Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Welcome to this very important event.

I thank the UI Student Government for organizing this forum. And I thank our presenters and discussion leaders tonight: the Women’s Resource and Action Center, Rape Victim Advocacy Program, the Domestic Violence Intervention Program, Student Health, and the Department of Public Safety.

The safety of all members of our campus and community is of paramount importance. It is fundamental to community life and, in the case of the University, our academic pursuits. Tonight we gather for generally good reasons. But we are also gathering because of a serious situation in our community: the assaults plaguing the near-downtown area.

I am always personally delighted to participate in events that help empower women. I wish, however, that circumstances were different for us today—that we are not meeting partially out of necessity due to negative circumstances. Still, I hope you all come away from tonight’s forum with a sense of empowerment. The ultimate goal here is take control of our lives, and that is always a positive thing to do.

Please let me first say a few words about our specific situation. As you know, over the past year or so, numerous assaults have occurred in the neighborhoods near downtown and campus. This is a situation that we cannot tolerate. Although these assaults are not occurring directly on our campus, we as a university must clearly be part of the solution. The UI Department of Public Safety is cooperating with our other local law enforcement agencies—including the police departments of Iowa City and Coralville, as well as the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office—on several methods of addressing the problem, from investigation to special patrols. We are taking a proactive approach to ending these attacks. It does appear that a single individual is responsible for the majority of the assaults, and a sketch and description of the alleged attacker have been issued publicly. Our police are working hard to apprehend this perpetrator.

On a more general level, education remains one of the most important keys to safety. And I am very pleased that, just yesterday, Senator Tom Harkin announced that the University of Northern Iowa will receive almost $1 million to work with Iowa State and The University of Iowa to reduce violence against women on university and college campuses. This funding will help create the Regents Campus Gender Violence Prevention Task Force. The project will focus on education. Among the initiatives will be a mandatory new student education program, enhanced training for campus police, a statewide Men’s Gender Violence Prevention Institute, and other new courses and curricula that will better educate students and faculty on victim services and gender violence prevention. This is an exciting new initiative, and I look forward to working with our colleagues at UNI and ISU.

Let me turn to a few comments regarding what we are up to tonight. We all have a right to a safe and secure environment. But one important message of tonight’s forum is that we all bear some responsibility for our own safety. Or perhaps putting it another way—we all have the power to reduce our risk for assault. Tonight we will be focusing on not only how to fend off attacks, but also how we can proactively reduce the number of opportunities for assaults to take place.

In a Daily Iowan article this past summer, Officer Brad Allison, our UI Police crime-prevention specialist, said that “ninety percent of crime prevention is risk prevention.” Personally, I believe that is true. The idea that we as individuals should do all we can to reduce our own risk does not at all reduce our institutional and community responsibility to apprehend perpetrators. Nor does personal responsibility reduce our institutional obligation to do all we can to create a generally safe environment. As well, personal responsibility does not diminish our right to live in, walk in, and enjoy a secure community. And it certainly does not place any blame on victims of violence or attempted violence. No one who is assaulted is “asking for it,” and no one should bear personal responsibility for an attack on their person.

Many of our first-year and transfer students take advantage of a wonderful course offered by the University College called “The College Transition.” Many of you here probably took that course, and a number of you may have taught it. One of the most important concepts taught in “The College Transition” is the idea of “locus of control.” Students are taught that the most successful people believe events and achievements are contingent upon their own choices and behaviors—an internal locus of control. On the other side of the scale is the external locus of control, the belief that luck, fate, chance, and powerful others control the outcomes of our life. We all know that events and circumstances often bring us difficulties, even tragedies. But more often than we imagine, seizing our own destiny through making good choices leads us on the path to success. That’s what we teach our students about academic achievement. It’s a message of empowerment. And I think a similar message of empowerment can help us all deal more effectively with the issue of personal safety—and our current community problem. Yes, the protectors—the institution, the police—need to be out there doing their jobs. But safety is a cooperative proposition. We all need to be part of the effort to keep ourselves safe. We need to acknowledge and draw on the internal control that we individually have over our circumstances, circumstances of the moment as well as circumstances generally.

I suppose in many ways I’m preaching to the choir. You’re here tonight. You’ve made the choice to learn about strengthening the power you have to respond to assault, and the power you have to reduce risk of assault. I commend you for that. And I urge you to take the messages, the information, and the techniques that you learn tonight back to your friends, relatives, and neighbors.

I will leave it to the experts gathered with us here to get into the nitty-gritty of what those messages, that information, and those techniques are. Let me close by assuring you once again that I place the highest priority on our individual and collective safety on campus and in our community. Thank you for coming tonight, thanks again to our sponsors and presenters, and thank you for doing your part in making ours a safe community.