II. Learning and Success

Institutionalizing Courage to Create a Safe Community

Dr. Jennifer Joy Freyd and Dr. Kathryn Becker-Blease

Institutions of higher education thrive when they meet the needs of their members. Yet when members of the university community speak up about harm they have experienced, institutions too often act in ways designed to protect the reputation and comfort of the institution and—worse—abusers within the institution, at the cost of those who have been harmed. This institutional betrayal is especially likely when administrators, staff, faculty, alums, trustees, and students care highly about a highly regarded university. As we have seen time and again, institutional betrayal does not protect the institution in the long run. Instead, the damage to institutions and their leaders when the truth about years-long abuse emerges continues to appear in the press. The antidote to institutional betrayal is institutional courage. Good leaders must personally care and be sure survivors feel they are cared for. Great leaders go beyond that; they institutionalize courage through specific, tangible actions. They create a culture through enduring practices, policies, models, and language that give members of the community the power to respond in ways that meet the courage of abuse survivors and whistle-blowers with the institutional courage to act. In this essay, we describe eleven key actions to promote institutional courage, with key examples of how higher education leaders have empowered their institutions to act with integrity and courage to protect their most vulnerable members for the long-term good of the institution.

Every university hopes to offer a safe, equitable, respectful community for students to learn and live in. University leaders must take action to prevent sexual harassment and violence, and they must do so in a way that addresses safety, equity, and respect. Sexual harassment and violence are persistent threats to student (and employee) safety. In the 1960s, universities required curfews, dress codes, and parental permission to visit boyfriends’ homes to keep women safe in college (Allchin 2012). In 1990, several years after first-year student Jeanne Clery was sexually assaulted and murdered in her campus residence, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act was passed. But warning students and disclosing crime statistics were insufficient to stop sexual violence on college campuses. In fact, Clery warnings can themselves spread the belief that sexual assault is normal, focus attention on rare forms of sexual violence, and put the responsibility on potential victims to stop sexual violence (Adams-Clark et al. 2020).

Thanks to the efforts of college students including Annie E. Clark and Andrea Pino and an important Department of Education Dear Colleague letter in the early 2010s, it became clear that in fact gender-based harassment and violence created an inequitable learning environment (Steinhauer 2014). Not only must college leaders create a safe environment, but they must also create an equitable place to live and learn. To do that, universities could not just restrict what women wore or where they went, either through express prohibitions or gender-based behavioral norms. Later, it became clear that Title IX protects students on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, classes of vulnerable students that receive too little attention (“US Department of Education Confirms Title IX Protects Students from Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity |US Department of Education,” n.d.). They needed to actively prevent and stop some students and employees from harassing and assaulting other university community members.

Today, the question of how to create safe, equitable, and respectful communities continues. The challenge is to respect the rights to privacy and autonomy that all members of the university community enjoy while preventing and stopping sexual harassment and violence. By tuning a moral compass with each of these values in mind, university leaders can balance these key values, act with courage, and create institutions that become truly safe in the short and long run.

Eleven Steps to Promote Institutional Courage

Years ago, it was possible for the issues of sexual harassment and violence to slip out of the awareness of university presidents. Now, high-profile cases of sexual harassment and violence, and equally bad institutional responses, keep these issues on the minds of university leaders (Denny 2021; Salk 2023; Steinhauer 2014; Moody 2023). These cases continue to come to light because awareness is not sufficient to drive the action needed to make campuses safe. Leaders must be bold and brave enough to take specific actions that allow members of the university community to themselves take action to create a safe, equitable, respectful community together (Palumbo-Liu, n.d.; DePrince 2022).

