U launches new Center for Violence Prevention

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

Chris Linder is the inaugural director of the U’s new Center for Violence Prevention. Guided by Linder, the center will take a power-conscious approach to examining how to prevent violence before it happens. In this episode, Linder describes the center’s mission and goals and how you can get involved. A virtual launch for the center is set for Tuesday, Sept. 22, at 11 a.m. Learn more here: Recorded on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast, where you get to meet some of the people who are helping us achieve great things at the University of Utah. I am Ruth Watkins, the president of the university. And my guest today is Chris Linder. Chris is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy in our College of Education. And Chris also has two other very important roles here at the university. She's a special assistant to my office for violence prevention and education. And I'm also pleased to announce that Chris will serve as the inaugural director for the Center for Violence Prevention, which we are talking about today. So, Chris, warmest welcome to you.

Chris Linder: Hi, thank you for having me.

President Watkins: Chris, I think you are the right person at the right time in the right place. We're so fortunate to have you, your expertise and your leadership here at the university. Tell listeners about your background.

Chris Linder: Sure. So, I have been working in higher education for 20 years at this point. I started out in student affairs, actually at the University of Missouri. And then I also worked at Colorado State University for several years, primarily working in the role as the director of a campus-based women's center that did sexual violence advocacy and response, and education on campus. So, I did that full time for about almost 10 years. I also earned a Ph.D while I was working full time. So, I empathize with those students who work full time and go to school at the same time. After I earned my Ph.D., that's when I decided, ‘Oh, I do think I really like this research stuff. I think I'm going to try and be faculty.’ And so I became faculty shortly thereafter that. And because of the work I had been doing on college campuses around victim advocacy, one of my major areas of research interest is around addressing relationship and sexual violence, specifically on college campuses.

President Watkins: So maybe you should tell listeners about your books because the thing that's kind of remarkable about you is, and it's kind of rare in my experience, that people have such deep experience working with students and on campus, and then become researchers later. It usually works the other way around. I think listeners would be interested in your work as a scholar and your books.

Chris Linder: Yeah, for sure. So, yes, I've been doing research, like I said, related to relationship and sexual violence for some time. And I have had the opportunity actually to co-edit one book about relationship and sexual violence and then author a second book. The edited volume was with Dr. Jessica Harris at the University of California at Los Angeles. And that book very intentionally looks at the intersections of identity with sexual violence. We invited authors to write chapters about how sexual violence impacts LGBT students, or students of color, or students with disabilities, because what we know is that those students are left out of the mainstream research on relationship and sexual violence on college campuses.

So that was the first foray into this. And then the second book that I authored is a book that tries to push us in higher education to separate out response, prevention and awareness. On college campuses across the U.S., we frequently get pushed through legal mechanisms, through public awareness, to really focus our efforts on responding to violence after it happens. And we sometimes lose sight of, ‘Wait, how did we get here? What's causing all of this to happen in the first place?’ And to go upstream and really look at some of those challenges that's causing violence to happen.

President Watkins: And these are just the exact reasons why you are the perfect person to lead our new Center for Violence Prevention. My understanding is this week there is a virtual launch of our new center. I think it would be of great interest to our listeners to hear more about what you hope our Center for Violence Prevention will accomplish here at the University of Utah.

Chris Linder: Yeah. So, a couple of things that I think may make this center unique. One thing is that it's very intentionally focused on primary prevention, like we said. And one of the things about our focus on primary prevention is that we're really trying to focus in on two things—one being perpetration and patterns of perpetration. Of the research that currently exists about relationship and sexual violence, more than half of it focuses on victims and victim risk factors—what makes someone at risk for being a victim of violence. Less than 10% of the research focuses on what makes someone at risk for committing violence. And so, for me, one of the questions that remains largely unanswered is who's doing this and why are they doing it, and how can we stop them? So that's a big component of it.

The other one is to look at peer culture. Like I talked about earlier, a lot of the research that we have right now really focuses on the dominant population—so what I refer to as pretty, rich, white women at colleges and universities, and those students are important. I would never say we should stop doing research on cisgender heterosexual, white women. Those are important experiences, but what happens is they get portrayed as the only experience. And so it's really important for us to look at how students with other identities are experiencing violence because we know that LGBT students, for example, have exceptionally high rates of violence perpetrated against them. And we need to understand that dynamic as well. So those are a couple of the pieces. The other thing that I think makes this center unique is that we are very intentionally focused on the theory to practice piece.

We have an advisory board for the center and there are 16 people on it and more than two-thirds are either students or student affairs practitioners, not researchers. Most centers like this have a very heavy focus on researchers, and that sort of makes a big gap between what's happening in practice and what the research is. And so, we're trying to turn that on its head and have more practitioners than researchers because the researchers are out there, but the practitioners' voices and student voices quite frankly are frequently left out of these prevention conversations. We're trying to be more intentional about making sure those voices are present.

President Watkins: I think you present such a compelling vision and a vision that will allow the University of Utah to move onto a national stage and become a real leader in an important area. The prevention focus certainly seems very unique. I think it'd be helpful to hear about how you see us working with other campuses and moving into that role as we are taking the knowledge and the education and the learning that we create into a big conversation with the nation and even the world.

