Following UMN’s lead, more schools adopt affirmative consent policies

The University implemented an affirmative consent policy in 2015.

by Helen Sabrowsky

More than 50 Minnesota college campuses now follow “yes means yes” consent policies as a result of student advocacy.

In 2015, University of Minnesota students were among the first in the state to push for an affirmative consent policy, which requires clearly communicated willingness to participate in sexual activity. After the Minnesota State Board of Trustees approved a policy change to require affirmative consent last month, all Minnesota State Colleges and Universities will also follow a similar policy.

While the Minnesota State system already had a robust sexual assault policy, the addition of affirmative consent provides more clarity, said Clyde Pickett, Minnesota State’s chief diversity officer.

The University defines affirmative consent as “informed, freely and affirmatively communicated willingness to participate in sexual activity that is expressed by clear and unambiguous words or actions.”

Student advocacy and demand from stakeholders influenced the Minnesota State Board of Trustees’ decision, Pickett said.

Students United, a Minnesota State University group, started advocating for an affirmative consent policy about a year ago, said Faical Rayani, state chair for Students United. Members of Students United met with every president, Title IX officer, chief diversity officer, student body president and other faculty members from all state universities and colleges, he said.

“Affirmative consent is an important issue to students because … we live these situations [and] we are affected by sexual assault,” Rayani said. “Our advocacy is so important when it comes to pushing issues like consent that aren’t affecting faculty and higher-ups.”

Going forward, Students United will focus on implementing affirmative consent policy education and bystander intervention training at orientation for all universities and colleges in the state system, Rayani said.

Other groups like It’s On Us, a student group aimed at stopping sexual assault on college campuses, also support affirmative consent.

“We believe that it’s important to view consent as the presence of a yes rather than just the absence of a no,” said Maeve Sheridan, president of the University’s chapter of It’s On Us.

While widespread adoption of this policy is a step in the right direction, addressing sexual misconduct on college campuses will require more work, Sheridan said.

However, some worry affirmative consent policies could have negative implications for individuals accused of sexual assault. These policies could shift the burden of proof to the person accused, which infringes on the traditional presumption of innocence in criminal cases, said Samantha Harris, the vice president of policy research for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group.

When the University’s affirmative consent policy was under consideration, it was met with resistance from some students, faculty and staff who were concerned about legal consequences and ambiguous language.

Today, some hope to address affirmative consent policies at the state level. Minnesota gubernatorial candidate and state Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, is working on a bill that would seek to educate students about affirmative consent, among other provisions.

“I began working on policy in 2015, and what I encountered was students advocating for change,” Murphy said. “I was happy to join them on their campuses, and they have taught me a lot about the issue and why it’s important. They should have all the credit for the work they’ve done to pass this policy change.”