Why do some institutions betray and further harm its members while others act in ways that benefit both those who have been harmed and the institution itself? How does that happen? How do leaders of institutions of higher education lead institutions toward action necessary for short- and long-term safety? And how do leaders institutionalize courage so that institutions are safer after a particular leader has left? Researching and educating others about the answers to these questions is the mission of the Center for Institutional Courage, which offers Eleven Steps to Promote Institutional Courage (Freyd 2018; 2022) that apply to any institution. Following this list, we describe actionable policies, practices, tools, and educational materials actions that institutional leaders can take to go beyond individual actions to institutionalize courage in universities. These steps are based on the basic, applied, and community-engaged scholarship that our institutions are known for. The eleven steps are:

  1. Comply with civil rights laws and go beyond mere compliance; beware risk management
  2. Educate the institutional community (especially leadership)
  3. Add checks and balances to power structure and diffuse highly dependent relationships
  4. Respond well to victim disclosures (and create a trauma-informed reporting policy)
  5. Bear witness, be accountable, apologize
  6. Cherish the whistle-blowers; cherish the truth-tellers
  7. Conduct scientifically sound anonymous surveys
  8. Regularly engage in self-study
  9. Be transparent about data and policy
  10. Use the organization to address the societal problem
  11. Commit ongoing resources to 1–10

The Power of Cherishing Truth-tellers

In 1998, Brenda Tracy was raped by four men, including Oregon State University athletes. Tracy reported the assault to the police and provided evidence, and the men were charged, but with insufficient support to cope with the trauma, Tracy ultimately decided not to assist with the case, and the district attorney dropped the charges. Sixteen years later, Tracy called the university to find out what happened with her case. In response, Oregon State University investigated, quickly and thoroughly, and later hired Tracy to work on sexual assault prevention on campus. Tracy’s story was shared powerfully in the Oregonian newspaper at the time (Canzano 2014). Having others hear and respond effectively was important and helped Tracy heal personally.

As important as it is to respond to individual survivors with compassion and tangible assistance, President Edward J. Ray took another action that helped cement institutional values of safety, equity, and respect. In an email on his office’s letterhead, President Ed Ray wrote to the entire OSU community to say:

From the Office of the President, Edward J. Ray, Oregon State University

I am sure that many of you have read the article just published on OregonLive and being published in three segments this week in The Oregonian regarding the horrific assault suffered by Brenda Tracy in 1998 at the hands of several men. But also I learned the details regarding this assault on Friday. Apparently, statements were taken from Ms. Tracy and the suspects, two of whom were on the Oregon State University football team at the time.

We are told that law enforcement officials in 1998 were not able to bring criminal charges because Ms. Tracy did not wish to participate in a prosecution.

OSU cannot control the criminal justice system, but I have asked university staff to obtain the police reports for the case and to determine if there are any actions we can take now under OSU’s code of student conduct. There may be no formal course of action available to us but we must try. While legal minds could no doubt explain how it makes sense to have a statute of limitations for sexual assault crimes, I find that appalling. Hopefully, justice delayed is not justice entirely denied in this case. We are currently trying to get the facts regarding OSU’s handling of this matter in 1998, including what efforts were made then to reach out to Ms. Tracy to help her deal with the terrible physical and emotional harm she suffered. If a case of this nature was reported to the university today, OSU’s Office of Equity and Inclusion would work to stop the sexual misconduct, assist the survivor and prevent a recurrence.

Ms. Tracy’s journey has been simultaneously heart-breaking and inspiring because of her own capacity to reclaim her sense of self-worth and pursue her education so that she can help others through her work as a nurse.

 There is no statute of limitations on compassion or basic human decency. I understand that Mike Riley, who was our football coach at the time, has offered to meet with Ms. Tracy and would like to have her speak with the football team if she wishes to do so. The immediate response from us to Ms. Tracy is to ask how we can help her address the effects of this violence. It is our hope that any role she is willing and interested in pursuing to help educate our community on the horrors of sexual assault by sharing her story could bring some healing.

This would be of great interest to us, but only if it is helpful to Ms. Tracy in continuing to deal with all that she has suffered.

