By Katie O’Brien
Before ILR professor, lawyer, and epidemiologist Liz Karns began volunteering as an advocate for victims of sexual assault on campus, Cornell only provided legal representation for the accused in the adjudication process. We talked to Professor Karns about Cornell’s lack of transparency around its procedures, the administrative barriers to reporting sexual assault, some of the economic consequences of sexual assault for women, and the AAU Campus Climate survey that came out in the fall.
kitsch: First off, can you introduce yourself? What do you teach and what do you research?
Karns: I’m Liz Karns. I have a MPH in epidemiology, which is statistics of medicine. And I also have a law degree. Part of my law practice has been statistical evidence and the other part has been sexual assault civil litigation—seeking money damages for sexual assault, as opposed to imposing criminal penalties. So that’s what I did before I came to Cornell.
And then I came here and I started teaching, and the same issues are here as they were in Chicago and every place else. I became very interested in how the process works here in adjudicating sexual assault, and learned that victims didn’t have any representation in terms of policy and procedures at Cornell. The accused were automatically given students from the law school to represent them, and I imagine those law school students were supervised by their law school faculty. The victims were not given any representation. The way I see that is that it’s like saying to somebody, “Hey, we understand you’ve broken your leg. Here’s a web page for you to figure out how to set that leg and get rehabilitation and get walking again.” It just seemed really unfair to me. So last year I started doing internal representation of victims as a volunteer, calling it the “procedural advocate for the complainant.” This year they made the position more official and it replaced teaching one class. Another lawyer, from outside of Cornell, will be taking it over in May.
kitsch: How would you say Cornell’s procedure of dealing with sexual assault compares to other schools? I mean, I know no school is great about it right now, but…
Karns: The good thing is that it’s much better than it was ten years ago, anyplace. But it’s pretty unclear how we’re doing in terms of number of claims to number of violations, etc. because that information has not been made public. And that lack of transparency is the institution’s choice. So if you’re a victim thinking about coming forward, you can’t know how likely it is that the person’s going to be found in violation. But now, by state law, universities have to make those numbers public. So we’ll see. We’ll start seeing how many claims come forward, how many are actually found to have violated our policy, and what were the sanctions.
kitsch: Can you elaborate on the institutional barriers a victim faces to coming forward?
Karns: So one thing is really simple. We all know that if you cannot find something on Google in ten seconds, you’re losing people. In my class on the economic consequences of sexual assault, one of the things people did was to go to any institution and try to find out how much time it takes to find out the following things: how long do I have to report an assault, how many sanctions have been given for assault in the past, and who do I report it to? For some institutions it took five minutes, ten minutes tops. But most people found that it would take over an hour to find out that information at Cornell, and some of it you don’t find at all. That’s one of those ways that I think the institution, by not having that stuff super simple and accessible, creates a barrier for victims.
“You can see the system failing people in crisis, and it’s a really difficult thing to deal with.”
Another one is that under our policy, students have one year to report a sexual assault, and faculty and staff have six months. Most of our peer institutions have indefinite reporting. And it takes most people a while to get up the courage to report. One of the things that happens is that as you approach the date that the event occurred, you start thinking about how much time of your life you’ve spent on this, right. And, you know, that date rolls around and you just think, “You know what, I’m ready. I’m ready to do it.” Well, if one year and one week has passed, you would be barred from reporting, and having a sanction. And that’s a problem. And that’s a choice that we make. Another one would be the enforcement of no contact orders between the victim and the accused. There are issues around whether or not they’re effectively enforced, and whether they allow a complainant to really have a truly safe space, or whether it actually just gives the impression of that.
kitsch: Have you faced any backlash or clashing from the administration because of your work on this? What have been some of the personal effects for you?
