Joy Cao | Staff Photographer
When the Association of American Universities released a report last year detailing sexual misconduct on 33 university campuses, including Pitt, Yemi Olaiya said personal experiences with sexual misconduct inspired her to help survivors.
“I’ve had a lot of experience with myself and friends with sexual misconduct on college campuses,” Olaiya, a graduate student in the School of Law, said. “So I wanted to make sure that survivors are being heard and policies are put in place that actually help them.”
Olaiya is one of the 12 members of Chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s Advisory Council on the Prevention of Sexual Misconduct, a new advisory group created in response to the AAU campus climate survey. The council will meet for the first time on Feb. 21, where they will then determine the frequency of future meetings. The AAU report found that since entering college, in situations involving physical force or the inability to consent or stop what was happening, 11.2% of respondents said they experienced penetration at least once and 16.7% of respondents said they experienced sexual touching at least once.
The council includes members from numerous levels across Pitt, including both undergraduate and graduate students, professors, staff and faculty. Elizabeth Miller, chief of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine within the School of Medicine, chairs the council with Katie Pope, the associate vice chancellor of civil rights and Title IX, as staff liaison.
Miller said she hopes to contribute her knowledge from years of experience as a researcher and doctor in studying sexual and partner violence.
“I’ve been working in the sexual violence and partner violence prevention and intervention space for over two decades,” Miller said. “I have led studies related to sexual assault on college campuses, and worked closely with health and counseling centers to figure out how we could do better in terms of connecting with survivors of sexual assault.”
Miller added that one of the council’s primary responsibilities will be to rigorously evaluate and categorize existing groups, strategies and policies aimed at lowering sexual misconduct on campus.
“It’s imperative that the council lifts up the importance of evaluation,” Miller said. “Far too often what happens on campuses is everyone goes, ‘Oh well that’s a good prevention program,’ and there’s no coordination and oversight to make sure that what appears to be good prevention programs are implemented with fidelity.”
Miller said these evaluations will take the form of an annual “multilevel” survey and interviews seeking input from students, faculty and administrators on the effectiveness of certain strategies. She said she has sought help from the federal Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health in designing this evaluation method, with the ultimate goal of not having to wait another five years for another AAU survey to be released.
Olaiya said that while the surveying method is a good starting point, she hopes the feedback can be independent and far enough removed from the situation to properly judge progress.
“Checking ourselves is a great way to start, but it’s also important to have someone impartial looking at us at the same time too,” Olaiya said. “I want to make sure that Pitt is learning from itself, that it’s being honest, transparent and administration is working with students and it’s not an us-them type of thing, but us working together in changing the campus.”
Different council members also have different opinions on policies the body should implement. Mary Roche, a senior political science major, is one of two undergraduate council members. Roche has worked as a Sexual Assault Facilitation and Education peer educator for the past year and a half. She said she would like to see an expansion of the Office of Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education, the same office which coordinates the peer educator program.
“I would like to see an expansion of the SHARE office, specifically the number of counselors in there right now,” Roche said. “I think that would be a really great way to start and talking about how we can spread prevention education wing of sexual assault prevention education on campus.”
But Olaiya said her first priority is learning the specifics of reporting sexual misconduct and if there is room for improvement, including the Title IX office.
“I’ll mostly be interested first in actually getting a behind-the-scenes understanding at how we operate with the Pittsburgh police and what our reporting actually entails in detail. My interest is seeing how that experience is for the survivor,” Olaiya said. “[The Title IX office is] essentially our hub of where sexual misconduct is dealt with, so if reframing needs to happen it’s a place we’ll look at.”
Olaiya added that she wants to ensure perspectives from minority groups are fairly represented by the council’s work.
“My presence as a black woman is that everyone on this campus is being taken into account with policies we put in place,” Olaiya said. “The reality is different cultures come into play and people’s different experiences come into play and if you’re invalidating those it is just another way people are being made unsafe.”
In her leadership role in the council, Miller said she has similar concerns, and wants to put survivors’ experiences at the forefront.
“In my work I’ve had the privilege of sitting with many survivors both with my clinical and researcher hat on, so honoring survivors’ experiences and putting their experiences front and center in designing prevention and intervention programs is critically important to me,” Miller said. “I want to make absolutely sure that survivors’ voices are not lost.”
Creating measurable and practical goals is something Miller said she finds very important, so much so that it will be the primary focus of the council’s first meeting. But she does have one overarching goal that has been the focus of her career.
“My lofty goal is to implement policies and practices that are meaningful to our campus community so that we can stop sexual violence on campus,” Miller said. “I’m not interested in reducing it, I’m interested in stopping it.”