It was a cold January day in 1985 when University students occupied former Vice President for Student Services Henry Johnson’s office to protest his comments regarding sexual assault that appeared in Metropolitan Detroit Magazine.
The magazine quoted Johnson saying, “Rape is a red flag word — in many people’s minds it conjures up something that’s to be suspect at best — a very bad environment to be in. (The University) wants to present an image that is receptive and palatable to the potential student cohort.”
He also compared rape to Alzheimer’s disease and mental retardation, saying it affected a small portion of the population and the issue may have to reach a crisis level “in order to get things done.”
He also said he didn’t anticipate a centralized rape prevention and treatment center because of the University’s current financial situation.
“Our responsibility is to provide, within our resources, a safe environment. Given the current (financial) climate, I just don’t see something labeled ‘rape prevention clinic’ or ‘office’ as necessarily germane to the mission of the institution. That’s a cold thing to say but it’s (so).”
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention Awareness Program, said the comments were taken as offensive by sexual assault survivors on campus.
“It was not intended to be an affront to survivors on campus, but survivors on campus definitely took it that way,” she said.
University alum Pamela Kisch, then an LSA undergraduate, was among the students who participated in the sit-in. In an interview with the Daily, Kisch said one of the goals of the sit-in was to educate Johnson about sexual assault on campus.
“We spent the day in his office and we educated him about date rape and acquaintance rape, and that those were huge issues on campus, and the things he said in the magazine weren’t true,” she said.
Kisch also said she and other protesters felt University administration did not view sexual assault as a relevant issue on campus.
“The comments he made really made it clear to us that University administration didn’t really take these issues seriously and were really kind of clueless about the lives of women on campus in this regard,” she said.
Rider-Milkovich said students also wanted to discuss the need to open a rape crisis center for students on campus.
“The students really wanted for there to be more institutional infrastructure and for there to be more of a comprehensive and integrated response, and more specific dedicated resources for sexual assault survivors,” she said.
Following the protest, University administrators created a task force comprising students and administrators to develop an outline for a sexual assault program for the campus community.
“It couldn’t be just a little office somewhere,” Kisch said. “It needed to be its own program, with its own budget and director and needed to be on Central Campus.”
In May 1985, the University approved $75,000 for an assault prevention program for the campus community.
Students played a significant role in helping operate the program early on. Kisch collaborated with fellow protester David Lovinger to develop the Peer Education Program and become the program’s first co-leaders.
“We trained students and sent one man and one woman to groups of students to model and demonstrate things like stereotypes around men and women and what consent really was,” Kisch said. “The Peer Education Program launched even before the first director was hired.”
It was not until February 1986 that the program officially opened and named the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, hiring Julie Steiner as the first director.
In 1988, SAPAC launched its 24-hour crisis line, which was, at first, monitored by students. Rider-Milkovich said they eventually decided to hire professionals for the job to protect students from trauma.
“The University made the determination that students who were staffing the crisis line and answering crisis line calls would sometimes experience secondary trauma and came to the decision that that was not responsible for us to allow,” she said.
Rider-Milkovitch also said another one of SAPAC’s bigger innovations was transforming the program to focus more on intervention rather than sexual assault education.
“We wanted to move away from awareness raising kind of model to one that focused more on primary prevention and promoting healthy sexuality,” she said. “Now, college campuses across the country are mandated to provide that type of training.”
This year, as SAPAC celebrates its 30th anniversary, Rider-Milkovich said she wants to work with her colleagues to continue providing necessary innovations for the program.
“We are always scanning the horizon and looking for what are the most promising practices out there,” she said. “We ask ourselves, ‘What are new ideas that need to be tested? What are ways in which we see gaps in the kinds of services the campus provides that we might innovate or pilot for the benefit of students and others?’”