Dear Members of the Brown Community,

Brown strives to maintain an environment where all members of the University community are valued and respected, and feel supported in their health, security and well-being. Incidents of sexual assault and gender-based harassment undermine that important sense of security and remain a serious challenge for all colleges and universities. Sexual violence represents a devastating abuse of power, and this abhorrent behavior has no place within our community.

As our campus recognizes Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I ask all students, faculty and staff to commit to the shared responsibility of preventing incidents of sexual assault and gender-based harassment in our community. We know that many forces in our society contribute to the national problem of sexual violence, and we must work together to ensure that Brown remains a community in which harassment, intimate partner violence, stalking and any form of gender-based violence are not tolerated.

Brown has been actively engaged as a community in making progress to prevent and respond to issues of sexual misconduct, including the 2014 recommendations of Brown’s Sexual Assault Task Force. The joint committee of faculty, students, administrators and health professionals issued recommendations in the spring of 2015 that helped spur important progress in confronting these issues.

I am writing to outline this progress:

  • I will share several ongoing actions Brown has taken to prevent and respond to sexual assault and gender-based violence;
  • I will highlight new initiatives in sexual violence prevention; and
  • I will encourage all members of our community to recognize the essential collaboration among all who work, study and live at Brown to make a difference in addressing sexual violence.

This work is particularly important nationwide amid a global pandemic that has intensified the sense of isolation, difficulty in reporting, obstacles accessing medical attention or intervention by authorities after an assault, and the many other challenges that face victims of sexual violence.

Ongoing Actions

Since 2015, the University has been able to measure its progress based on data from Brown’s participation in national assessments. Following the recommendations of the Sexual Assault Task Force, Brown led efforts to organize a cohort of institutions of the Association of American Universities (AAU) in developing and conducting a groundbreaking student survey on sexual assault and misconduct. This effort marked the first time that colleges and universities gathered comparative national data on the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses and student views on sexual misconduct.

Among the findings for Brown in 2015, the data showed that since starting college, 25% of Brown undergraduate women and 6.8% of undergraduate men who participated in the survey experienced some form of sexual violence that ranged from unwanted sexual touching to forced sexual assault. This aligned with national data on the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct on college campuses, and it supported the Brown Task Force’s recommendations.

Over the past six years, guided by the work of the Task Force, Brown has transformed its services to support students, prevention education and response processes, and systems for responding to reports of sexual misconduct. This includes the establishment of the Title IX and Gender Equity Office; utilization of trained investigators; enhancing comprehensive policies and procedures for reporting, investigations, and resolutions of complaints; instituting mandatory sexual violence prevention and awareness training for incoming students and new faculty and staff; and increasing the amount of education and outreach to students, faculty and staff. Most recently, a new staff position will be added to the BWell Health Promotion office to further expand the University’s capacity to collaborate with students to address issues related to sexual violence. The Title IX and Gender Equity Office is working with students to improve websites and other means of communication that direct the community to resources for reporting and support services.

These efforts have been complemented by the work of individual students and student organizations. For example, students in BWell Health Promotion offer innovative and evidence-based educational programs for the Brown community, including the Sexual Assault Peer Education and the Masculinity Peer Education programs in the Division of Campus Life. In addition, the Division of Campus Life will be engaging with the community in the search process for a new associate director of BWell Health Promotion who will work on issues of sexual and gender-based violence.

In recent weeks, Brown students participating in the national End Sexual Violence campaign have also called attention to the issue of sexual violence on college campuses, including Brown. And the Undergraduate Council of Students worked on the Campus of Consent initiative, which involved educating representatives from student organizations about preventing sexual violence.

These programs and initiatives have been successful, but more needs to be done. The AAU survey was designed to be repeated every three years, and the 2019 results demonstrated the importance of focusing on prevention. The follow-up survey showed significant increases in how much Brown students reported knowing about sexual assault, and their stated willingness to intervene to prevent assault from happening. Their knowledge of how to report sexual assault increased, and their trust in the ability of Brown’s Title IX and Gender Equity Office to appropriately address reports of sexual assault also rose. These were welcome gains.

However, the surveys also revealed that, despite all the work that Brown has done, rates of sexual assault did not materially change between the two surveys. Roughly a quarter of undergraduate women reported experiencing non-consensual sexual contact (which can range from unwanted touching to rape) during their time at Brown. Rates for transgender, queer and/or gender nonbinary students were somewhat higher. Other universities that participated in the survey experienced similar results. They serve as a reminder that nonconsensual sexual contact remains a significant challenge across institutions of higher education. While Brown has adopted strong policies and procedures for preventing and responding to sexual assault, this can be only one part of the solution.

New initiatives focused on prevention

We understand that, as a community, Brown’s primary focus should continue to be on preventing sexual assault in the first place. This requires a deep shift in culture that is grounded in the principle of respect for others, regardless of sex, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation. Dating back at least to the 2014 “It’s On Us” initiative of the Obama-Biden White House, college campuses across the country, including Brown, have experienced the importance of calling all community members into the conversation on sexual violence prevention.

Effective culture change cannot be imposed by the administration on students, but instead must come out of collaborative efforts between students and a university’s administration. This fall, Brown was selected to take part in the Culture of Respect Collective’s two-year program dedicated to addressing on-campus sexual violence. Culture of Respect is hosted by the National Association of Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA) and created by researchers in public health and violence prevention, along with legal scholars and student affairs practitioners. This initiative will involve a rigorous review of Brown’s prevention, intervention and accountability systems and the development of a strategic plan to further our efforts and ensure a holistic response around sexual violence prevention.

A Campus Leadership Team led by administrators in BWell Health Promotion and the Title IX office launched this initiative by reaching out to faculty, staff and students involved with intervention and prevention work to assess Brown’s efforts, and the entire community will be asked to provide feedback on forthcoming recommendations. The success of this work will depend on deep community engagement.

I encourage all students, staff and faculty at Brown to commit to maintaining a safe, healthy and supportive community. I invite you to participate in the upcoming work of the Culture of Respect initiative. I also encourage the community to become familiar with the resources that provide support for victims of sexual assault as well the policies and procedures for reporting incidents.

I want to thank the students, faculty and staff who continue to be committed to progress in preventing and responding to issues of gender-based harassment and sexual violence.


Christina H. Paxson