Chris Linder: Yeah, for sure. I think a couple of things, one, so the advisory board has been hard at work all summer on developing a strategic plan. And the strategic plan has six major goals. And those goals largely focus on education, so creating awareness, professional development and educational opportunities for students, faculty and staff.

One of the things that's really striking to me when I do this work is that no matter where I am, every time I start talking about doing prevention related to relationship and sexual violence, people always go to response. It's just our default. We always go to, ‘Well, we need to get more people to report to police, and we need to get more people to carry mace, and we need more blue lights, and we need people to stop drinking.’ So, we go to all these pieces that are very heavily response focused and when I say, ‘What about prevention?’ People just look at me and they're like, ‘That is prevention.’ And so I think that's a component, helping all of us shift our perspective to actually that's a part of prevention, but it's a very small part of prevention. And it's a part of secondary prevention, meaning that we're stopping it from happening again, rather than stopping it from happening in the first place. And so education is a big part of our vision, shifting people's perspective, helping people think more critically about research.

We intend to facilitate a couple of different ways for people to engage in more critical research. For one, we're hoping to work with a department to establish a course for graduate students on how to engage in critically conscious research on this topic. The other thing is to create a learning community for current researchers. We're going to start with that at the University of Utah. I envision that in years two and three, we might expand to the State of Utah. And then after that, we can expand beyond that.

In terms of taking our work from the University of Utah to potentially assist other campuses in this area, we have a couple of ideas. One of those would be that we know that campuses, on several listservs that I'm on, there are questions all the time about doing campus climate studies. And one of the ways that we feel like we might be able to assist with that would be to help campuses do more comprehensive campus climate studies.

Right now, we have some pretty good tools that help us know the breadth of the issues, so we know how frequently violence is happening, but we don't have the depth. We're not getting very much qualitative data around when is it happening, why is it happening, all of those pieces. How are students thinking about it? So that's an area that we hope that we can contribute that other campuses could use and build on for sure. And then the other way is that—it won't happen in the first year, because we're going to be building for a little bit, but in years two or three of the center's establishment—we do hope to host a symposium at the U to bring other researchers and practitioners who are interested in engaging in creative, innovative, thoughtful ways to engage in prevention to join us for some conversations in creativity with that.

I do think it's important in the first couple of years for us to iron out sort of the bugs and figure out what's working and what engages people and that sort of thing at the U and then expand from there. I'm nervous about starting too big and not having everything together yet. So, we're pretty intentional about the focus expanding year after a year, as opposed to starting out really big.

President Watkins: Part of your vision, I think, is to really engage our campus community, our students, our faculty, our staff and our broader community and other experts. You've talked about some advisory roles. What about listeners who may want to get involved and be a part of this? Is there a place for them? And how can they express that interest? And how can they learn more about what you and your team are doing?

Chris Linder: Yes. So, at the virtual launch is the probably the best way to learn more details. We're going to go through each of the goals of the center in the strategic plan at that launch. So that's a good place to go. And then what we envision happening next is that a member of the advisory board will take the lead with each of the goals and objectives in the strategic plan. And then we'll invite members of the campus community who want to be involved with implementing those or have ideas related to those goals and objectives to get involved that way. So, that's a way that people can get involved. We also will just have a general information listserv that people can sign up for to get more information. So, as events are happening, as we do education and awareness events, those will be on there. I'm in the process right now, I'm hiring some—I'm super excited about the applications were amazing—student staff, both graduate and undergraduate staff.

And I envision those undergraduate students are going to be spending a lot of time working on our social media accounts. We're going to start a blog where we do regular updates and educational pieces for the campus community. So, there'll be lots of opportunity for people to get more information. And then as they get more information, if there are specific areas they'd like to be involved with implementing, that will certainly be an option as well.

President Watkins: You are really creating an innovative hub where people who care about this issue and want to be part of preventing violence, moving upstream as opposed to always being in the reactive role, can come gather, learn, exchange ideas and really make a difference. The virtual launch is a big deal, Tuesday, September 22. Tell people about how they can join the virtual launch if they'd like to.

Chris Linder: Sure. So, the launch is going to be on September 22, like you said, at 11 a.m. To register for the launch, to get the Zoom link, the event is listed on the university events calendar. So, you can go there to register. We will be recording it, so it will be saved as a webinar on our website afterwards. If you can't make the actual physical time that the launch is, you can certainly watch it later. It will be available on our website, which will also be up. We actually have our website meeting on the same day, so I anticipate that website will be up very shortly after the launch.

President Watkins: Very good. Well, Chris, we are so fortunate that you decided to expand your career from practitioner and student affairs leader into researcher leader, and that you joined the University of Utah campus. Thank you so much for your time today and for all you're doing to help us, as a University of Utah, grow, improve and lead as a place that wants to prevent violence. We appreciate you.

Chris Linder: Thank you, I appreciate you too.

President Watkins: And thank you listeners for taking time to join us today and I hope you'll listen into the next edition of the U Rising podcast.