Anita Hill, who prompted one of the first national discussions on sexual harassment, is calling on universities like UC Berkeley to do a better job of responding to campus sexual assaults.
On Wednesday night, she said students have a fundamental right to feel safe from sexual violence on college campuses.
"What you can assure them is a fair process,” she said. “That’s what institutions can do."
Hill is now a Brandeis University professor of social policy, law and women’s, gender and sexuality studies.
She became widely known almost 25 years ago when she testified before Congress that Justice Clarence Thomas, then a U.S. Supreme Court nominee, had sexually harassed her.
UC President Janet Napolitano was a member of her legal team during those hearings. She shared the stage with Hill on Wednesday at Wheeler Auditorium on the Cal campus.
Outside the lecture hall, advocates for survivors of sexual assault organized a demonstration with signs made of construction paper taped to the steps of the building.
“What we put on the steps are the testimony of survivors from all over the UC system,” second-year student and organizer Thanh Bercher said. “And there are quotes specifically said by administrators, faculty members and peers.”
Some signs said:
“If you didn’t say no, how was he supposed to know it was wrong?”
“You shouldn’t have drank that much.”
“It’s just a busy time. We can’t help you.”
“Was it your first time drinking?”
“It’s just sex. Get over it.”
Bercher said student organizers decided to put up the signs to try to get the attention of administrators. “Their voices are not being heard.”
Advocates want the administration to involve them in the discussion to create a process for dealing with complaints.
Echoing what the student demonstrators outside were saying, Hill said campuses should figure out a protocol for how to respond when survivors report assaults and how to identify repeat offenders.
“I’ve been doing some of these campus visits, and one of the things that’s really troubling me is the fact that we know that many of the assailants are repeat assailants," she said. "But we do a very poor job, I think, of tracking different complaints about the same individual."
Hill said she learned from her experience in 1991 that the process of how to handle a complaint matters a great deal to the outcome.
“The investigations matter. Informed tribunals matter. The informed process for getting to the truth matters," Hill said. "And it affects outcomes. And I’m saying that in 2015, not because I think we can redo what happened in 1991, but what really concerned me is that we’re still trying to figure out the processes.”
New Role for Universities
Napolitano said the universities are writing a new road map in trying to figure out how best to deal with sex assault.
“Thinking about a role that the academy is now rightly being asked to play, which is to both be the preventer, investigator and sanctioner, where sexual violence and sexual harassment are concerned, some of this is a new role,” Napolitano said.
The UC president said there are practical issues they’re considering now, such as: how to collect data on assaults, how to identify repeat assailants and how to connect survivors with traditional law enforcement agencies when appropriate. Napolitano said non-campus police are better equipped in forensics, evidence-gathering and when it comes to penalties.
“Because, after all, basically the maximum penalty we have is to be expelled,” she said.
Napolitano said UC has taken some steps, such as appointing an independent advocate on every campus, creating a website that tells survivors where to start and looking to do more widespread training.
Napolitano said another goal is: “Making sure that when a survivor comes forward, that a survivor knows what her rights are, and when all is said and done, gets information back about what ultimately happened with her investigation.”
While Hill agreed that process is very important, in the end she said it still comes down to a shift in attitudes.
“It’s more than just the laws being on the books, it’s more than the processes being in place,” she said. “We have to have a society that accepts that these rights count.”
“How we’re going to actually help people to understand that a civil rights violation is an infraction that is something that has consequences and that should be punished and something that not only affects the two people involved but affects entire communities, and affects everybody’s ability to feel safe in a community?” Hill said.
“We’re a long way from it.”