Claremont (California): One in five women on American campuses has been sexually assaulted, most often by an acquaintance, according to the findings of the first-ever survey by the US government on an apparent epidemic of sexual assaults in US colleges and universities.

The report indicts America’s highest-ranked schools, including Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California at Berkeley. Columbia is under investigation for as many as 28 violations.

A total of 97 colleges and universities are being investigated by the government for possible violations of law over their handling of sexual assault and harassment complaints, according to the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) that ensures equal access to education. In reply to a query by Mint, OCR said it does not disclose case-specific facts or details.

According to the US justice department, 80% of assaults between 1995 and 2013 went unreported.

Although the sexual assault of students in America’s most prestigious colleges and universities is emerging as one of the most contentious issues that faces higher education in the US today, career counsellor Viral Doshi, who has offices in Mumbai, Singapore and Dubai, said, “There isn’t much awareness as yet of this issue in India."

“It is a serious issue and parents and students should be aware, cautious and apply safety measures," said Doshi, who helps over 100 students in India gain admission in US colleges every year.

An estimated 134,292 Indian students are at present enrolled in various American colleges and universities. A third of them, or 44,731, are women. According to the US immigration and customs enforcement of the department of homeland security, these students comprise the second largest foreign student body in America, after China. Indian enrolment was up by 28% in 2014.

“Campuses have managed to brush the problem under the carpet," said Doshi. “They believe that it will adversely affect their rankings."

Within the US, the demand for higher education is levelling off due to spiralling undergraduate costs of close to $60,000 a year and investment in education outpacing income.

Colleges that once vied for national enrolment must now look further ashore to international student enrolment, which, according to a report by the Boston Consulting Group, has doubled between 1992 and 2012.

Ironically, the colleges most in demand by Indian students, said Doshi, are those under investigation, including Columbia, Harvard and USC.

Not surprisingly, it is the US government rather than college administrators, which is blowing the whistle on the problem. The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, set up by US President Barack Obama in January last year, points to the failure of many campuses to protect students—women as well as men—from sexual violence.

In December 2014, a government probe into Harvard University’s Law School—the longest-running investigation, according to a press release by the education department—was resolved when the university agreed to “immediately implement steps to provide a safe learning environment for its students".

American law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any government-funded education programme or activity. The legal clause, known as Title IX, protects students, male and female, from sex-based discrimination, harassment and violence.

According to the first White House Task Force report published in April last year, “Prevention and education programs vary widely, with many doing neither well."

The report acknowledges the challenges that colleges and universities face in breaking the cycle of violence. “By acknowledging it, drawing attention to it, and encouraging survivors to report—it can start to look like a dangerous place. On the flip side, when a school ignores the problem or discourages reporting…it can look safer."

The White House Task Force has developed a toolkit for colleges to develop and conduct a survey to understand the extent of the problem.

The pilot survey was conducted on the Rutgers University campus and the university is in the process of analysing data and conducting focus-group discussions to “gain more in-depth information from students on their perspectives on the campus climate", said E.J. Miranda, director, media relations, Rutgers University.

“Sexual assault is a widespread, insidious public health problem on college campuses and the society at large," Sarah McMahon, acting co-director of Rutgers’ School of Social Work’s Center on Violence Against Women and Children that is leading the survey, said in a press release. “The survey will provide a better picture of sexual assault on a college campus and explore student attitudes towards gender and sexual violence."

But those attitudes are already evident on many campuses, even before the survey results are published. At Pomona, a liberal arts college on the west coast ranked five by US News and Education, a weekly Wednesday night dance party called Pub, organized by the fraternity Kappa Delta (KD) and unofficially designed for athletes who have a 48-hour no-drinking rule before competitions, had to be cancelled by college administrators in September 2014 after a student-run audit revealed an alarming number of sexual assaults occurred at this party.

“Many students were outraged (by the cancellation of the party)," said Hanna Love, a senior at Pomona and a member of the Intercollegiate Feminist Center. “There was a lot of victim-blaming across campus, implying that if women didn’t want to hook-up, then they shouldn’t be going to the party."

Niyati Shenoy, a senior from Mumbai and a member of the student-run Pomona Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault, said KD members were required to undergo training and discussion by her organization but this “did not go well".

“KD refused to understand that they were contributing to a culture of violence. However, they have powerful alumni connections, so the administration has a light touch with them," she added.