We cannot undo this nightmare. I personally apologize to Ms. Tracy for any failure on our part in 1998 in not helping her through this terrible ordeal. This is a moment from which each of us can learn. But it is mostly a moment for us to help Ms. Tracy heal.

 Edward J. Ray President

It was, to the best of our knowledge, the first time a university president has apologized to a survivor of sexual assault on behalf of the institution. The email went beyond mere compliance by calling for a moral response regardless of problematic laws. Tracy went to work for OSU providing education across campus and at academic conferences (Becker-Blease and Tracy 2017).

Tracy’s story is a powerful example of a growing body of evidence that survivors’ well-being is determined not just by what happened but by what happened next. In fact, new research shows that among workers who experience sexual harassment, just over half reported institutional betrayal in response, and those responses were associated with decreased job satisfaction, decreased commitment to the organization, and worse physical health symptoms (Smidt et al. 2023). But it is possible to experience both institutional betrayal and institutional courage, or just betrayal, just courage, or neither. In this sample, just over three-quarters experienced institutional courage. Encouragingly, for those who had experienced sexual harassment and institutional betrayal, also experiencing institutional courage helped to moderate the adverse effects of institutional betrayal.

Positive effects accrue to both survivors and institutions when these stories are told. In a study of best practices in sharing clergy abuse survivors’ stories, when participants read or listened to survivors telling their stories, participants reported that more connection to the institution increased church attendance, belief, or prayer practices, and less self-reported institutional betrayal. The author concludes, “The way forward might be to embrace difficult stories. One can imagine how survivors’ stories when done well, with safety always in mind, could be integrated into the fabric of high school and university/college courses or teaching, university-wide” (McGlone, n.d., 28).

We need more leaders like President Tania Tetlow, president of Fordham University, which sponsored the multiyear effort to self-reflect on the causes and consequences of clergy sexual abuse that produced a report that included the study on the benefits of hearing survivors’ stories. In it, Dr. Tetlow names the harm that denial does, on top of the harm of abuse, and she calls for change: “We have a deep-seated desire to reject unimaginable horror, especially when people we have once trusted are accused. But the result is the failure to protect our children. Now is not the time to turn away. . . . We have a moral obligation to pay attention” (Tetlow 2023). This kind of deep, ongoing self-reflection is another key to institutionalizing courage in higher education.

Necessary Checks and Balances

To encourage institutions to become safer, a balance of power is needed. Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky’s decades-long sexual abuse of children while affiliated with the football team was horrific. What came after was at least as bad. The institution further betrayed victims by not doing more to ensure that the institution could prevent, detect, and respond to child abuse. Alongside individual action or inaction, the institution was set up to be blind to this betrayal, allowing abuse to continue. Ed Ray, chair of the NCAA executive committee, made it clear the NCAA took quick action not against individuals, for which the individual culpability was still under investigation, but “with respect to a university that lacked institutional commitment to integrity and the other values of the NCAA” (Rittenberg 2012). He warned, “Every major college and university in Division I certainly, if not elsewhere, ought to do a gut check and ask: Do we have the balance right between the culture of athletics and the broader culture and values of our institution?” (Rittenberg 2012). By embedding this work within the compliance oversight role held by the NCAA, these actions put teeth to a necessary checks and balance system to hold institutions, not just individuals, accountable.

It seems hard to argue against institutional control to prevent child abuse. Yet NCAA President Mark Emmert and Executive Committee Chair Ed Ray were named in a lawsuit, denying the truth of the abuse that happened, attacking NCAA leaders personally, and arguing that the real victims were, in fact members of the Penn State community, as described in the local news:

Hundreds of former Penn State football players are offering their support for a lawsuit targeting the NCAA, Mark Emmert and Ed Ray for handing down harsh and unfounded sanctions against Penn State following the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.

To date, over 325 former players from over six decades have joined together to defend the history and future of the Penn State Football program. . . .

