This summer I was pleasantly surprised to find an email from the University of Dallas administration requiring students to take an online course about sexual assault. This is an issue that has been plaguing college campuses across the nation and certainly needs to be addressed, so I was thrilled that UD decided to participate in what many other universities have already been doing by providing an opportunity for education about such a severe problem.
The first several sections of the course, entitled “Think About It: Traditional Values,” certainly gave students something to think about, but unfortunately it wasn’t sexual assault. Though the description provided by the administration in the email promised students the opportunity to “learn why sexual assault is a problem in our world and what you can do to prevent it,” it became apparent within the first few slides of the presentation that this was not the true agenda of this course. Instead, a valuable opportunity to educate students about the heinous nature of sexual assault was wasted on a morality lecture about the evils of hookup culture.
It’s naive to assume that hookup culture and sexual assault aren’t connected. However, I’m unconvinced that any particular understanding of hookup culture, especially filtered through the religious lens with which UD chose to convey this understanding, is a necessary prerequisite for understanding the horrors of assault and the need for consent.
One troubling statement among many in the course was this:
“[The University of Dallas] expects you to practice sexual abstinence outside of marriage according to biblical principles and our policies.”
This statement shocked me, but more troubling still was its alarming conclusion:
“The consequences of violating this policy could harm yourself and others, and may lead to disciplinary action.”
While UD advertises itself as an “enthusiastically Catholic institution” whose students and policies naturally tend to align with Catholic doctrine, at no point in my experience as a prospective or enrolled student have I ever encountered anything even remotely resembling an official mandate that students remain sexually abstinent.
There are certainly existing university policies that are clearly informed by Catholic values, such as the open house hours in the dorms and the rule that students must leave their doors propped open when members of the opposite sex are present. But though these policies are indubitably a result of a campus-wide Christian worldview, to my knowledge there is not currently, nor has there ever been an official expectation by the university that students act according to the principles of any one religion during their time at UD. On the contrary, every step of the freshman orientation process as well as statements made by President Keefe and other members of the administration over my two years here seemed to indicate that, though UD fosters and encourages a welcoming atmosphere for practicing Catholics, the university does not impose these Catholic standards upon its students.
This sudden and frankly unprecedented expectation that students now subscribe to and abide by biblical teachings outside of the school’s existing honor code has never been present in my perception of UD, and in my opinion this “Traditional Values” course was an inappropriate medium in which to introduce these changes. If the university intends to advertise itself as one that will not impose its worldview on its students, but in fact does so in a required course, it would do well in the future to announce its intentions in a more public and effective platform, as bullet points in a last minute online quiz are an insufficient place to convey such a message. The troubling nature of this seemingly new set of expectations isn’t limited to sex alone. If every student must now comply with Catholic teaching in his or her life outside UD classrooms, the effects of this decision could be enormously widespread and could conceivably extend to countless other areas of student life. Will meat in the cafeteria continue to be offered on Fridays during Lent? Will weekly mass become a requirement of students as well?
It is the duty of the university to ensure that these mandatory course materials are congruent with the official principles and expectations of the school, regardless of whether the author of the paragraph indicating these disciplinary expectations is a UD representative or a writer for a separate program. The decision to include this message berating students for their consensual sexual activities – a message that has until this point never been openly presented as part of the university’s policies – is disappointing, but especially upsetting in the way it was surreptitiously placed in a course supposedly designed solely to teach students about sexual assault: the crime that truly is worth rebuking.