"University of Michigan has a rape problem. Find out more before you decide."
"Accepted to University of Michigan? You should know about its rape problem."
Those are the Facebook and mobile ads seen recently by some prospective Michigan students and their parents.
They ran during the critical weeks when students have their acceptance letters and are deciding where to enroll.
“This is information a lot of colleges have been trying to hide.”
“The primary goal of our ad campaign is to make sure that students and parents have the information they need when making college decisions. And this is information a lot of colleges have been trying to hide,” says Karin Rolind, organizing director of UltraViolet, the group responsible for the ads.
According to its website, UltraViolet is “a community … mobilized to fight sexism and expand women’s rights.”
It has run similar ads targeting schools like Harvard, Dartmouth, Florida State University and Brandeis.
“For too long, schools have gotten away with sweeping rape and sexual assault under the rug,” says Rolind.
So UltraViolet is hoping to “pressure college administrations … to take this issue seriously” by making sexual assault the kind of issue that prospective students and parents bring up with a school, the same way they ask about tuition and academics.
“If administrations see it affecting how many students are applying or deciding to go to their school,” says Rolind, “they’ll start to take it seriously, because it will impact their bottom line.”
Is it fair to target the University of Michigan?
“Currently they’re under federal investigation for sexual assault on campus and how they handle that,” says Rolind. “A lot of students will be deciding whether that’s their school for next year. And we hope this ad puts all colleges on notice that if you don’t take this seriously, you’re going to be called out for not handling it.”
But Michigan is just one of 55 schools where the U.S. Department of Education is looking into complaints about sexual assault, and not all of those schools are targeted in UltraViolet’s ad campaign.
What’s more, the investigation is still ongoing, and could potentially find there was no wrongdoing on Michigan’s part.
So is it fair to equate an ongoing investigation with a "rape problem?" Rolind says it is.
“You know, 1 in 5 women will be assaulted before they graduate college. Every college has a rape problem. And so, Michigan has a rape problem in particular, because students must have filed complaints in order for there to be an investigation."
"And in one particular case, it took years for the university years to respond to a rape case,” she says, referring to the 2013 expulsion of Brendan Gibbons, who was accused of raping a female student in 2009 (the student later decided not to pursue charges, according to police).
Could the ads actually end up hurting victims?
According to Rolind, UltraViolet wants prospective students and parents to ask college administrations “questions like, how common is sexual assault on campus? And how does the administration handle it when it comes up?”
The number of sexual misconduct reports made by Michigan students has surged recently, a fact that administrators say is actually encouraging.
“Our numbers have gone up, and we think that’s a good thing,” says university spokesman Rick Fitzgerald.
“We see that as an indication that students have confidence in our process, and that’s the first step to
addressing this issue.”
But what if a school doesn’t feel that way?
What if a school wants to shield itself from negative publicity by artificially lowering its number of sexual assault complaints, perhaps even by discouraging victims from coming forward?
Karin Rolind says she’s not worried about UltraViolet’s ad campaign backfiring like that.
“I think that the problem up to this point has been a problem of lack of information and a lack of sunlight on this issue. And more accountability in the public and to the Department of Education and other legal mechanisms is what’s needed, not less. As a result, schools will be pressured to address this issue in a real way, and not just from a PR perspective,” Rolind said.
U of M's Fitzgerald says he isn’t worried about schools trying to duck bad PR by pressuring victims to keep quiet.
“I guess I don't know that that would be the case. I also think that most colleges and universities will do the right thing, follow the guidelines. And I think it's clear to all of us that it’s important to have policies and procedures (about handling sexual assault). And I think that's where higher education is headed.”
Michigan responds to the ad campaign
Fitzgerald says Michigan has been lauded for its progressive sexual assault policies.
“The University of Michigan has been considered a leader in this. (Our administrator) has been to D.C. multiple times to provide guidance to the White House about their national (sexual assault) guidelines,” most of which were already in place in Michigan.
“We feel very good about where the university is on the issue. But we’re not saying at all that we’ve got this totally handled,” says Fitzgerald.
Sexual assault continues to be a problem at “colleges across the nation,” he adds. “We’re working very aggressively to address this issue with our students.”
Asked whether the “rape problem” ads had any negative effect on the school, Fitzgerald says he doesn’t believe so. “We’re still in the process of sorting out our fall (2014 freshman) class, but the school saw a record number of applications this year.”
As far as he’s aware, no prospective student or parent has brought up the UltraViolet “rape problem” ads with the administration.