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Crime and Punishment at Bryn Mawr College

Owl's picture

How are you coming to understand women’s prisons and colleges as similar and/or different?  

When I first started researching for this project, I was going to study crime and punishment at Bryn Mawr, specifically rape culture at Bryn Mawr, and how victims and perpetrators of rape at Bryn Mawr have been treated and characterized in the history of the school. Given that Bryn Mawr is an all female institution of higher education, both cloistered in terms of gender and in terms of physical space, and taking into account recent conversation about how Bryn Mawr takes a caretaker role in its treatment of its female students, I thought this to be a very interesting topic to discuss in relation to the overarching topic of women in walled communities. However, as I conducted my research I realized that in order to really get an understanding of this I would have to get first hand accounts of incidents of rape in the history of the college as well as interview campus safety officials about their experiences with rape cases on campus; the aforementioned would be difficult given the lack of voice on the issue of rape among women in earlier times and the latter would require IRB approval. Given the time for this project, I realized this would not be possible.

Nonetheless, in the information I was able to find regarding crime on college campuses including Bryn Mawr College, I came across some interesting information about how crime on college campuses has only recently been required by law to be recorded and distributed. According to the Bryn Mawr campus safety website, two laws were enacted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that “require all institutions of higher education within the Commonwealth to provide students and employees with information pertaining to, but not limited to crime statistics, security measures, fire statistics, fire safety measures, policies relating to missing persons and penalties for drug use, on an annual basis.” Also according to the website, “the primary purpose of the federal law is to create a national reporting system on crime and safety, as well as fire safety on our nation's colleges and universities.”

The first law is the College and University Security Act of 1988, better known as the Clery Act. The Clery Act “was named in memory of 19-year-old Lehigh University freshman Jeanne Ann Clery who was raped and murdered while asleep in her residence hall room on April 5, 1986. Jeanne's parents, Connie and Howard, discovered that students hadn't been told about 38 violent crimes on the Lehigh campus in the three years before her murder. They joined with other campus crime victims and persuaded Congress to enact this law” (“The Jeanne Clery Act Story”):

“The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act(20 USC § 1092(f)) is the landmark federal law, originally known as the Campus Security Act, that requires colleges and universities across the United States to disclose information about crime on and around their campuses. The law is tied to an institution's participation in federal student financial aid programs and it applies to most institutions of higher education both public and private. The Act is enforced by the United States Department of Education.The law was amended in 1992 to add a requirement that schools afford the victims of campus sexual assault certain basic rights, and was amended again in 1998 to expand the reporting requirements. The 1998 amendments also formally named the law in memory of Jeanne Clery.  Subsequent amendments in 2000 and 2008 added provisions dealing with registered sex offender notification and campus emergency response. The 2008 amendments also added a provision to protect crime victims, "whistleblowers", and others from retaliation. (“Summary of The Jeanne Clery Act” ).

The second law is the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 1965 (re-enacted in 2008). The purpose of the Higher Education Opportunity Act is to “authorize the federal government's major student aid programs, as well as aid to institutions and other initiatives” (“Higher Education Opportunity Act” ), and to ultimately enforce the Clery Act.

Other than the fact that college campus crimes were silenced for many years before these laws were enacted, another aspect of these laws that is worth studying is the fact that only institutions, both public and private, who are participating in federal financial aid programs are required to disclose information regarding crime in and around their campuses. Looking at the latter in relation to all female institutions of higher education that are increasingly looking to diversify their campuses in terms of race and class and who are increasingly attracting and admitting students who are in need financial assistance, I am left questioning the purpose of these laws, and how they affect the students within the walls of these institutions on a more macro level. More specifically, I am intrigued by how such laws affect students in schools such as Bryn Mawr College, where over fifty percent of its students are on some form of financial aid, and where said students are more likely to be of lower socioeconomic status and of racial minority. Although there are are definite benefits to these laws, there are negative aspects that must be taken into consideration when determining how these laws fully affect the student populations in the schools that are obligated to follow these laws. .

On the one hand, it is important that within the cloistered walls of an all female institution that these crimes are represented and not brushed aside as either female issues or the institution’s problems, for they are first and foremost problems that are influenced by “outside” social factors and then brought into the institution. The issue of rape for instance, has historically been, and continues to be, swept under the rug as a female issue (given that rape is still most commonly seen as a crime against women), and one in which the female has elicited such sexual advances, and must therefore deal with the consequences. Both the involvement of a perpetrator and the overarching problem of patriarchal power dynamics has been neglected in the conversation about rape and rape culture, particularly in institutions of higher education, and in all female institutions of higher education. I hypothesize that the latter has been so, both because educational spaces are presumed to be spaces in which crime is less likely to occur due to one’s level of social awareness that is heightened with increased education and knowledge on such issues, and because women have been depicted as domestic, naturing beings, who are incapable of committing such crimes, which is in line with traditional notions of gender. Therefore, the public attention given to crimes including that of rape in all female institutions of higher education does in fact bring to light the occurrence of such incidents among women of a “higher” caliber, complicating notions of gender, as well as illustrating new perspectives on educational spaces as spaces that are not immune from crime.   