Karns: I do push pretty hard on things that people are uncomfortable with. And I say, “Yes, but here is the policy and you need to enforce it,” when it might be easier for some people to look the other way. I’m a senior lecturer—I have no anticipation of ever getting tenure, and that’s fine with me. But if I wasn’t doing all this work for Cornell on procedural advocacy I would be consulting on other law projects and potentially doing major litigation. So, I’ve given up opportunities in order to do this; it’s certainly a cost that’s not compensated. I think the level of disbelief that people have of how much a victim needs help in this process is stunning to me sometimes. Again going back to the broken leg analogy, we’d never send somebody out and tell them to fix it themselves. It’s a very intense position—the impact is largely realizing how systems fail. You can see the system failing people in crisis, and it’s a really difficult thing to deal with. We know from other research that after you’re a victim of assault, your brain is traumatized. That’s a big effect. And then that starts a spiral. And there’s a whole bunch of costs that go with that. So as an advocate, one of the things that I do is say, “This person should be allowed to have a lower credit load,” or something. But usually nobody’s going to push back on that; the challenge is more about addressing the fairness of the process. For example, who’s allowed to get extensions in the Cornell 6.4 adjudication process? Sometimes I feel that the opposing counsel is very strategic in how they ask for extensions. And suddenly you realize it’s the end of the year and there’s no effective sanction. That’s not right. That’s unacceptable to me.
kitsch: Can you talk a little bit about your class, The Economic Consequences of Sexual Assault? What are some of the economic consequences that people don’t realize?
Karns: So the biggest is that, there’s a life trajectory that people are on. You’re at college, you’re at Cornell, you’re anticipating a certain job, you’re hoping to get it, you’re doing a lot of training. If something as traumatizing as sexual assault knocks you off course, then there’s a financial penalty for the rest of your life. Absolutely. If my grades suddenly dip so badly I can’t go to med school, and instead I do something else in the medical allied field but I’m not a doctor, I’m going to have a significant income difference. For some people, they have to start spending more money on transportation. That is one of those sort of underappreciated things, right, that you can no longer feel good. Imagine that you were assaulted by your friend who you walked home with. Not a stranger, but somebody who was supposed to be helping you. And now when you leave a party, you have to call a cab. That’s a huge cost. Or you have to find other friends. It certainly restricts people’s movements, without a doubt.
kitsch: I wanted to ask you about the AAU survey on sexual assault that came out in the fall and some of the things you think it illuminated for us?
Karns: So that was great. Because we finally had a way to say, Cornell, here’s a snapshot of this last year. And also for those students who have been here for four years, when we look at just the undergrads. So I think the surprising number to many people was the percentage of female undergrads who, by their senior year, had been sexually assaulted by penetration. I’m trying to remember the number. It’s around 30 percent. That’s a lot. That’s a lot, and, I think that shocked people.
“If something as traumatizing as sexual assault knocks you off course, then there’s a financial penalty for the rest of your life.”
Another thing that surprised people looking at the survey is how sexual harassment is the major problem in grad school. And the sexual harassment shifts from being your fellow students, to being faculty and staff harassing the students. There’s a big difference on the impact—it isn’t a student harassing you, it might be someone in your field, which could have profound consequences on your work. This is very disturbing from a training standpoint. We’re looking at training professionals. And who they get harassed by might be other professionals. That’s a huge problem.
kitsch: I know there have been some questions around the survey’s statistical validity, so can you address some of the statistical myths around the survey that have arisen?
Karns: Well, the response rate was around 20 percent. And so people say, well that’s not representative of this population. The consulting company did several tests to look at whether there was a response bias. And there didn’t appear to be. In fact, in the survey, we know that most sexual assault is experienced by women, about six percent of victims are men. For the respondents, it was about 60 percent women, 40 percent men. So, it wasn’t like it was just one group of people taking the survey. Also, our numbers are very consistent—they’re the same rough numbers that we’ve had since 1987. It hasn’t changed. Then in Michigan, they did both the AAU study and a much more careful random sample that was representative—a better statistical and research idea. And the numbers are about the same. So, there are lots of different ways we can check it. It’s representative enough, is my feeling. And we do this every two years. So, not this year but next year, people should fill it out.
kitsch: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us about this issue, which I think is so important to highlight, especially in an issue called “Law and Disorder.” Is there anything else you’d like to add with regards to where we are and where you’d like to be?
Karns: I think the best thing is that it’s getting talked about, it’s getting addressed. I think things are much, much better in terms of the available adjudication methods. And now we have to see, how do people actually perceive things? Because it’s not enough to make the claim, right. You’ve got to have the faculty panel agree. That’s a big job. But what faculty panels tend to forget is there’s a huge impact that is being suffered by the victim. People completely ignore that when they start talking about adjudication, they almost always focus on the accused. So, I’m here to say, this is an issue.