Schools including Penn State University are looking anew at how they adjudicate sexual assault allegations while safeguarding victim privacy, an enormous challenge made more so by links to alcohol use, school president Eric J. Barron said Thursday.
In an interview with Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editors, Mr. Barron discussed a range of topics he is confronting less than three weeks into the job, including one that has taken center stage nationally amid a swirl of federal investigations into how campuses including his have handled -- or mishandled -- reported sexual assaults.
"As far as I'm concerned, sexual assault you belong in prison -- period," Mr. Barron said. "People are always talking about what you're willing to do and not willing to do, and I have a very strong opinion on it.
"They need to be in jail. Forget whether they're a student or participate in student activities."
That said, Mr. Barron noted that professionals he has spoken with say between 85 and 95 percent of student/student cases are alcohol- or drug-related, which connects the assault issue with another long-standing campus scourge.
"We happen to be the place where 18- to 23-year-olds reside in great numbers, but the simple fact of the matter is that nobody I know of in this nation has figured out a way to address alcohol, and in many cases drugs, for students of this age," he said.
"I worry that you've got to beat the alcohol problem in order to be able to have an impact on this particular issue," he said.
He said the fact that the U.S. Department of Education has launched Title IX investigations at 60 campuses ranging from public land-grant schools such as Penn State to Ivy League institutions illustrates the complexity of the matter.
Victims can be reluctant to come forward, he said, and schools find themselves barred legally from getting in the way of an active criminal investigations yet obliged to do their own investigation using a different litmus test.
Penn State is still dealing with the aftermath of a scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, now in prison for sexual assaults against boys, some on campus.
Mr. Barron, who took office May 12, arrived from Florida State University, where he was president since 2010. He previously worked at Penn State in various positions, including dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.
Mr. Barron cited the need to control tuition costs, but also said he is committed to safeguarding quality at an institution deeply involved in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) -- academic areas in which delivering instruction is especially expensive. He said he wants Penn State to do more to reduce the number of students who take five years or longer to graduate, saying that would hold down undergraduate tuition bills and reduce debt-load.
His push to reintroduce himself to the university included visits to 21 of Penn State's campuses in 15 days.
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.