As Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students at Michigan State University, Anthony Williams Jr. specializes in conflict resolution, alternative dispute resolution, social justice education, and restorative practices facilitation. He uses those skills while helping college students navigate the challenges they encounter as they work to balance college expectations along with newfound freedom and responsibility. Williams met psychotherapist Randy Flood, Director of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan, while serving as the Associate Dean of Students at Grand Valley State University where, among other tasks, he supervised the Office of Conduct and Conflict Resolution. His office referred young men charged with misconduct on campus to the Men’s Resource Center for risk assessments and therapy. Flood also provided training to university staff on the unique challenges involved in working with male college students. In their conversation on the Revealing Men podcast (excerpted here and edited for length and clarity), Flood and Williams talk about how teaching young men conflict resolution skills reduces incidents of misconduct and promotes healthier communities. Hear the entire conversation wherever you listen to podcasts.
Sexual Misconduct 101
Flood: One of the things I wanted to talk to you about is your experience on campus. What are some of the typical problems in some of the young men that come on campus that get them into trouble that you end up getting involved with?
Williams: Just general misconduct. [Typically] underage alcohol consumption, which then leads to other violations such as disruptive behavior, violence, physical assaults, things like that.
Flood: Okay. The ones we’ve gotten [at the Men’s Resource Center] oftentimes are guys who engage in some non-consensual sexual contact. And usually, when you think of that you think of a case of rape or something like that, that’s really coercive. The ones that we see are not that at all. It’s just some kind of assumption made that someone wants something. They don’t get consent. They don’t know how to talk about it.
You’ve got these freshmen sometimes coming from rural settings and they’re going to be the big man on campus. They go to a party and consume large amounts of alcohol. They meet someone at a party and then all of a sudden, they proceed to try to engage sexually without knowing someone. And things just don’t turn out so well.
Williams: Yeah. I would say that is about 80% of the time when it comes to non-consensual sex. Now we know the definition of sexual assault is quite broad. Sexual assault can be anything from touching someone’s private area above the clothes and it can range all the way to forcible penetration or non-consensual sex, and everything in between. But for the scenario you described, I would say that’s about 80% of the time.
[Let’s say] we have two college students. They go to a party. They both probably drink way too much. They go back to one of their places or to someplace—some secluded place—they engage in sex. One person wakes up, it’s the best night of their life. And the other person wakes up “Oh my gosh.” “What did I do?” “I did not want to do that.” “I shouldn’t of did that.” “Why did you do this to me?”
The Evolving Narrative Around Consent
Flood: How would you describe the old traditional views of male sexuality? The guy who comes to the campus and is like he’s going to go and party and have conquests and go explore his sexuality. The old views on sexuality and then contrast that with the current view around this consensual mutuality of sexuality that they run into on campus and that those [views] collide.
Williams: Yeah, sure. If you look at movies like American Pie or other college-set movies, it’s the guys are getting together, they’re drinking, and the purpose of the night is to find out who they can hook up with. Right? And that was the narrative for a very long time. And colleges and universities today are having a hard time fighting that. We have to define what consent is. How to get consent and how to give consent. And that is work not only with males but with women as well. We have to change the narrative and we have to teach males to respect any person they choose to engage in sexual intercourse with.
Flood: How much work do you do in orientation, say freshmen year, with trying to impact that myth? There’s that documentary called The Hunting Ground; you might’ve seen that. I think that’s an interesting metaphor; men coming to hunt. These are the grounds where all of these women are and you’ve got the fraternities to try to bring them in and corral them. There’s just that mentality sometimes that is very destructive for men to see women as someone they’re hunting or someone that they’re having a conquest with. How do you change that?
Williams: That’s going to take some years to deconstruct. On the front end, what most universities do, is we have modules that students have to take and we really define our sexual misconduct policies. We give examples of what it looks like to violate that policy and we also give them a brief education on what consent is and how to get consent. From there on, various offices throughout the campus do programming.
