The daughter of a very good friend is in her first year of university away from home. I'd like to think she was safe. It's a small, close-knit campus, unlike the sprawling degree factories some of our institutions have become.
But I thought of her as I surveyed news reports about a spate of sexual assaults at the University of British Columbia – five in the last year, according to CBC News.
The latest happened last weekend when a man lurking in a stairwell outside a campus apartment building attacked a young woman passing by around 3:30 a.m. He groped her and tried to rip off her clothes but she fought him and screamed, prompting him to run away.
Less than a month earlier another woman experienced a similar early-morning attack. Last April, a female student was jumped while on a jogging trail, and police report two women were the target of nighttime gropings in the spring of 2012.
There's no indication the same person is responsible for these attacks, but UBC officials and the RCMP detachment on campus issued a safety alert for women to be extra vigilant.
These days, UBC is a very big place, with some 50,000 full- and part-time students, plus more than 15,000 faculty and staff. It's a small city and, like a city, has its share of crime.
But the issue has a particular resonance in the wake of this fall's "rape chant" controversy.
UBC became a focal point after it was revealed the school's first-year commerce students participated in what's supposedly a traditional frosh-week activity, chanting about the pleasures of having forced sex with underage girls. A similar frosh-week chant caused a furor at St. Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
What some saw as harmless frosh-week hijinks, others viewed as promoting a culture of sexual violence against women.
A Canadian Federation of Students pamphlet issued last spring said four out of five female undergraduate students reported being victimized in a dating relationship, and that many sexual assaults on campus happen in the first eight weeks of classes. And unlike the mystery gropers, the vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim.
A University of Toronto fact sheet claimed 60 per cent of Canadian college-age males reported they would commit a sexual assault if they were sure they'd get away with it.
Toronto's York University, in the spotlight recently over allegations it's become notorious for sexual assaults, is challenging the claim in court.
Toronto Now reports the university has served Toronto Life magazine with a libel notice over an article that claims the York campus has become "a hunting ground for sexual predators," and that despite millions spent beefing up security, female students still live in fear.
The article in the October edition of the magazine "presents a wholly distorted picture of women’s safety on the campus of York University," Mamdouh Shoukri, York president and vice-chancellor, said in a news release.
Toronto Now reported York's student federation also condemned the article as "misleading" and containing "troubling generalizations."
A blog post in Maclean's last April suggested York was being tainted by reported sexual assaults in its north Toronto neighbourhood. It noted York University Heights actually ranked 19th out of 140 Toronto neighbourhoods for sexual assault reports, compared with the precinct that includes the University of Toronto downtown campus, which was ranked second, and the area around downtown Toronto's Ryerson University that was 11th.
But, according to search of media databases by reporter Josh Dehaas, York University was mentioned more often in news reports about sexual assaults in its neighbourhood than both U of T and Ryerson about attacks in theirs.
"So yes, the media have published many more stories about sexual assaults at York, despite it being in an statistically safer neighbourhood," Dehaas wrote.
[ Related: Arrest made in York University library sex assault ]
Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, the paper's resident skeptic, writing in the wake of the "rape chant" controversy, questioned assertions that university campuses are immersed in a "rape culture."
She challenged figures used by campus sexual-assault centres claiming one in five women would be the victim of rape or attempted rape by graduation.
"At UBC, which has about 27,000 female students, that would amount to 5,400 women – well over 1,000 per year, if distributed over four years of schooling," Wente wrote.
"Of course, rape and assault are under-reported. But such an astronomical number of serious unreported sex crimes would require a near-universal conspiracy of silence. It would mean that university campuses are uniquely dangerous places – far more dangerous than Canada’s most crime-ridden inner cities."
While Canadian schools don't publish rape data, American ones do, said Wente. She noted the University of Michigan, which she attended and which had about 20,000 female students in 2010, reported 14 forcible rapes that year, not out of line with the rate for American society at large.
So are Canadian university campuses any more dangerous than the communities where they are located? Perhaps not, but if I had a daughter away at school, I'd wring my hands a little anyway.