U launches new Center for Violence Prevention

The University of Utah has launched a new center focused on primary prevention of relationship and sexual violence on college campuses.

Using a power-conscious, intersectional framework, the Center for Violence Prevention will aim to bridge the gap between research and practice by bringing together researchers, prevention educators and students. The center will work on better understanding and analyzing perpetration and peer culture as it relates to relationship and sexual violence. Its efforts will be intentionally focused on students from historically minoritized backgrounds, including students of color, queer and trans students and students with disabilities.

The inaugural director of the center is Chris Linder, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy in the College of Education and special assistant to President Ruth Watkins on violence prevention and education.

“We want to go upstream and really look at some of the challenges that are causing violence to happen,” Linder said.

Prior to becoming a faculty member, Linder worked in student affairs at the University of Missouri and at Colorado State University, where she served as the director of the Office of Women’s Programs and Studies. That office focused on sexual violence prevention, victim-survivor advocacy, response and education. She co-edited a book on relationship and sexual violence and is the author of Sexual violence on campus: Power-conscious approaches to awareness, prevention, and response.

Chris Linder

“We are so fortunate to be helped by the leadership of a remarkable faculty member whose past experience includes working directly in this area,” said U President Ruth Watkins. “For the past three years, we’ve been engaged in powerful, continuous efforts around safety on our campus and working to change our culture.

“With the creation of this center, we are taking a major step forward in our efforts to reduce relationship and sexual violence on college campuses—our own, but also with the goal of becoming a national leader in this area,” Watkins said.

The center’s work will be guided by an advisory board of students, staff, faculty and community experts and aided by community ambassadors.

“We’re committed to making change and moving these issues forward  in a research-informed way with the voices and broad support of our campus community, stakeholders and donors,” Watkins said.

The center’s advisory board has set six initial goals, which include:

  • Educate campus community members—including faculty, staff and students—about relationship and sexual violence prevention through a variety of professional development opportunities and partnerships with other campus-based programs and initiatives
  • Engage researchers in education and professional development to conduct critically conscious research, with a specific focus on perpetration and peer culture
  • Engage practitioners in education and professional development to initiate critically conscious educational programs and interventions for perpetrators
  • Develop and conduct comprehensive campus climate studies, including interviews, focus groups, and media analysis, at college campuses across the U.S.
  • Coordinate research teams of faculty, staff and students and provide seed grant funding for research projects focused explicitly on the primary prevention of relationship and sexual violence

“We’re trying to stay away from the one size fits all approach,” said Aarushi Rohaj, a U student, founder of Students for Action Focused Empowerment (SAFE) and board member. “We hope to have a variety of events on campus where we can interact with different student groups and organizations to create personal connections, discuss experiences and share ideas and concerns.”

Linder said that after decades of research, many questions still remain about the dynamics of relationship and sexual violence among college students. In fact, rates haven’t change since 1957, when the first studies on the issue were conducted. New research suggests that minoritized groups experience even higher rates of violence than their peers. And examinations of perpetrators and what drives their behavior is particularly lacking.

“We can offer safeguards for victims all day long, but if we’re not addressing perpetrators and common perpetrator behaviors, we’re really not going to be able to eradicate these issues on our campus,” said Kwynn Gonzalez-Pons, a doctoral student in the College of Social Work and board member. “We need to understand who on our campus is perpetrating these crimes and in what says. We’re going to do that by looking at these questions through rules of power and student cultures or identities.”

Linder said the center’s focus on primary prevent acknowledges that there is a difference between awareness, prevention and response.

“Unfortunately, on college and university campuses all across the United States we spend an inordinate amount of time responding to violence after it happens,” Linder said. “Having a good response is really important while violence is still happening, and we want to complement the work that already being done at the U that really improved our response. We do want to add to that by doing some work that addresses violence from a primary prevention lens.”

If you want to learn more or get involved, contact Chris Linder at chris.linder@utah.edu Listen here to a conversation about the center on the U Rising podcast.