Over the past few years, in the United States, the issue of sexual assault on university campuses has become increasingly prominent—the subject of student protests across the country, exposés in the mainstream press, and widely-released documentary films (see here and here). The issue is not simply that such assaults happen, but that universities are failing in their basic duties to protect students and to discipline those who commit assaults. There are many theories as to why universities are reluctant to more aggressively investigate and sanction offenders, but many assert that a root cause is the university administrators’ concern about losing public face and, worse, money. This fear is especially acute among those universities with large, renowned varsity sports teams: College athletes are disproportionately responsible for sexual assaults, but expelling or otherwise sanctioning them would cost the university money and public support.
This phenomenon—university administrators’ worries over the financial and reputational success of athletics programs leading to improper or insufficient responses to sexual assault allegations against athletes—can and should be framed as a form of systemic institutional corruption. I recognize that framing this as a problem of corruption——rather than one of negligence or callousness—is unconventional and perhaps controversial, even for people who are outraged at universities’ inadequate response to sexual assault. After all, using the language of “corruption” implies insidious motives. Yet the label is not only an apt description of the problem, but using that vocabulary, and that diagnosis, suggests alternative approaches for fixing the problem.
Corruption is usually defined as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. And this is exactly the right way to characterize the failure of so many universities to respond appropriately to incidents of sexual assault—at least if we understand the corrupt actor to be the university as an institution, rather than individual university administrators. (Of course, there have certainly been instances where individual university officials have abused their power by refusing to properly investigate sexual assault claims, as well as cases where the administrators themselves have been accused of sexual harassment. Those would also qualify as instances of individual corruption. But the more pervasive problem in this case is institutional corruption.) Universities have abused their powers over students in order to enrich themselves through their athletics programs. Universities neither suffer greatly nor for long when campus sexual assault scandals are revealed, and they do suffer when their athletics programs lose a star player or are otherwise compromised. As such, the administrators have very little incentive to discipline their athletes more harshly, for fear of actually losing alumni support and donations: studies have shown that participation in varsity athletics and the relative success of the teams directly and positively correlate with the frequency and amount of alumni donations.
By framing this issue as one of corruption, where universities are abusing their power—and associated responsibilities—in order to maintain an important source of revenue, the victim advocacy community may be able to conceive of different, more nuanced ways to push for reform. An anticorruption framing of the issue will shift the dialogue from a focus on individual cases, which can be explained away and ultimately forgotten, to one of serious misconduct across the nation’s universities. Framing this issue as a corruption issue can garner two distinct benefits:
- Systematizing the Problem. In the case of sexual assault alone, a disproportionate number of reported assaults involved college athletes and yet universities have the strongest incentives to protect those students: fewer than one-third of students that are found responsible for perpetrating sexual assault on campus are expelled. By systematizing and naming the problem as one of corruption — approaching this issue from a macro-level as opposed to looking at each incident of alleged assault as an isolated incident — victims’ advocates, along with anticorruption communities who might not otherwise pay much attention to the issue of campus assault, can encourage institutions to shift their incentives. This systemic corruption framework makes clearer one causal aspect of the relationship between athlete behavior and university lenience.
- Capitalizing on the Public Commitment to Anticorruption Norms. Systemic corruption is likely a more compelling justification for sanctioning athletes than pointing to individual ethical infractions. There is a general cultural aversion in the United States to corruption, and a celebration of honesty and transparency. Overlooking corruption in universities runs counter to those anticorruption values. Naming something has normative force: even if all the pieces are already there, actually labeling an act or policy has strong persuasive power. Labeling makes clear the moral stakes of an act. One consequence of leveraging the normative force of the corruption label is that this might be more effective in prompting regulatory or regional bodies, like the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to take action against universities who fail to discipline athletes. The NCAA has the power to impose sanctions such as revoking a university’s membership in the athletic conference in which it plays, rescinding wins from a team, or banning players.
Underlying this post is an assumption that people — and lots of them — care about corruption, such that framing the problem of university sexual assault as an institutional corruption issue will drastically alter the landscape for opportunities for productive change. The victims’ advocacy community should capitalize on and channel that kind of anticorruption instinct and use it to make inroads in the fight against campus sexual assault.