When Jennifer Freyd first thought of the term, it just kind of came out of her mouth, she says.
It was 2014, and the University of Oregon was in the midst of a scandal when news broke that three basketball players had been accused of rape, but were allowed to continue to play through the season (the players were expelled from the university but never charged).
“I felt like the university was not standing up in a way it could to really make clear the priorities for protection of students and for gender equity and so on,” Freyd says. “And I found myself saying the word institutional courage.”
Freyd is a renowned researcher and psychology professor at the UO, known for her work on sexual violence and betrayal trauma. Now she’s spearheading the Center for Institutional Courage alongside Executive Director Lisa Schievelbein and a board of directors overseeing researchers from all over the country, including the UO. The nonprofit launched in May, focusing on ways to prevent and address trauma caused when institutions — such as businesses, universities or governments — betray the people who rely on them.
Betrayal trauma is the violation of a person’s trust and sense of well-being when they are betrayed by a person or institution that they depend on for survival.
“I studied this at the interpersonal level for many years with my students, and we documented a lot about how betrayal trauma works,” Freyd says. “And one of the things we just kept wondering about was what happens when you move into an institutional context — because often people’s traumas aren’t just individual, they’re in some kind of institutional context.”
So she began studying what she called “institutional betrayal” and found that it was “really prevalent and really damaging for people — like remarkably damaging, more than we expected.”
Institutional courage is the opposite; it’s the “commitment to seek the truth and engage in moral action, despite unpleasantness, risk and short-term cost,” according to the Center for Institutional Courage.
Freyd says she wanted to start the Center for Institutional Courage as a way to gather resources and bring people together. It’s also a call to action to institutional leaders to be transparent and invest in “the long-term integrity of the organization.”
For now, the center will focus its research on sexual violence and institutional courage, Freyd says, getting into the “nitty gritty” of how institutions can make changes to prevent institutional betrayal.
Freyd says that while the work may involve some short term risk for institutions, “I think these institutions that do this will end up much stronger.”
“I think the moment is right for our society, both to grasp the importance of institutional courage,” Freyd says, “as well as a moment that’s been generally building up for some time on why sexual violence actually really is an incredibly important issue to solve and get right.”
The Center for Institutional Courage is a 501c3 nonprofit. Those interested in learning more can visit InstitutionalCourage.org, where you can also sign up for a newsletter that will present research and concrete ways to get involved, Freyd says, or donate to the center.