And we also rely on our students quite a bit to educate the campus body on what consent is. We find that to be extremely helpful. That peer-to-peer connection is great. I think when you have the president of a fraternity implementing some sort of consent programming with their chapter, that’s much more effective than for me to come in and talk to a fraternity. I strongly believe in that peer-to-peer education and most universities buy into that.
How Conflict Resolution Promotes Growth
Flood: A more traditional masculine view of conflict is to conquer, and overpower, and dominate, and to get someone or something to submit so you win. I mean, that would be a traditional troupe; masculine troupe. So, how does conflict resolution contrast what I just described?
Williams: Defining what we call “restorative practices” would give us a good foundation for this conversation. The way that I define it is in three buckets: those who are in a community with each other have the opportunity to set the expectations for how that community will function, so that’s the first bucket. The second bucket is those who are in a community with each other have the responsibility to maintain a healthy community. And then, third, is what we often hear as restorative justice; when harm occurs in a community, those who are impacted, those who cause the harm, they must come together to repair that harm.
So, if you put that into the context of a college, the college and university must work with faculty, staff, and students to create its policies and procedures. And, the second bucket: the administrators, faculty, staff, and students, they have to work together to maintain a healthy community where all students can thrive, all faculty can thrive, etc. And if there is harm on the college campus, then faculty, staff, and students should come together to repair that harm.
And it’s not in a traditional judicial way where you have someone who did something bad, they go before a judge, the judge hears them out, they slap them with some sanction, and they send them on their way. The problem with that is the individuals who they harmed have no say, no authority, they don’t feel like the harm that was done to them has been repaired at all. They’re more focused on the policy violation versus the actual individual who was harmed.
Flood: So, does that dovetail into the criminal justice reform? [Williams: “Sure.”] Looking at rehabilitation, the offender, if you will, very differently and then that person’s relationship to the community that they harmed or the victim that they harmed.
Williams: Right. The ultimate goal in conflict resolution or in student conduct is we want to create an environment where the individual who caused harm can be welcomed back into the community and the individuals who were harmed will be welcoming to that individual. And you can’t do that through a traditional process.
There’s a lot of learning that comes out of this. The individual who caused harm, they will be able to directly talk—maybe sometimes indirectly talk—to the individual they harmed and they will learn from them, they will grow from them. If you were to ask ten people who were in a room and they witnessed the incident you could potentially get ten different answers as to what happened. And by each individual hearing what happened, that will give them a different perspective and they can grow and that leads to at least higher levels of satisfaction with the process and lower recidivism rates.
Flood: Right. I always say the enemy of violence is empathy. If you know what you’re doing, the harm you’re causing others, the less likely you’re to do it. And so, the process you described seems like it gives the offender or the assailant, or whatever we call that person who harmed the community or individual, gives them a chance to hear more intimately, more personally, the harm they caused and there can be a lesson in that.
Benefits of the Restorative vs. Punitive Justice Model
Williams: If someone was sexually assaulted, they may not want that person to be kicked out of the university. They might not want that person to get a fine or be expelled. Sometimes, they just want the person to know that they hurt them. Right? And in the traditional conduct process where the repairing harm of the harmed party is not taken into consideration that wound will never be healed for them. And that person who committed the harm will simply just feel punished. They will never have an opportunity to apologize, they will never have an opportunity to learn how they hurt that person.
How powerful would it be for the offender to sit across the table when it’s appropriate. We are not forcing people to do this. This is all voluntary. And some people have opted into doing this. How powerful would it be for the person who was assaulted to say: “You hurt me. This is how you hurt me. This is how I perceive that night to be.” And the person who caused the harm could [say]: “Wow. I never knew I could do all that harm by what I just did. I’m so sorry.” I guarantee you, that experience—well, I cannot guarantee it, but I would hope that—that experience would change that person’s life so much that they would never do that again.
Flood: It’s really about believing in the goodness in humans. [Williams: “Right.”] And certainly, there are people who are just anti-social, and predatory, and psychopathic. But, that’s a small, small portion of what you are dealing with. Very, very small. And so, the punishment model of just being mad at people for doing bad behaviors and just hitting them with sanctions and punishment, it seems like you’re saying it’s not as effective [Williams: “It’s not.”] as this model. Do you have any way of tracking this? A way to see how effective it is in quantifying it in some way, or is it more qualitative?