“Joe Paterno and the entire Penn State football program have been used as scapegoats in this horrible tragedy,” said Brian Masella. “When the NCAA neglected to conduct their own investigation, and used the flawed Freeh Report as the judge and jury, they further prevented an opportunity to get to the real truth, and in turn, punished a generation of Penn State players, students, and supporters who had nothing whatsoever to do with Jerry Sandusky.” (P. Smith 2013)

Acting courageously is not without risk, and one risk is this specific type of attack. Research in Freyd’s lab reveals a common pattern: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender (DARVO) (J. J. Freyd 2023). Both high profile and everyday victims of sexual harassment and assault experience DARVO. The legitimate fear of this response deters victims’ ability to report. Institutional leaders with power to withstand these attacks can and should watch out for DARVO, name it, and call it out when they see it. Doing so can partially neutralize its ability to silence current and future victims and embolden perpetrators to harm others (Harsey and Freyd 2020). When communications teams are aware of DARVO, they can craft messaging that limits the opportunity for DARVO, and respond effectively when it happens, a particularly powerful way to institutionalize courage and use the organization to stop the spread of misinformation and harm in the greater society.

When it becomes clear that institutions are vulnerable to those who would harm its members, it is necessary to commit the resources necessary to implement changes that strengthen its ability to prevent future abuse. One example is a dedicated staff member who develops policy and works with every unit on campus, from music lessons to athletic recruitment to summer camps, to ensure that children’s interactions with the university are as safe as they can be. At Oregon State University, this role makes it much easier for the many people involved in outreach to youth to take evidence-based steps to keep children safe by providing consistent training and oversight across campus.

Scientifically Valid Climate Surveys to Drive Self-Reflection

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, universities’ public health experts have been vital to informing university, state, and national leaders on prevention, testing, treatment, and outreach to vulnerable populations. Likewise, university leaders have readily available experts in survey research to inform responses to endemic sexual, gender-based, and interpersonal violence. Just as we depend on scientifically sound evidence regarding covid, universities depend on data on prevalence and incidence of violence and beliefs, behaviors, and perceptions of violence. By emphasizing how the values of “generating knowledge, cultivating learning among students, and using knowledge to improve student learning . . . align with the importance of climate surveys” (White House Task Force and to Protect Students from Sexual Assault 2014), university leaders increase the likelihood of generating meaningful and actionable data.

In 2014–2015, leading violence researchers and student affairs professionals convened as the Administrator Researcher Campus Climate Collaborative (ARC3) to create a free, scientifically valid survey in use across the US universities. Nearly a decade later, the survey, along with technical documents to aid the administration and interpretation of the results, remains a free resource to universities at https://campusclimate.gsu.edu/. One way university leaders can embed values of open, valid, community-engaged science is to leverage the existing intellectual capacity to conduct these surveys (“A Supergroup of Academics Is Trying to Stop People Who Profit from Campus Rape” 2015), and create policies to ensure transparent data dissemination.

Recently, a group of graduate students and recent graduates in fields including psychology, public health, computer science, and communication created a new way of co-researching sexual violence by collecting continuous data in a truly trauma-informed way that helps survivors heal and prevents future violence. Their project, called Map Your Voice, is found at https://www.mapyourvoice.org/. Universities are well-positioned to financially support these innovative efforts as the infrastructure and expertise are in place, the project provides data that creates safer communities and greater transparency that reduce costs in the long run, and it meets institutional goals by offering students opportunities to do experiential learning to solve real world problems and to recover from sexual trauma while they remain in school.

Academia’s Unique Strengths to Guide Wise Decisions

Another inspiring model of institutional courageous practice in academia comes from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Harassment in Higher Education. That Action Collaborative convenes academic and research leaders to work together to “move beyond basic legal compliance to evidence-based policies and practices for addressing and preventing all forms of sexual harassment and promoting a campus climate of civility and respect” (“Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Harassment in Higher Education | National Academies” n.d.). It hosts a well-organized repository of brief reports on innovations by its members throughout higher education, and commissions papers and convenes meetings focused on actionable ideas and their effective implementation (Soicher and Becker-Blease 2020). The skillful coordination of stakeholders across and within institutions is a strong example of the kind of structures that university leaders could implement locally or regionally to sustain self-reflection with a focus on action embedded within academic culture.

