know what to do,” she said. “How do you mend the situation in the present and prevent it in the future without that?”
And she’s right. There is more the college can and should do for its female students. Talking about the college’s procedure when it comes to sexual assault allegations is a great place to start. The administration should begin by giving presentations in the campus dormitories on what sexual assault is, what to do if a student experiences sexual assault, and what the college will do for its students.
As a member of one of Hillsdale’s national sororities, I am required to sit through a presentation like this, along with the rest of the women in our house. On these occasions, Director of Health Services Brock Lutz advised us on what to do if sexual misconduct occurs, how to look at alcohol consumption in light of sexual misconduct, and he encouraged us as women, friends, and sisters to look out for each other. All of that might seem obvious and self-explanatory, but it truly cannot be overstated. Self-awareness and caution are some of the only preventative measures women have against sexual assault, and though it is never the victim’s fault, we must bolster our women with the tools we have.
Hillsdale’s administration should also meet with campus leaders to discuss how the school can further improve its policy. Perhaps it’s the stigma associated with the Dean’s Office or the fear of opening up, but students who experience sexual assault are not likely to go to the administration for help. Instead, these students will go to a trusted friend or mentor, as the female student I spoke to did before approaching the deans. Leaders on campus — the head resident assistants, sorority and fraternity presidents, and athletic team captains — have much to contribute and can help build a communicative, beneficial relationship with the administration. As Philipp told me, Hillsdale is absolutely on the students’ side. Sitting down and listening to influential, insightful students is one of the best ways to show that.
With that said, there is much the college is already doing to improve its sexual misconduct policy. This year, for the first time, the administration invited a lawyer specializing in sexual assault to train the dorms’ resident assistants. Philipp also said all resident assistants, house directors, and athletic staff members undergo education and training to ensure they can properly handle sexual misconduct allegations if need be. This is a huge step in the right direction. And further opening that channel of communication will only continue to build trust and ensure accountability.
Now, to the ladies of Hillsdale College: If you have ever experienced sexual misconduct of any kind on campus, I am sorry. It breaks my heart to know a place I love so dearly is associated with so much pain for so many. But do not be afraid to speak up. You have every right to come forward — and you should.
“Students – and women in particular – should know that they are not alone when dealing with issues of this nature,” Philipp said. “The college will do all in its power to help and to support students who have suffered such misconduct. As we often remind students, never fear to ask for help. You will find it.”
And, to the student body: Let us be wary of prematurely drawing conclusions. We should trust that our school officials have our best interests at heart and are fighting for us. The alternative suggests that Hillsdale College undermines its very mission and betrays its values.
This conversation shouldn’t end here. Let’s continue to talk about sexual assault, hold each other accountable, and look out for one another. As the female student told me, “This is a family.”
“In a strange way, I’m thankful this happened to me,” she said. “Because now I get to be a part of this conversation. And at the end of it all, no matter where you’re coming from, student or faculty member, we all want the same thing.”
Kaylee McGhee is a senior studying politics.