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'Harvard has a rape problem': How activists get students' attention on sexual assault

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

High school seniors considering applying to Harvard, Brown, the University of Chicago, and other well-known colleges that the Obama administration is investigating for mishandling sexual assault investigations might see ads like this on the universities' Facebook pages:

Harvard ad

The ads are from feminist group UltraViolet, which is pressuring colleges to disclose more information about sexual assault on campus. If you click on them, you're taken to an UltraViolet petitionurging the Princeton Review to rank colleges based on their record on sexual assault.

Here's another one:

Princeton rape ad

An even better way to make an impact would be linking to the specific complaints against each school.

The Title IX complaint against Brown, for example, alleges the college found a student guilty of "violent sexual misconduct," but only suspended him for a year. At Vanderbilt, one student said university counselors didn't help her when she said she was sexually assaulted, even though she was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The way that Hobart and William Smith Colleges mishandled a rape accusation was detailed at length in the New York Times.

These are stories that could give pause to prospective students — not to mention their parents. If enough of them reconsider applying, colleges might take notice: when applications fell 14 percent at Dartmouth University after a year marked by controversies about sexual harassment and fraternity hazing, it was cited as one reason the university's president began a new push to address those issues.

It's possible that ranking colleges based on their sexual assault reputation, though, could do more harm than good. Rankings formulas encourage all kinds of bad behavior at colleges, from lying about SAT scores to spending tuition revenue on a single-minded quest to climb them.

For colleges, the statistics cut both ways: too few sexual assaults reported, and a college might be sweeping them under the rug or encouraging victims to keep quiet. Too many, and the campus looks like a safe haven for rapists. It's a line that the federal government — and everyone else – has to walk as the push for greater transparency on sexual assault continues.

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