Trauma-Informed Mandated Support Policies

Most institutions of higher education mandate that nearly all faculty and other employees must turn over information about students when they disclose sexual harassment and violence. But mandated reporting actually chills the reporting of the very information institutions seek. Trauma fundamentally involves a loss of control. When institutions take away agency, they replicate the same dynamics as abuse, which only further harms survivors and deters others from reporting.

One reason institutions balk at mandated support policies is concern about institutional risk, either due to a particular interpretation of law or concern about faculty responses to students. At the University of Oregon, law professors helped educate the rest of campus about the legality of these laws, and published a law review article for other institutions to follow (Weiner 2017). And, at UO, Freyd developed, tested, and disseminated training for faculty members on how to respond in a trauma-informed way (Foynes and Freyd 2011). Institutional leaders within higher education make better decisions about these complex issues when they leverage in-house expertise. Using that expertise further builds trust and stronger institutions.

There is another way to prevent sexual harassment and abuse, and return agency to survivors in ways that are healing: mandated support. With a mandated support policy, students—not the university—decide how their information is used. If the student wants to report, the person they tell is obligated to help them. If the student wants it kept private, the person they report to is obligated to keep it private with exceptions for imminent harm. These policies are trauma-informed because they return agency to someone who was harmed when their agency was taken away. When other truth-tellers learn that their information and wishes will be respected, these policies make it more likely that others will report.

Institutionalizing Courage

Doing the right thing is only one part of the challenge of university leadership. The hard part is embedding the structures, people, policies, and practices necessary to make it easier for members of the institution to act bravely and boldly. Most acts of sexual harassment and assault, and the responses people give and receive after, do not make the news. Students might tell a friend, ask a professor for an extension, or be noticed by a lab mate. In those moments, a safe institution is full of people who can and do step up.

Consider sanitation as an analogy. There was a time in history when people knew that they needed some way of managing waste, but did not yet understand how to keep people safe with basic sanitation. People did many things that were deadly for other people and themselves, like throwing garbage out the window and washing their clothes in dirty water. Over time, that changed because people were educated. People learned that sanitation would save their lives and other lives. People began to create physical environments that made it easier to behave in safer ways. Effective sanitation became habitual.

Today, with regard to institutional courage, we are in a stage akin to that pre-sanitation period. Our methods for keeping ourselves safe from sexual violence are not yet fully built on effective practices with structures in place that do not rely on individuals to do the right thing. Good practices are not yet habitual, and common practices make it easy to not do the right thing.

Just as sanitation was developed, people can be educated about safe institutions and build the structures necessary for it to become habitual for people to do the right thing. Institutional leaders can not only model how to do the right thing, they can educate members on how to behave bravely and boldly, and create the structures necessary to make it easier to do so. Institutional leaders must do a gut check: Who educates leaders across campus about trauma, sexual violence, responding to disclosure, and effective institutional reporting? Who ensures that survivors receive truly confidential and trauma-informed support? Who audits institutional responses? And what is the reporting mechanism to ensure that the president and board of trustees are directly informed on not only legal concerns but also the mental health and other needs of survivors? At OSU, that takes state laws, institutional policies, confidential survivors’ advocacy informed by survivors, auditing, clear reporting lines to the president and trustees, and an unwavering commitment to shared governance with students and faculty. May these examples inspire those seeking to institutionalize courage in their universities.


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About the authors


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Institutionalizing Courage to Create a Safe Community Copyright © 2024 by Dr. Jennifer Joy Freyd and Dr. Kathryn Becker-Blease is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.