Content Warning – This article discusses sexual assault.
Boston University’s long and storied history of egregiously allowing sexual assault perpetrators to run free on campus while ignoring the pleas of sexual assault survivors has been covered extensively. We have published multiple stories on this history over the past five years, and three editorials on the administration’s lack of significant action.
But this year, change was promised. Boston University assigned new training for returning students, freshmen, faculty and staff this semester, as a refresher on what is considered sexual misconduct and discrimination. The University also issued policy updates in line with federal and state regulations and sent messages to the University student body about their commitment to fighting sexual assault on campus.
The policy and training changes were, at least partially, fueled by two changes in the law: In August of 2020, new federal Title IX laws were enacted in colleges that denied students the ability to report someone anonymously. These laws also mandated that survivors be cross-examined in the same way the alleged perpetrators are.
These laws are obviously devastating to survivors, especially those whose perpetrators may be in a position of power. Students reporting faculty members, for instance, would be forced to risk their academic careers and research employment opportunities if they chose to report inappropriate conduct.
Then, in January of 2021, Massachusetts adopted its own version of Title IX. These sets of laws overlap with the federal version and require campus climate surveys, an annual report and extended training for students and faculty. These state laws also state that universities are required to make anonymous reporting procedures accessible to their students, in contrast to federal law.
BU had sexual misconduct training for its community prior to these federal and state rulings. This training began in 2014 for faculty and staff and became optional for students in 2016. They were made mandatory for all of BU in 2018.
Despite these initial training, particularly last semester, students repeatedly called out the University for the long and arduous process of reporting their assaulters. The reporting process was full of paperwork and backlogged, they said.
In May of the same year, Provost Jean Morrison responded to student demands for further action with several promised changes, including increasing SARP’s funding, diversifying the Office of Judicial Affairs staff, creating a committee to address these issues, more support for survivors through the Office of Disability & Access Services and updating the language in the University’s policies — and allowing survivors to appeal cases in non-Title IX cases. Morrison did write in her letter, too, that staff would work to shorten the investigation time frame and “better support students” through it.
This letter does mark a step forward in the fight against sexual assault on campus, but there is still uncertainty around what the committee has done or when these changes will come to fruition. And it is not yet apparent if these changes will be enough to make all the substantial changes needed to make this campus safe.
The most recent mandated training was meant to function as a refresher module on sexual misconduct prevention, but most of the modules were from the perspective of a bystander to sexual assault than a perpetrator or a victim. Shouldn’t BU be more focused on educating perpetrators or potential perpetrators and making the consequences of sexually assaulting someone known as serious and clear?
Moreover, it is easy to skip through the modules. There is no final test to see if any knowledge was absorbed after the training, and the question modules allow takers unlimited attempts, so students can try each possible answer without actually reading the scenarios.
Furthermore, announcements on the recent training updates state that the only consequence for faculty not completing the training is not qualifying for the next merit increase process, which is a yearly review where the administration decides whether faculty will receive a raise.
Moreover, given student reports of prolonged case evaluations, the Title IX office appears to be understaffed for a University this size. Only one staff member is listed on the Title IX website as wholly dedicated to it, while all other employees have additional jobs in different departments.
Many survivors found the Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Center — or SARP — to be incredibly helpful as it provided resources for survivors. But, SARP is not enough: it must be combined with more effective services that provide real justice for every survivor on campus.
In the Summer of 2020, several BU students started Campus Survivors, an organization where survivors can anonymously share their stories on Instagram.
In February of 2021, Campus Survivors organized a protest of more than 600 BU students to demand change from the administration, such as allowing students to report anonymously and a zero-tolerance policy for staff who commit sexual harassment. The University’s first response was to remove the protestor’s chalk messages from the protest demanding BU do better, saying that they were posted in University spaces that weren’t designated for free expression.
Despite the University’s recent changes, BU has a long way to go to make this campus safe and accountable to survivors.
First, BU has made clear legal statements removing themselves from any possible liability if one of their students were to be assaulted. In 2015, a BU student was assaulted in her dorm. She sued the school for negligence, and the University defended itself in a 2020 defense brief with a section labeled “The University Made No Definite Or Certain Promise To Keep Students Safe.”
Second, BU’s refusal to terminate professors who have been accused of sexual harassment, like CFA Professor Eric Ruske, is indicative of its lack of commitment to actually protecting students.
In 2016, Ruske was sued by two former students for sexual harassment. Multiple students reported him for inappropriate behavior, and a petition for his dismissal gained more than 500 signatures 4 years ago. Last May, he sent suggestive messages to a student on a dating app.
Despite these allegations, Ruske continues to hold private lessons with students. BU administration has not commented on his possible dismissal.
Ruske is not the only professor with allegations. Campus Survivors has posted multiple stories about a BU professor in the Biology department sexually harassing his students.
We are tired of having the same conversation every year. We are tired of reading news of new buildings springing up on campus while survivors of sexual assault face a never-ending backlog of paperwork, oftentimes living with the knowledge that their assaulter is sharing their campus.
There is no excuse.
Actions speak louder than empty promises of change — or cartoons and bad acting in a training tutorial.
If Boston University is serious about improving its campus for survivors, it is time it let go of the delusion that the toxicity of this campus can be solved by training.
It’s time they fire Ruske and others like him.