Brandeis is one of several schools being targeted by UltraViolet, an organization described on its website as a “community of women and men across the U.S. mobilized to fight sexism and expand women’s rights,” in its nationwide campaign to address issues with handling sexual assault on college campuses. 

The organization has been sponsoring online advertisements targeting admitted students that read “Accepted to Brandeis? You should know about its rape problem,” and toward alumni that read, “This makes me ashamed to be a Brandeis alum. Learn more now.” 

According to Communications Director for UltraViolet Karin Roland, these ads have been placed on websites such as YouTube and Facebook, search engines such as Google and in various website banners.  

The online advertisement currently links to a campaign on UltraViolet’s website, which was launched on April 28, aimed at improving conditions at American University, Brandeis University, Florida State University, Harvard University, Occidental College, University of Michigan, University of California, Berkeley and Dartmouth College. Although the advertisement initially linked to a campaign regarding Yale University’s handling of a December 2012 sexual assault case, in which the student who attempted to sexually assault a fellow student was punished with a one-day suspension, Roland said that this “glitch” has been addressed and that “most people didn’t see that.” 

According to Roland, these particular schools were chosen for the campaign because they either have active sexual assault controversies, ongoing federal investigations in regard to their handling of sexual assault or active student organizations against sexual assault on campus. Roland said active student organizing was the case for Brandeis. “[W]e saw [this campaign] as an opportunity to take a school that is being pressured into considering to change their policies and push them over the top to take a positive action on this sort of issue,” Roland said.  

The goal of the advertisements is “to make sure that parents and students who are considering Brandeis know that there’s more that the administration should be doing to prevent and address sexual assault, and also to make sure that the administration knows that they need to take this issue seriously and they can’t hide from it, and that the days of sweeping it under the rug are over,” Roland said. 

Roland explained that the advertisements are targeted at those who had been considering attending Brandeis, in addition to those who are searching Brandeis admissions information. In regard to advertisements targeted toward alumni, Roland noted alumni’s “specific power to influence the administration.” She said that there are “a combination of different factors that give us a pool of people who are likely to be considering or already affiliated with Brandeis.” 

UltraViolet believes that several improvements can be made at Brandeis, Roland noted, including a need for clearer and more accessible reporting options, improved bystander training, training of school employees and safety networks and support for survivors of sexual assault. “We particularly put Brandeis on the list because of the effective student organizing that had been going on, and that’s different from a lot of these other schools,” Roland said. “But our position is that any sexual assault and any failure on the part of the campus to address it is unacceptable and needs to be changed.”

The University’s Sexual Assault Services and Prevention Coordinator, Sheila McMahon, wrote in an email to the Justice that she is aware of the campaign, but was not contacted by the organization. When asked if the organization was in touch with University administration, Roland said that the organization has been “following” what the administration has been doing in response to sexual assault. 

In response to concerns regarding sexual assault, the University hired McMahon to the position of sexual assault services and prevention coordinator, which she officially filled on Nov. 1, 2013. The University also created a conduct process for sexual assault and harassment “that uses a preponderance of the evidence standard and employs a special examiner” and initiated new orientation sessions from Speak About It, according to an April 30 email to the Brandeis community from Senior Vice President for Students and Enrollment Andrew Flagel. The University has also taken steps to provide bystander training for staff, faculty and students. Flagel did not specify what these steps were in the email. 

In the same email, Flagel announced that the University had released the Brandeis Resource Guide for Sexual Assault Survivors to the Brandeis community, along with a list of resources for students who are victims of sexual assault. Flagel also wrote that the University will release a full response to the proposal, with its accompanying petition, drafted by Brandeis Students Against Sexual Violence to improve sexual assault prevention on campus. 

Upon being asked why Brandeis was targeted in the ad campaign, despite the recent efforts of its students and administration to address and prevent sexual assault, Roland said that “[w]e have been watching what the administration has done in response, and we’ve been encouraged that they’re taking it seriously.” UltraViolet is aware that the University has proposed several new policies and added new resources, according to Roland, and she said that although UltraViolet is “very encouraged,” Brandeis has “a long way to go.”

When asked, Roland did not point to a particular case that the University could have handled better, but continued to list improvements that the University could make and noted the presence of student activism to attempt to effect these changes. 

According to Roland, UltraViolet has been acting independently from the student organizations on campus, and said that “we’re not coordinating directly with them.”

Roland clarified that the only group at the University that UltraViolet has been in contact with is Brandeis Students Against Sexual Violence, which is a self-titled group of students that gathered independently this spring, and said that the group had reached out to UltraViolet to inform the organization of its April 7 petition to the University administration. UltraViolet is also “monitoring” the activities of other groups on campus, but has not been in direct contact with them, according to Roland. She did not specify which groups were being followed when asked, but said that UltraViolet is following campus media. 

In an April 30 BrandeisNOW press release, Flagel wrote in regard to UltraViolet’s campaign that “[w]e applaud efforts to raise awareness about this widespread problem. We need a culture change in order to break the stigma and silence that places blame on survivors, and creates an unsafe environment.”

Flagel wrote in an email to the Justice that there was a “robust online discussion of the ads on Facebook.” In response to concerns regarding how the advertisement could impact student enrollment decisions, Flagel wrote that he supports “any effort that increases awareness of this national issue.” 

The discussion regarding the Facebook advertisements was initiated when James Conlon ’16 posted to Facebook group “Overseen at Brandeis,” a page used by Brandeis students, the advertisement that he saw on YouTube targeting admitted students. 

“There’s no reason to scare prospective students from a university which is completely filled with caring students and administrators who work to end the issue of rape culture and sexual assault,” Conlon wrote in an email to the Justice. 

Students raised concerns on the Facebook group regarding UltraViolet’s tactics in the discussion, but many students maintained that sexual assault remains an issue that needs to be addressed at Brandeis and other universities nationwide. 

“[S]exual assault is at epidemic levels on college campuses. One in four women will be sexually assaulted or raped before she graduates and that something has to change and, you know, our campaign is really about bringing attention to that and bringing pressure on college administrations to address this problem because it’s truly at crisis levels,” Roland said. 

In addition to the recent release of the First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault in April, on May 1, the U.S. Department of Education released a comprehensive list of 55 colleges and universities under Title IX investigation for the first time. Among local colleges on the list are Boston University and Harvard University. Brandeis and American were the only universities in UltraViolet’s initial set that were not listed by the U.S. Department of Education. 

“[O]ur ad is aimed at this set of schools at the moment, but it goes far beyond that. UltraViolet members, our 5,000 members across the country, have been working to hold schools accountable for sexual assault on their campuses for over a year now, and they’ll continue to work on that ... and we’re definitely looking at, given the White House’s release of a set of recommendations for college campuses and universities on how to address this,” Roland said. “[R]eally, Brandeis and the set of schools is just a start.”