Very often, it is the attitude of college administrators that can prove to be a stumbling block for students. “Ultimately, as a private college, it (Pomona) is concerned about its own well-being, finances and reputation," said Love. For instance, the process of reporting sexual assault and conducting investigations is “extremely convoluted", involving several deans and faculty members. “There is also little respect for a survivors’ anonymity and confidentiality on such a small campus."

An email sent to Pomona College’s Title IX administrator went unanswered.

There is dissatisfaction, too, among some students at Harvard University, which unveiled its new sexual harassment policy in July last year. Unhappy about its lack of an explicit affirmative consent clause, a group of Harvard undergraduate student activists, called “Our Harvard Can Do Better", filed a complaint with the US Department of Education’s ongoing investigation into Title IX violations.

“We saw systemic failings on the part of Harvard’s administration to guarantee survivors their Title IX rights to continue their education," an “Our Harvard Can Do Better" organizer said in an email response to a query.

“There is still a long way to go before Harvard sends a clear message that sexual violence is an absolutely intolerable violation of the standards to which we hold each other as a community, and will be treated as such."

Meanwhile, the tensions at Harvard became clear when 28 law school professors, including seven women, wrote an open letter to The Boston Globe newspaper criticizing the university’s sexual harassment policy for lacking the “most basic elements of fairness and due process". They fear, they wrote, that the new policy’s investigative and punitive elements unfairly disfavour accused parties.

“Harvard apparently decided to defer to the demands of certain federal administrative officials, rather than exercise independent judgement about the kind of sexual harassment policy which would be consistent with law and with the needs of our students and the larger university community," they wrote.

It’s a view that finds resonance with some faculty at the University of Pennsylvania’s Law School. In an open, seven-page letter, seen by Mint, dated 18 February, 17 professors criticized the government’s office of civil liberties for exerting “improper pressure upon universities to adopt procedures that do not afford fundamental fairness".

“We fully recognize serious concerns about the problem of sexual assaults on college campuses," the letter said. However, “Our first priority should be to reduce the frequency of assaults. After-the-fact disciplinary proceedings, while useful, cannot by themselves adequately protect our students".

The professors want varsities to take more steps to deal with the excessive use of alcohol and drugs prevalent on many campuses. They want clearer rules on what constitutes valid consent. They want fair hearings for students who deny charges of assault against them. And they want the more serious cases to be funnelled through the criminal justice process rather than campus tribunals.

Are colleges equipped to deal with or adjudicate in cases of sexual assault?

Many students say they would be more comfortable reporting, at least as a first step, to a peer or campus-designated crisis centre rather to the police.

“I believe our students can feel more comfortable reporting to their schools," says Mabelle Bong, a senior at Scripps College Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault. “Our criminal justice system is not equipped or trained to handle these cases well."

But students aren’t always satisfied with the action taken by their institutions, and nowhere has the tension between the fight for justice for survivors and the need for due process for the accused been more apparent than at Columbia University, New York, ranked four in a nationwide ranking system by US News and World Report.

Columbia University has been at the centre of a storm over a rape charge filed by a student, Emma Sulkowicz, in 2013 against another student, Paul Nungesser. When an internal campus probe cleared Nungesser, Sulkowicz began carrying her mattress on campus as a symbol of her burden as a victim and says she will continue hauling her mattress until Nungesser is expelled.

Sulkowicz’s dramatic mattress protest has received national media coverage and the attention of politicians and feminist leaders.

More than 70 colleges and high schools have hosted similar events since the fall of last year. As the hashtag #carrythatweight went viral on social media, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton also weighed in saying: “That image should haunt all of us."

Sulkowicz’s protest also coincides with a time of growing activism where a new generation of assault survivors are refusing to remain silent.

The debate on sexual assault on American campuses coincides with a rising global awareness where an increasing number of survivors are speaking up.

In India, for instance, reported rape cases registered an increase of 35% in just a year from 2012 to 2013, reflecting a greater willingness of survivors to come forward and register complaints after the widespread protests that followed the Delhi gang-rape case in December 2012.

“By owning those accusations, and pointing a finger not only at the assailants but also the American university, the ivory tower of privilege, these survivors have built the most effective, organized anti-rape movement since the late ’70s," noted New York magazine in a September 2014 cover story on the college women who are starting a revolution against campus sexual assault.

It’s a movement that colleges can no longer ignore.