In January, trauma researcher and Stanford alum Dr. Jennifer Freyd, a co-author on this article, gave an invited presentation to a meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Palo Alto. The presentation focused on the ways institutions respond to sexual violence and how these responses often do more harm than good — particularly when victims experience betrayal from their institutions.
At the end of the presentation, an older man and Kiwanis Club member approached Dr. Freyd with a question:
“Why does Stanford keep messing up?”
Dr. Freyd hadn’t mentioned Stanford’s response to sexual violence in her presentation. She had provided some examples of times when other universities failed to adequately address sexual harassment and assault, but Stanford was not among them. Still, the audience member wanted to know why Stanford seemed to have trouble dealing with sexual assault on its campus. In this man’s view, why couldn’t this powerful university — presumably equipped with a rich supply of resources — get it right?
The audience member’s question reflects long-held concerns about the way Stanford has handled campus sexual assault. For years, students, advocates and faculty have called attention to the University’s lack of meaningful transparency and action surrounding sexual assault cases. Individuals reporting unwanted sexual contact to Stanford have experienced a frustratingly opaque and confusing investigation process with outcomes that can fall short of meeting victims’ needs. Faced with potentially retraumatizing investigative proceedings, many students choose not to report to the university at all. Findings from the 2015 Stanford Campus Climate Survey revealed only 2.7% of students who had experienced nonconsensual sexual contact reported the assault to the University. A more recent survey conducted by Stanford in 2019 found that fewer than 5% of all students who experienced any kind of gender-based victimization — including intimate partner violence, stalking, and sexual contact — made a report to the Stanford Title IX office.
But Stanford has more than just a reporting problem. Actions (and lack thereof) by the university’s administration have left some questioning Stanford’s priorities. Citing low numbers of students expelled for committing sexual violence, protesters have urged Stanford to remove student perpetrators from campus to better protect victims and prevent further violence. Stanford has been similarly criticized for failing to take disciplinary action against faculty who have committed sexual misconduct. It’s cases like these that have led some members of the Stanford community to believe that the University intentionally shields perpetrators. Sofia Scarlat, a student who was sexually assaulted during her freshman year in 2021, declared in that “Stanford would rather protect the University’s image, the reputation of rapists at the expense of the well-being and survival of victims of sexual assault.”
Adding to a list of “self-inflicted wounds,” Stanford unceremoniously dismissed one of its Title IX lawyers — the sole lawyer who exclusively represented victims — in 2017 after she spoke to The New York Times about Stanford’s “complex” and time-consuming process for investigating sexual assaults. Stanford claimed the lawyer was dropped because she demonstrated a “lack of faith” in the University’s Title IX reporting process, creating the appearance of intolerance of criticism on this issue.
Stanford’s series of damaging missteps surrounding sexual assault constitute what is known by researchers as institutional betrayal. Institutional betrayal happens when institutions engage in wrongdoing — intentionally or not — that puts the safety and wellbeing of their community members at risk. This can look like implementing harmful or unjust policies, failing to protect people from harm within the institution, or responding insufficiently when harm does occur.
Research suggests that institutional betrayal adds an additional layer of harm to campus sexual victimization. Students who experience institutional betrayal from their university following unwanted sexual contact report elevated levels of anxiety, dissociation, and other trauma symptoms compared to their peers who do not experience institutional betrayal. In other words, being subjected to institutional betrayal is associated with even worse psychological outcomes for victims — a painful twist of the knife in the wound left by sexual violence.
At Stanford, some victims appear to be all-too familiar with this betrayal. In her memoir detailing her rape by a Stanford student in 2015, Chanel Miller referenced institutional betrayal and its harms during a discussion of Stanford’s unapologetic response to her victim statement. This case garnered tremendous media attention, giving Stanford the opportunity to reflect upon and ameliorate its way of responding to campus sexual assault — has Stanford improved how it responds since then? In 2022, Sofia Scarlat’s op-ed called out Stanford for engaging in institutional betrayal and shared her “outrage for how this institution has betrayed survivors.” Even many non-victims on the Stanford campus anticipate betrayal from the university in recent years. The 2019 campus climate survey discovered that fewer than 30% of undergraduate women believed campus officials would “conduct a fair investigation” if someone were to report sexual misconduct.
But institutional betrayal can be remedied by engaging in institutional courage. When institutions make a commitment to “accountability, transparency, actively seeking justice, and making reparations where needed,” they reduce the likelihood of harming the people who depend on them.
There are a number of specific actions institutions can take to practice institutional courage, including responding sensitively to victim disclosures, apologizing for harms experienced within the institution, and committing resources to preventative and restorative measures. Institutional courage is not necessarily an easy task — it asks institutions to assume some level of potentially unpleasant exposure, risk, and costs. But the price of not practicing institutional courage is often much higher.
A recent study from our team investigating institutional courage in the workplace suggests it plays a beneficial role, with results indicating that institutional courage was related to higher job satisfaction and organizational commitment. Institutional courage was also found to buffer against negative outcomes associated with institutional betrayal. The conclusion? Institutional courage seemed to be beneficial for both institutions and their members. Preliminary research from our team using a similar methodology with undergraduate students found similar results — that institutional courage can help protect victims and boost institutional trust and engagement in the context of campus sexual violence.
Institutional courage offers Stanford a clear path forward to stop “messing up” its handling of sexual assault cases. It would not be the easiest task for the university to take on — justice typically does not comport with ease and comfort, after all — and this is why the word “courage” is used here — but it is certainly needed at a time when members of the Stanford community experience harm and betrayal. Stanford can do right by victims. It just needs some courage.
“Without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently. You can be kind for a while; you can be generous for a while; you can be just for a while, or merciful for a while, even loving for a while. But it is only with courage that you can be persistently and insistently kind and generous and fair.” – Maya Angelou