There are currently two big pressing topics that are currently dominating the news cycle when it comes to colleges in Texas: campus carry and sexual assault cases. Both are controversial subjects, and universities are grappling with how to handle the evolving realities facing their students today.
Campus carry catapulted to front-of-mind after Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill this summer that will allow people at public universities in Texas to carry concealed handguns on campuses. There are some caveats, however. Most notably, schools can choose “gun free zones,” which will surely be fought over and that this only applies to public universities. To wit: Texas Christian University and Rice University have opted out of campus carry and a few others are very likely to do so in the future.
And speaking of Rice, the university is doing as much as it can to address that other much-discussed topic—sexual assault and rape. The student senate introduced and passed Senate Bill #4, legislation that seeks to implement a mandatory course called “Critical Thinking in Sexuality” for first year students by the fall 2016 semester. The course will be created by a task force headed by Rice Student Association president, Jazz Silva, to “consist of several undergraduate representatives who, together [with] the Faculty Senate, the Committee on Undergraduate Curriculum, and the Office of the Provost, shall develop and implement such a program.” The faculty senate will have a final vote on whether the class will be implemented and what it will entail.*
The bill comes in the wake of a survey released by Rice University in September that gathered data about unwanted sexual experiences. Out of the 5,590 students that were asked to participate, 72.3 percent did. The survey found that 19 percent of female students and five percent of male students have encountered some form of unwanted sexual experience, while three percent involved sexual assault involving penetration. Rice’s President, David Leebron, and Provost, Marie Lynn Miranda, said in a letter sent to the Rice community that “these numbers are deeply concerning and demand an immediate and determined response.” And so the response was swift with a plan introduced a month after the survey and concern from the school’s president and provost.
When Silva introduced the bill in October, she said that the bill’s main goal is to reduce the prevalence of sexual assault on Rice’s campus adding that maybe everyone isn’t on the same page because there’s a “huge, huge lack of sexual education.” In terms of logistics, the mandatory course recommended by the senate would require every first year student—no exceptions—to attend a one hour class for 15 weeks for one credit hour. Each class will be capped at 25 students and be taught by graduate students in the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality department. The grad students will receive a stipend of $2,500 to teach two courses.
The quick and speedy process, which sounds like an objectively good idea, has not been without its fair share of derision and debate. The school’s newspaper, the Rice Thresher has published at least ten opinion editorials by the paper’s staff or students in the month that the bill was on the table. Some of the concerns raised were that the bill didn’t accurately represent students because the student body was largely neutral on the matter according to a campus survey. Another critique was that the mandate was rushed. There have been questions about who will be a part of the task force that draws up the course details and structure, because of, again, representation. One editorial suggests that the course should also include education that pertains to mental, emotional and physical health. Another editorial says all of this nit-picking over the particulars of SB #4 disregards victims—“even if the program stops only one person from having their life preventably changed, the class will be worth it,” the author states.
Regardless, this commitment by Rice clearly shows a growing concern for an increasingly relevant issue. A recent survey of over 150,000 students from 27 universities found that 23 percent of female students were subject to unwanted sexual contact—which is broad and ranges from “kissing to touching to rape, carried out by force or threat of force, or while they were incapacitated because of alcohol and drugs.” A survey that asked 26 different college students what they determined as “yes” for sex found a handful of different answers.
But the course’s intent is to create a safer environment on campus. Senate Bill #4 already addresses some specific areas of discussion in its proposed curriculum:
(a) differences between healthy and unhealthy romantic and nonromantic relationships, (b) different perspectives on sexuality and sex, and (c) common safe-sex practices, (d) bystander intervention techniques, and (e) sexual assault prevention;
On whether on not the course will actually serve its purpose and improve campus safety, Silva said she was unsure, but something is better than nothing. “I’m willing to say that I have zero faith in what we’ve been doing in the past,” she said. “If we keep doing what we’ve been doing in the past we’re going to have the same results in the future.”
*Clarification: This post previously stated that the faculty senate would vote on what the proposed class would entail, and some previous language also made it seem as though the decision-making process was further along. The faculty senate has yet to review the proposal or decide whether or not to vote on it. We regret the inaccuracies.