Communication Currents

Communication Current

Communicating About Policy and Practice Related to Sexual Violence on University Campuses

November 8, 2019
Health Communication, Higher Education

Research suggests that about a quarter of women on university campuses experience sexual violence. Yet, many victims do not report incidents of sexual violence, either to campus offices or to the police. While many universities are working to empower survivors during the reporting process, they also must follow federal laws and enact those laws through university policies. 

In a new study published in NCA’s Journal of Applied Communication Research, Suzy D'Enbeau investigates how university campus committees work to develop policies that enforce federal mandates against sexual violence on university campuses. D'Enbeau conducted a case study of a Coordinated Community Response Team (CCRT) at a large Midwestern university that launched during the Spring 2014 semester. D’Enbeau was primarily concerned with how participants understood the relationship between policy and practice and what dilemmas resulted from different understandings of that relationship. 

The CCRT included two subgroups: the Advisory Council (AC) and the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART). The AC develops university policy, protocol, and strategic plans; this group was composed primarily of administrators with director-level positions. The SART was composed of sexual violence first responders who “put university policy into practice,” such as sexual assault services personnel, university police, and campus health services staff. 

First, D'Enbeau examined how participants thought about the relationship between policy and practice, identifying two ways that participants framed their discussion of university policy: the unidirectional orientation and the bidirectional orientation. 

The unidirectional orientation emphasized that university policies should be equitable for all parties. Members who used this approach “note[d] the very real pressure to create standardized policies, pressure which stemmed from federal mandates.” The goal was to have these “standardized policies” be “objective” and “fair.” D'Enbeau argues that this goal of neutrality represents “a top-down approach” to policymaking. 

The bidirectional orientation emphasized that policies need to be flexible to accommodate students’ circumstances and the sensitive nature of the situations being addressed. One SART member stated: 

I think sometimes we need to be reminded that we’re not working for the police department or we’re not processing a case for the prosecutor’s office or we’re not doing it for the purposes of getting through a conduct process. We need to remind ourselves that … These people need to be handled with a little bit more sensitivity than just the average incident that comes across somebody’s desk.

According to D'Enbeau, this approach emphasizes policies that respond to students’ needs by giving them options to address issues of sexual violence. 

With administrators and AC members favoring the unidirectional orientation, and SART members favoring the bidirectional orientation, D'Enbeau explored how the tension between the unidirectional and bidirectional orientations led to dilemmas when policies were implemented. 

D'Enbeau identified two dilemmas: dilemma of communication and dilemma of agency. The dilemma of communication refers to the difference in how participants interpreted policies based on their orientation. The dilemma of agency refers to a conflict between the authority of the two groups. According to D'Enbeau, the unidirectional approach favors the authority of administrators, while the bidirectional approach incorporates the perspectives of first responders. 

Finally, D'Enbeau identified two strategies used by SART members to navigate these dilemmas when implementing polices. First, some participants “shielded students” when the policy was too “complex” by trying to make the process easier. Second, other participants “redirected students” by having them follow formal processes but doing so in a familiar space or with a familiar advocate. For example, regarding filing a Title IX complaint, one first responder participant said: 

If you ask our general counsel, they would be like, ‘Oh, they can only file a complaint at Title IX and the police department,’ and it’s like, ‘Why? Why are we making it more difficult?’ ‘Well because it’s Title IX, you know, they have to be able to file that complaint through Title IX.’ I’m like, ‘Well they’re still filing a complaint through Title IX. They’re just filling out the paperwork in the comfort of a space where they are familiar, where they feel safe.’

In this case, the first responder worked around official university policy for the benefit of the student. However, these workarounds did not lead to formal policy change. 

D'Enbeau offers four practical implications of the study. First, policy stakeholders should incorporate communication theories concerning policy frames and take time to discuss how policies might be enacted differently in different contexts. 

Second, D'Enbeau suggests that stakeholders address the rationales behind policies and the balance of power between stakeholders. Stakeholders should be attuned to how various university offices interact with policies and whether those policies, as enacted, “serve the interests of students.” 

Third, D'Enbeau concludes that flexibility in policy can “resolve the tension between the unidirectional and bi-directional orientations.” By allowing students different pathways that meet the same policy need, universities can also be sensitive to students’ circumstances. 

Fourth, D'Enbeau suggests that university policymaking bodies should more readily incorporate the perspectives of first responders. In this case, there was a hierarchical divide between the administrators and the first responders. D'Enbeau suggests that including members from both groups on future committees might lead to better policymaking and implementation.

D'Enbeau argues that it is important for policymakers to consider the different perspectives that they bring to policymaking and implementation. By working to identify different policy orientations and resolving dilemmas, stakeholders may be able to more effectively design policies that deal with sexual violence on university campuses.  

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Suzy D'Enbeau (2019) Communicating policy-practice orientations: the case of sexual violence response among college students, Journal of Applied Communication Research, 47:4, 420-438, DOI: 10.1080/00909882.2019.1654123

About the author (s)

Suzy D’Enbeau

Kent State University

Associate Professor

Suzy D’Enbeau