In June, two Marquette students were allegedly the victims of sexual assault while participating in a Digital Journalism study abroad program in Cagli, Italy. Unlike those in the past, these allegations, were met with a swift response from Marquette’s faculty and administration.
The university’s reaction included sending an email to the parents of the students on the trip, flying the dean of the College of Communication to Italy and planning to move the students from Cagli to Rome four days earlier than scheduled (a decision that was reversed after a strong negative reaction from students in the program).
Although we commend Marquette for addressing these alleged sexual assaults in a strong and timely manner, we can’t help but think the university’s reaction seems a bit like an overcompensated public relations attempt to make up for past mishandlings of similar incidents.
The alleged assaults this summer represent the third high profile incident of sexual assault involving Marquette in the last two years. In May 2011, a student participating in Marquette’s South Africa Service Learning Program was raped in an alley behind the student residence provided by Marquette.
The university responded to the situation by installing a security camera and placing a night guard outside of the student residence for the remainder of the program. However, the service of the guard was discontinued after that semester’s group left. Despite criticism of this removal from one of that semester’s program participants, the university did not re-install a night guard, citing feedback from this year’s program participants, who felt such a guard was not necessary once they had arrived.
While it may be commendable that officials heeded student feedback, we have to ask whether the students in the spring 2011 program would have said they felt a security guard was necessary before the rape occurred. It’s not likely, and yet such a service may have prevented the crime from occurring.
This was not the only time Marquette seemed to mishandle cases of sexual assault accusations. In the spring of 2011, Marquette was scrutinized for its non-compliance in reporting two sexual assaults involving student athletes and female student victims.
These allegations were reported to the Department of Public Safety, but the university failed to report the information to local authorities. Marquette is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education under the Clery Act for its failure to follow reporting protocol.
In Italy this summer, Marquette followed that protocol and handled the allegations with a much stronger response than in past years. But we still are uncertain that the university handled the situation in the best way.
First, we want to emphasize that there was much the university did right. Officials involved in the program informed the students immediately of the alleged incidents and made it very clear that they were trying to protect the students.
They offered to reimburse students wishing to return to the U.S. early.
They worked with Italian authorities to go after those responsible and prevent future incidents.
They followed proper procedures for reporting the alleged assaults, and they provided counseling services, albeit a week after informing the participants of the incidents.
For these responses, we say thank you.
But it seems that when Marquette administrators in Milwaukee learned of the incidents, they, to put it most accurately, began a panicked effort to prevent or curb criticism without thoroughly thinking everything through.
The students on the trip did not need College of Communication Dean Lori Bergen to fly out to Italy to “provide support.” We have to ask how her presence made the students safer than the presence of other staff and faculty already there and whether it just elevated the level of chaos surrounding the situation. While we know she cares deeply about students’ safety, it very much appeared to be a publicity stunt to offer to the media and the parents of the students on the trip.
Finally, the decision to move the students to Rome early was the most unnecessary of them all. To pretend that the nightlife in Cagli (population: 9,100) was somehow more dangerous than the nightlife in Rome (population: 2,800,000) is laughable. We do applaud the officials for eventually listening to the students’ protests that the move really would not have been in their best interests.
The events in Cagli demonstrate that the university is taking the need to respond to sexual assault allegations much more seriously than it has in recent past. At the same time, officials need to stop trying to overcompensate for past errors.
There was nothing the university could have done to prevent the alleged attacks in Cagli, and we fully understand that. But we would hope that, should another similar incident occur, the administration will more thoroughly think through its response and do what is truly best for the students in each and every circumstance.