Williams: We have found that students who go through informal resolution processes have less future violations than those who go through the formal process. And this is consistent with national data as well. It has been proven time and time again. There are dissertations on it. There are research papers on it. There is a higher level of engagement, a higher level of just empathy, learning, and understanding, and growth through the informal process. It takes longer. Right? It costs more. You have to have more resources to do it, which is why some universities have not been able to implement it.
Flood: I think that some people look at it and are skeptical. They think that “oh, you’re going soft, you’re giving these people a way out,” and they fear that you’re going to coddle them, and then they’re not going to learn from it. They’re stuck in this more punitive model, that that works! But if the outcome is public safety, and the outcome is rehabilitation, then let’s look at what the evidence shows.
Williams: Well, that argument—and in addition to, we’re forcing people to come in contact with their offender—that is not the truth. All informal resolution processes are voluntary and all parties can opt into them and they can opt-out of them at any time.
Williams: I remember being a child and, ya know, spankings only take you so far. My dad is old school and I know it’s probably bad, he’s gonna be mad that I said this, but growing up, I did something wrong, I would get spanked. Right? [Flood: “Right.”] But guess what? That was over in like a minute or two. What really hurt was for him to tell me he was disappointed. That lasted for weeks. That hurt. So, you gotta have an educational component. And many times, the punitive process does not offer an educational component, which you’re not teaching the person how to not do that again. You’re just punishing them for it.
Better Dialogue Through Conflict Resolution
Williams: Our campuses are becoming more and more diverse every day. And we have students coming from multiple or having multiple intersecting social identities, so we have to create environments for them on campus where they can feel comfortable.
And when it comes specifically to racial justice, we’ve, … I mean our country has been… ya know, black and brown people have been under attack forever. But it has been very, very, very visible these last few years. I remember a lot of these — I am thinking beyond the Civil Rights Movement — in my lifetime; the murder of Mike Brown really was a trigger for a lot of activism, and since then a lot of these senseless killings of black men, black women, brown folks, or all folks of color have been put on the forefront and we’ve seen a lot of activism on campus as a result of that. Which I appreciate! [Flood: “Yeah. For sure.”] I think the strongest voices on the campus are our students. When they say “jump,” we as administrators often times jump.
Flood: We are hearing some kickback of the BLM movement and the All Lives Matter movement, … if that is such a movement. Of course, all lives matter, but I always think about if we put a certain animal on the extinction list, it’s because we gotta pay special attention. It doesn’t mean we don’t care about the squirrels and the bunny rabbits anymore. [Williams: “Exactly.”] So that idea that All Lives Matter…
Anyway, I’m just wondering if you run into students who feel attacked, or marginalized, or oppressed by that discussion.
Williams: Of Black Lives Matter?
Williams: Yeah, of course.
Flood: How do you manage that—again, in that conflict resolution spirit— in getting or creating dialogue instead of punishing it and shutting it down. How do you try to create some kind of discernment or dialogue around some of that?
Williams: Conflict resolution is perfect for these types of conversations when you bring people together who have varying ideas, opposing ideas even. We bring them together. We set some ground rules. We have an extremely well-trained facilitator because as you can imagine these conversations can go left really fast. But you set those ground rules.
And the purpose of dialogue versus a discussion or debate is that in a dialogue you come to ask more questions than make statements. You know you really want to have that sense of understanding right? So, I’m gonna ask questions so that I can understand where you’re coming from even when we leave this space. We may not agree with each other, but at least I’ll understand how our opinions fundamentally differ. Right? That’s the goal.
And I let people know that facilitated dialogue doesn’t mean we are going to reach some sort of resolution today. We’re not trying to convince you to think the way that I think, the way that someone else thinks. We just want you to understand their point of view. So, in my opinion, the best way to educate someone who is against the Black Lives Matter movement is for them to really educate themselves on what the Black Lives Matter movement is. Of course, all lives matter. But all lives aren’t being killed almost daily by police all over the country. So, we’re going to pay special attention to this population who needs it.
