Fordham President Fr. Joseph McShane, S.J., broke his years-long silence this week on the subject of campus sexual assault — “a crime and a sin” — in a tightly controlled message, sent by way of his monthly community letter to students, faculty and staff.
Instead of reiterating campus policies — “Having made it this far in life, I believe that you know the rules,” he said — McShane spoke in broad strokes and instructed male students to imagine being the victim of a sexual assault.
“I ask, just for a moment, and just in the privacy of your own mind, to imagine the helplessness, fear, rage, and disgust you might feel if you were sexually attacked, coerced — physically or otherwise — and violated,” McShane said.
And to the female readers, he reassured: “Let me say that sexual assault is not your fault. It is never your fault. Your judgment, good, bad, or indifferent, neither excuses sexual assault nor mitigates it in the slightest degree.”
McShane framed the message with March’s designation as Women’s History Month. But he has been quiet for years about the subject of sexual assault at Fordham.
Comment requests to McShane from this reporter about campus sexual assaults have gone unreturned in past years. In fact, a spokesman for McShane did not return a request for comment for this article.
Between 2010 and 2012, Fordham recorded 23 claims of on-campus sexual assault — more than any other Jesuit college during the same time period, according to an analysis of data.
Between 2010 and 2014, Fordham recorded 62 claims of sexual assault — more than any of the other 15 New York City colleges Al Jazeera America analyzed in a recent article.
McShane did not include any concrete data in his email.
As a result of the alarming data, which was made public by campus media and not administrators, USG formed a Sexual Misconduct Task Force last fall. Most recently, the organization produced a video in February in the style of the national “It’s On Us” campaign. McShane did not participate in the video.
“The university has extensive and robust mechanisms for dealing with sexual assault and harassment, and if you’re not familiar with them, you should be,” he said toward the end of his email.
“This is not the most upbeat letter I have ever written to you, perhaps, but it may be among the most important.”
Dear Members of the Fordham Family,
March, as I’m sure you know, is Women’s History Month, and the University rightly celebrates it with a number of well-attended events. I write to you this month concerning a darker issue concerning women, and one that is affecting every college and university in the country: campus sexual assault. It is a crime and a sin—I do not use that word lightly—overwhelmingly against women, likely underreported, and emotionally devastating.
To the men reading this—perhaps you are were expecting a scolding, or a list of prohibitions. When, tell me, in the long, sordid history of the world has that ever changed one person’s heart, much less their actions? I could cite scripture. At length. I could tick off dire consequences. I could tell you what not to do in a great many ways, none of which would likely have any effect. No, having made it this far in life, I believe that you know the rules. Instead, let me ask of you something that may not come naturally. I ask that you imagine what it is like to be on the receiving end of a sexual assault. I ask, just for a moment, and just in the privacy of your own mind, to imagine the helplessness, fear, rage, and disgust you might feel if you were sexually attacked, coerced—physically or otherwise—and violated. It is, I realize, an inherently discomforting thing to do, but it is powerful precisely because it is discomforting.
Call it empathy, or the golden rule, or Jesus’ commandment to love one another. However you name it, putting yourself in another’s place—in this case a woman’s place—is an everyday talent that can be cultivated, and that will serve you well your whole life through. I can tell you from many confessions I’ve heard that people are burdened with guilt and shame to the end of their days for offenses smaller than sexual assault. I do not think, in any case, that this is too much to ask. People choose to attend and work at Fordham for many reasons, but an important one is that they find the culture here a congenial one. There is nothing more central to Fordham’s culture than care for the whole person, and few things further removed from our values than sexual assault. (Let me note that I am fully aware that women can sexually assault men, and that same-sex assaults occur: they are as unequivocally wrong as men’s sexual assaults on women, if far less common.)
To the women reading this letter. Let me say that sexual assault is not your fault. It is never your fault. Your judgment, good, bad, or indifferent, neither excuses sexual assault nor mitigates it in the slightest degree. Nothing gives anyone an excuse, much less a right, to violate your boundaries, or to make any sexual contact with you without your consent. Period.
This is not merely my opinion, this is Fordham policy.
The University has extensive and robust mechanisms for dealing with sexual assault and harassment, and if you’re not familiar with them, you should be. They are available on the Fordham website, as are the names and numbers of the appropriate contacts. I’ve appended a list, below.
This is not the most upbeat letter I have ever written to you, perhaps, but it may be among the most important. Women comprise more than half of the campus community—sensational progress since the 1950s, when they were segregated by college and poorly represented among faculty and administrators—but even were women still a small minority, their safety and well being should rightly concern us all.
Thank you, then, for your consideration, your awareness, and your openness to a culture of respect of which we can all be proud.
Joseph M. McShane, SJ