Opinion
February 04, 2015

Film on Campus Rape Could Take Philanthropy Activism to a New Level

Christine Baker/The Patriot-News/Landov

The signs of an avalanche were stirring at last month’s Sundance Film Festival, one that could have especially strong reverberations for everyone who is concerned about promoting social change—including activists, donors, and fundraisers. That low rumble you hear comes from the premiere of "The Hunting Ground," a film about sexual violence on campuses that has the potential to take activism to a new level, especially among philanthropists and lawmakers.

While many films that made their debut at Sundance have strong foundation backing and philanthropic aims—especially "Racing Extinction," which Paul Allen bankrolled to explore the potential loss of half the world’s plant and animal species—none has as much potential to provoke a more immediate and consequential impact as "The Hunting Ground," a film about the widespread problem of sexual assault on American campuses.

"The Hunting Ground" presents the stories of numerous young women who have reported being raped on campus by other students, only to be dismissed, ignored, cajoled, or threatened by university officials, police, and prosecutors who seek to quash allegations of sexual assault on campus for a variety of reasons.

The film focuses on many well-known universities, including Harvard, Florida State, and Notre Dame, featuring the heart-wrenching and highly credible stories of young women and their families.

"The Hunting Ground" artfully lays out a blistering indictment of college administrators, who seem more concerned about maintaining good public relations—and more to the point, good donor relations—than they are about seeking justice for victims.

University officials don’t want to give the impression that their campuses are havens for sex offenders for fear that would discourage young people and their families from considering their institutions. And, more important, they are not inclined to pursue allegations against fraternity members and student athletes, two of the most common groups implicated in these crimes, because it would endanger massive alumni giving from former fraternity members and athletic boosters, according to the film.

"The Hunting Ground" was produced and directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, the same team responsible for "The Invisible War," the Academy Award-nominated documentary that peeled back the curtain on an epidemic of rape in the military. That film was a clarion call for reform that led to bipartisan support for changes in the prosecution of rape allegations in the military.

"The Invisible War" led to legal reforms, including measures to prevent criminals with records of felonious assault from enlisting in the military, as well as whistle-blower protection for service members who report assaults. And then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta credited the film as an influence in his decision to reform the military’s sexual-assault policy just two days after seeing it.

"The Hunting Ground" is likely to spark an even larger movement demanding dramatic changes on college campuses. The movie came about after the filmmakers presented many screenings of "The Invisible War" on college campuses. Time after time, young women would tell Ms. Ziering and Mr. Dick that this was their story, too. Eventually, they decided they needed to do another film to illuminate this painful subject.

To be sure, activists have been organizing to fight sexual assaults on campus for many years. And the film focuses much of its attention on a growing movement calling on the federal government to pursue complaints against universities based on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

At the same time, this problem is larger than most people are aware. And the film, with its theatrical distribution by Hollywood powerhouse Radius, a division of the Weinstein Company, coupled with a broadcast deal with CNN Films and therefore viewable in roughly 100 million homes, means that this message has the potential to reach a very large audience.

The film touches on a subject that is immediately relevant to many people, including the nearly 10 million women currently enrolled on campuses, their parents and siblings, and the countless alumnae and their spouses who have dark memories of campus life. If "The Invisible War" had a significant impact on its much smaller group of victims, this film is bound to unleash a mass movement.

Foundations and philanthropists have a special interest and an important role in this issue.

Many foundations are eager to support media that influence society. The organization I head, Media Impact Funders, released a report last month at Sundance cataloging the many approaches that foundations and other donors take on this issue. But there is no doubt that, whatever their approach, grant makers are increasingly interested in making a difference and strengthening their understanding of how the media they support are advancing change in society.

It’s not just that foundation-supported media can have a direct impact on society.

When philanthropists are inspired by compelling stories in documentaries, they should be willing to support creative outreach efforts that apply pressure to promote justice. For example, while many campus officials have soft-pedaled the seriousness of sexual assault in their midst out of fear of upsetting major donors, perhaps it’s time for big foundations and wealthy philanthropists to turn the tables and demand that university presidents take more dramatic action to solve this problem.

A new report reveals that giving to universities rose 11 percent, to a total of more than $37-billion in 2014. Maybe it’s time for foundations and wealthy donors to make an impact on this critical issue by taking a stand on campus assaults, withholding gifts unless and until reforms are made.

Already, leading political figures like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand are pushing for legislation that will require colleges that receive federal money (which is just about all of them) to change the way they report and prosecute sexual-assault allegations.

After the world premiere of "The Hunting Ground" at Sundance, Senator Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, told me she was confident there would be strong bipartisan support for her legislation—the Campus Accountability and Safety Act—and that 20 co-sponsors were already seeking to make it happen.

Once this film reaches a wide audience, the issue of sexual assault on campus is going to explode. And that’s exactly why grant makers should be thinking expansively about how to use media in new ways.

Vincent Stehle is executive director of Media Impact Funders and a Chronicle columnist.