Respecting Trade Skills Honed Outside of Academia
Flood: You have so much knowledge that I want to tap into, weigh into all of this in a short amount of time—so, I pivot to looking at just young men coming on campus and just the stats right now. Right now, more females are graduating from college than—I don’t know if you know the percentage and the gender disparity but every time I look at it it’s about 60/40. So, you think about this tremendous shift; failure to launch, young men struggling, the attrition rate is greater for young men. What do you see going on with that and how can we help these young men? What’s the struggle as you see it?
Williams: I can speculate. I can imagine that just the traditional European education style where you sit down and I’m gonna lecture to you for so many hours, and then you regurgitate the information you learned, that doesn’t work for a lot of men, or for some students, period.
I think there’s data, now don’t quote me on this, but women probably have a longer attention span than men. So, for a man, a male student, to be in a class for three hours, expected to listen to a math lecture. I mean halfway through they’re just like, this isn’t for me. [Both: Laugh.] I’ve had that. I’m a doctoral student and I’m in class once a month, three days a week, from 10 am to 6 pm. And due to the pandemic, it’s over Zoom. [Laughs]
As an adult, I think I can focus a bit longer. But you can imagine halfway through some of these lectures my mind is on everything else that I wish I was doing. So, maybe that has something to do with it? I don’t want to generalize, but I do know that some of the more hands-on, more physical occupations, are dominated by men. Not because women don’t want to do it, it’s just that men are more targeted for those opportunities.
Flood: Right. And in reference to getting people educated, credentials, and advanced degrees, I think we’ve forgotten about the trades and the value of that. So, giving people options for non-traditional ways of working and learning a skill.
Williams: Yeah. That is huge. We definitely need to invest in our trades. I mean, just basic carpentry. We don’t have people to repair homes anymore. I think we need to get back to our trades.
Flood: I appreciate all of the work you do and just that ethos of trying to create spaces for people to resolve problems and create healing. I’m glad you’re at the forefront of that. And I appreciate you coming in and talking about it.
Williams: Yeah, no problem. When anybody asks me what I do for a living, I tell them I maintain relationships. [Flood: “Wow.”] That’s what it’s all about.
Graduating to a Fuller, Healthier Life
Although the focus of this piece is on college students, we know it’s not only college students who benefit from learning conflict resolution skills. Our Progressions program helps guide young men in choosing a path that’s best for them. We work with them toward developing greater independence and stability. The Men’s Resource Center also offers a number of trainings and workshops for organizations and institutions focused on creating healthier cultures.
If you have any questions about these programs or our counseling, coaching, and consultative services, please free to contact the Men’s Resource Center online or call us at (616) 456-1178. In addition, if you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast, let us know.
“You’ve got these freshmen sometimes coming from rural settings and they’re going to be the big man on campus. They go to a party and consume large amounts of alcohol. They meet someone at a party and then all of a sudden, they proceed to try to engage sexually without knowing someone. And things just don’t turn out so well.”
I am interested to know why you decided to depict people from rural settings as sexual assaulters/rapists. Seems very strange.
Dear “Person”: I say “sometimes coming from rural settings” noting that it isn’t all the time. I did bring this up because a lot of the times when I do risk assessments on these cases I notice a trend or typology of young males from small-town America coming to urban campuses with uninformed or outdated ideas about university settings that leads them into following unhealthy masculine tropes about sexuality which leads to their misconduct.
There are plenty of dysfunctional and unhelpful medial representations of male sexuality that young men attempt to mimic, which creates situations where they are naively aggressive rather than empathically consensual. There are other typologies of course, but that is one example I came up with on the fly because it is based in my clinical experience.
I don’t know if you ever saw the old film “Urban Cowboy”, but it is somewhat of a 21st-century version of that sad plot. I actually have a lot of compassion for these misguided young men, and they respond quite well to counseling and coaching.
Ok. It still seems very strange to me. I hope you will take the time to examine your prejudices. I appreciate you making your prejudices (prejudgements) explicit this way.