On the other hand, the fact that these laws are only implemented in schools that receive federal financial aid, speak toward assumptions made about the students that make up these institutions. Such requirement implies that there is something inherent in the students receiving financial aid that make them more conducive to crime and that such students require much more negative attention because they are receiving government assistance. Furthermore, the fact that failure to comply with these laws could result in civil penalties and suspension from participating in federal financial aid programs, speaks to the ultimate effect that suspending financial aid would have on students, which is to strip them of their basic right to education and literacy.  

Such treatment of crime and views about those who commit crimes resembles the treatment of female offenders in the prison system. As we have seen and learned in our 360 classes, increasing numbers of women in prison are women of color and of lower socioeconomic status who more often than not were receiving public assistance due to high levels of poverty before they came to be incarcerated. These women are often depicted as abusers of the welfare system who, therefore,  are undeserving of government assistance and who need to be paid more attention to in order to make certain that they are not in fact “milking” the system (Soss, Fording, Schram 2011).  Once incarcerated they are further denied basic rights because they are seen in the same light. As we saw in the example of Alliance in Lynne Haney’s Offending Women: Power, Punishment, and the Regulation of Desire, women who were placed in the alternative-to-incarceration institution were stripped of their welfare benefits by the institution and told that it was for their “good”, and there seemed to be no remorse or second thoughts as to how this might be problematic because, after all, they were criminals.

The very same outlook on deservingness that is tied to government assistance for women who are incarcerated is portrayed in the laws that require higher educational institutions whose students are receiving federal financial aid to disclose crime information in and around their campuses. The laws assume that the students receiving financial assistance to attend institutions of higher education are somehow in need of more attention because they are receiving public assistance, which both speaks to the government’s hierarchical views of welfare as as system that is provided for and by the good of society and must therefore not be abused, as well as their assumptions that schools participating in federal financial aid programs admit students who are more likely to commit crimes, and must therefore be pinpointed as areas of concern. Although there is a general consensus that crime should in fact be punished, it is interesting that only those individuals (in the case of female offenders) who are receiving government assistance are further scrutinized,  and that in the case of college campus crime reporting, that only institutions, and therefore students, participating in federal financial aid programs must oblige by said laws, and that punishment comes in the form of stripping women and students of their basic rights.

In the case of Bryn Mawr College, the laws imply that women of color on financial aid, are considered more of a threat in relation to crime and education. This begs the question as to what abstruse purpose it serves to link crime directly to financial aid for education as is in the aforementioned laws regulating crime on college campuses? Furthermore, given that such punishment was instituted because schools did not inform students of heinous crimes occurring within the walls of their institutions, what purpose might there be to not follow the law and to ignore crime on college campuses. Specifically with all female institutions of education, why might it be necessary to ignore crime on a public scale? 

Works Cited

Haney, Lynne A. Offending Women: Power, Punishment, and the Regulation of Desire.          

Regents of the University of California; 2010.

Soss, Joe, et al. Discipling the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and The Persistent Power of

Race. The University of Chicago Press; 2011.

“ Summary Of The Jeanne Clery Act”

“Annual Security and Fire Safety Report Clery Act and & H.E.O.A. Compliance Information”

“Higher Education Opportunity Act”

“The Jeanne Clery Act Story”



jccohen's picture

cloistered space and public reporting


You pursue some very interesting lines of thought here, particularly with regard to the accessibility (or not) of certain kinds of information about crime.  Early on, you note that your research had to completely shift:  “However, as I conducted my research I realized that in order to really get an understanding of this I would have to get first hand accounts of incidents of rape in the history of the college as well as interview campus safety officials about their experiences with rape cases on campus…”  And/but I’m curious about whether there are any tracings of rape/sexual assault/other crimes at the college via the newspapers or other sources—or whether this is completely absent from all kinds of documents and records--?

You then move to a much wider lens as you give us background on legal requirements for crime reporting on college campuses.  How do you understand the “silencing” of college campus crime in this context; do you read this as about negative advertising?  And of course too there’s the issue of how often women did/not report sexual assault experiences, given the ‘blame the victim’ mentality that often pervaded this issue.

You discussion of assumptions that are challenged by public reporting of crime and particularly rape in such spaces as a women’s college does a nice job of “complicating notions of gender,” and I think you’re talking largely here about women as perpetrators (is that right?).  Consider too that this kind of reporting may come as a surprise in terms of how “cloistered” –how effectively separated by walls from the larger community--women’s colleges actually are or can be.  In line with this, I question the claim you make here:  “the fact that these laws are only implemented in schools that receive federal financial aid, speak toward assumptions made about the students that make up these institutions.”  I suspect that this is about the fact that it’s when schools and students are receiving government aid that the government has the power to require reporting.  With this additional nuance, I do think there’s real merit to your argument, in that the government is positioned in these cases (prisons and colleges) to perform a kind of surveillance that restricts the freedoms of poor people, women, etc.

I’m intrigued and puzzled by your final question and would like to hear your thoughts on this:  “Specifically with all female institutions of education, why might it be necessary to ignore crime on a public scale?”