Op-ed: AICUM, it’s time to choose a side

Massachusetts is world-renowned for its leadership in higher education. Each year, hundreds of thousands of students attend its academic institutions to pursue their studies, explore research opportunities, create change and benefit from the state’s exceptional educational experiences. Each year, however, thousands of these students will experience rape and sexual assault on their campuses.  

Every student has a right to educational opportunity, but college campuses have become the epicenter of the sexual violence crisis, which hinders victimized students in pursuing their academic goals. As students advocate for safety on campus, we ask the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, or AICUM, to clarify its position on H.4418: “An Act relative to sexual violence on higher education campuses.”

As the trade group representing private colleges and universities across the state, including Northeastern, AICUM provides a public voice on key policy matters that concern those independent colleges and universities. Officially, AICUM states that its work includes “[advocating] for independent higher education in Massachusetts– focusing on issues affecting both students and colleges.” When more than 11 percent of students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation while at college, we must take action. It is time for institutions of higher education to join us in keeping our campuses safe.

The H.4418 bill was written by students, for students. The bill, developed from previous bills H.1208 and H.4159, would create a task force of students, survivors, advocates and researchers to ensure that statistics on campus sexual assault are accurately recorded at all institutes of higher education across our state. Reliable data on the prevalence of sexual misconduct will allow our schools to evaluate the effectiveness of sexual assault prevention programs, identify where new support is needed and share strategies for reducing assaults across institutions. Students have a right to access information pertaining to their safety. Without full transparency, the change we need cannot be achieved. H.4418 also strengthens key protections for survivors by ensuring they will have access to healthcare and counseling services. It would also expand training and education measures on campus and prevent survivors from punishment and retaliation if they report a case of rape or sexual assault.

Students across the state rallied and generated widespread support for H.4418, and more than two-thirds of the Massachusetts House of Representatives already co-sponsored this bill. Many sexual violence prevention organizations and rape crisis centers in the Boston area also strongly affirmed the bill’s value and approach, according to a testimony to the Joint Committee on Higher Education. Additionally, a coalition of leading researchers, academics and attorneys with expertise in ending the epidemic of sexual harassment and gender-based violence in education co-signed a letter in October 2019, urging legislatures to pass the bill this session. Over 135,000 supporters from Massachusetts and across the country also signed a petition in support of the legislation.

In spite of the bill’s broad popularity, AICUM, which should be at the center of this advocacy, has maintained an unclear position on the bill. In response to a student rally supported by survivors, researchers and advocates in 2018, the association raised objections to the implementation of the policy despite widespread support for it. In 2019, Rob McCarron testified on behalf of AICUM “in partial support” of the legislation at a public hearing, but the testimony waffled between support and criticism of these critical measures. Most recently, AICUM declined to sign a letter in support of the bill’s passage.

It is time for AICUM to make clear where it stands on this legislation. The association’s ambiguity prevents its member universities from voicing support for the bill, creating uncertainty for students. Legislators have repeatedly asked students about AICUM’s stance on the legislation and often seem to be under the impression that AICUM does not support passing these bills in their current form. We believe that all stakeholders — from the universities AICUM represents to the students who attend those institutions — deserve clarity. 

Students, researchers and advocates alike agree that this legislation represents a critical step forward toward supporting survivors of sexual violence. In fact, in the April 2019 student body referendum, 85% of Northeastern students who took a position on the then-titled House Bill H.4418 voted in favor of the legislation. As students at Northeastern — a dues-paying member of the Association — we welcome AICUM to join us in publicly and unequivocally supporting H.4418, or to explain why it will not support the legislation.

AICUM, are you with us or against us?

Lauren Rothschild is a fourth-year political science major. Sara Flynn is a fourth-year human services major. Lorena Leza is a third-year political science major.