Baylor and Stanford have been in the news recently due to cases of sexual assault. The situations at Baylor and Stanford concern problematic cultures, while other incidents appear to be isolated. Both cases represent a disturbing trend of violence on college campuses, and school administrators across the country are scrambling to examine their own policies and procedures regarding sexual violence.
From a leadership perspective, numerous implications are emerging from both of these cases, but I want to focus on the overarching issue of how to understand complicated systemic issues. What these cases illustrate is that there are a myriad of powerful forces that need to be understood together. Being a leader is one of the most difficult tasks a person can take on, and one of the most challenging aspects is trying to figure out why a particular problem exists. A good leader is not only focused on addressing what to do about a problem in the moment, but with figuring out why it exists and how it needs to be addressed long-term.
John Lewis Gaddis’ work The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past gives a helpful framework for understanding complicated systemic issues. In a chapter entitled “Chaos and Complexity,” he explores how historians try to make sense of issues of the past without collapsing them into oversimplification. He points to the need for historians to search for causality by connecting events and phenomena together to form a larger picture. This attempt to find connections is centrally important for leaders as we seek to understand complicated systemic issues. In an effort to illustrate what Gaddis is referring to, let’s look at several issues connected to sexual violence on college campuses.
First, alcohol and substance abuse. Last year, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a significant series of articles on the impact of alcohol on college campuses, focusing specifically on the effects of binge drinking. In multiple cases of recent high profile sexual assaults, beyond Baylor and Stanford, alcohol has been seriously involved. Campus officials that attempt to address sexual violence without also addressing alcohol and substance abuse do not see the larger reality of their complicated relationship. Taking it one step further, students abuse alcohol for multiple reasons that go beyond the simple desire to have a good time: anxiety, stress, peer pressure, social anxiety. Examining the motives quickly leads to confronting the issue of mental health. See how they are all interconnected?
Second, unrestrained self-gratification. For the better part of the last half-century, our culture has undergone a massive sexual revolution. Part and parcel with this revolution has been the underlying message that every person should be able to express themselves sexually however they wish. An immersion in this kind of culture encourages students to engage in any and every activity that will bring them pleasure. What happens, though, when you desire someone that says “no” to you? It is incredibly difficult to have unrestrained self-gratification while also trying to enforce the principle of “consent.” As the Stanford case has shown, even when a school seeks to educate their students on consent rules, will that education be able to trump a lifetime’s immersion in a culture that encourages unrestrained hedonism, especially when a student is inebriated and unable to reason with themselves?
Leaders need to be able to make connections between these phenomena if there are going to understand complicated systemic issues like campus sexual violence. Terrible things are always going to happen because humans are sinful, but the reason cases like Stanford and Baylor anger people is because they think that leaders have failed them and not done their job. Leadership is about so much more than generating some kind of fuzzy notion of success. It is also about helping people navigate complex and difficult situations with wisdom, foresight, humility, propriety, and justice. In order to lead well, we must challenge ourselves to understand complex systemic issues as fully as we can.