***Trigger Warning: Discussion of sexual assault policy, and issues of sexual assault and gender-based sexual misconduct on campus.***
This afternoon, Taylor Grasdalen attended the Town Hall on Gender-Based Misconduct and Sexual Assault for Bwog. She reports on the administration, the students, and the newest concerns.
Update: On May 8th, the University Senate released the event’s transcript.
Today brought Columbia’s latest installment in its series of Town Halls on “Gender-Based Misconduct and Sexual Assault,” though that name itself was thoroughly questioned. Conducted—almost inaccessibly, perhaps—at noon today in Havemeyer 309, we heard from Senators Matt Chou and Akshay Shah, Michael K. Dunn, Senator Marc Heinrich, Terry Martinez, Sharyn O’Halloran, La’Shawn Rivera, Lisa Mellman, and Teacher’s College student Barry Goldberg, who were all consequently subjected to another fine Q&A session.
Despite the event’s significance on campus and to campus, it was not well attended in any regard. After experiencing the first Town Hall, where so many students wanted to partake that some were unable to even enter the space, today’s Town Hall had the exact opposite problem. Fewer than half the seats were filled; at noon, when the event began, there were maybe only fifty people in the audience altogether, the majority even obviously not BC/CC/SEAS undergraduates. I have to wonder if students were precluded based on the event’s time, as its lunch break timeliness certainly allowed many adults administrators to attend (Barnard’s Amy Zavadil was in the audience, and many other faculty and staff faces).
Sharyn O’Halloran moderated today’s meeting, eloquent despite inexperience with speaking into a microphone. Matt Chou and Akshay Shah were the first to speak, breezing over the details of data that will soon be released — data of aggregate anonymous statistics, a number of interim measures, reported information on the responsible parties, and sanctions on such responsible parties, upcoming changes in sanctions, and the average number of days that each case takes. I wish I could have heard more of these details, but we quickly moved on to hearing from Terry Martinez. She really wanted to let us know—to paraphrase the best I might—that it is neither truthful nor helpful for us to question the commitment of the “people in this room” to the cause we’d gathered for today, which may or may not have been a problem at the previous Town Hall.
This did not set a very positive tone.
There was talk of procedurals, and upcoming changes to NSOP, the new Columbia Health website, Student Consent Educators, the new office of the Executive Vice President for Student Affairs, the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center at Barnard’s Hewitt Hall, and plenty about access to Peer Advocates. In fact, it felt like some great reiteration of an email many of us received today, which outlined these things exactly:
We are in the process of taking the following steps to improve education and procedures surrounding these issues:
- Create easier ways to reach Peer Advocates, who often receive the first report of an incident of sexual misconduct.
During New Student Orientation Program (NSOP) this fall, Peer Advocates will be available 24-hours-a-day, and Health Services’ Sexual Violence Response office will be open for extended hours, from 9 a.m.–8 p.m.Peer Advocates will also be available during the 2014 summer session.
- Launch a new Columbia Health website.
This site more prominently displays resources for survivors. By summer, all Columbia Health Sexual Violence Response services will be accessible through the 4-HELP (4-4357) phone line.
- Expand the scope of mandatory trainings that are part of NSOP.
In addition to addressing “consent,” future trainings will also include discussion of what constitutes sexual assault and the role of alcohol. The “Reducing the Risk of Sexual Violence on Campus” presentations will continue to be mandatory for all incoming Columbia College, Columbia Engineering, and Barnard students, and make-up presentations, as well as additional prevention education trainings, will be held throughout the academic year.
- Revamp the selection of Student Consent Educators.
Working with Columbia Health and student volunteers, we have revised the selection process for all consent educators, and are now requiring in-person interviews for all applicants and a two-semester time commitment for educators.
- Review access to the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center at Barnard’s Hewitt Hall.
While we recognize that no single location can satisfy the preferences of every student, Columbia and Barnard are working to resolve the problems identified with the Hewitt Hall location.
- Work closely with the new Executive Vice President for Student Affairs. The responsibilities of this position announced by President Bollinger last week will include reviewing and enhancing our Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct policies and our adjudication process in order to ensure an environment free from gender-based discrimination and harassment.
What’s more, is that even after the initial speeches, each student bringing a question to the panel present today (the Senators excepted, actually) was met with some iteration of one of these points, really no matter his or her concern. We heard from many graduate students—on whom there seemed to be an important focus in today’s meeting—yet their questions were sort of deflected, their interests apparently outside many of the administrators’ immediate knowledge. Graduate students brought up issues of informedness among staff at their own orientations, and in their own schools, alarmingly undertrained and unconcerned; as one student from Public Health relayed, they’d been told that the issue of gender-based misconduct was “something people should have figured out during their undergraduate experience.” The administrators essentially thanked this particular student—and all others with similar concerns—for their “feedback,” and reaffirmed their own “commitment.” Specifically, I can quote: “We are committed to that” (i.e. the egregious issue of uninformed orientation and school staffs).
Beside the previously underrepresented issues of the graduate student bodies, others questioned the phrases and names that have termed these Town Halls and which term the processes involved in reporting any kind of “gender-based misconduct.” The first concern being the word “misconduct” itself, which implies no kind of criminality whatsoever; Michael K. Dunn and Mellman each said, in many more words, that this is to provide equity to both parties involved in a case — to really not assume the worst about the alleged party. As the same student continued, this term is insensitive to the victim, who may see “misconduct” as grossly inaccurate. “Misconduct” feels not only insensitive, actually, but its brevity really seems to undermine the criminality of the actions. There is great “asymmetry” here, as the student—a student of the Law School—called it, in the disparity between Columbia’s treatment of the accused and the way that the accused would be otherwise treated by law enforcement, and it is in part rooted in the difference between “misconduct” and “crime.”
Further, a student questioned the basic names of “complainant” and “respondent” given to the two parties of any case, overly “legal-sounding” terms that are maybe even more problematic than the issue of “misconduct.” This student asks if these names might ever change; Dunn immediately states that no, they won’t. Why? Well, he can’t exactly say why, and neither can any other administrator. I think everyone can see where being the one to “complain” might be upsetting, and being called as much, problematic. It in fact feeds rape culture, to harass the victim so, to address the other party simply in terms of their “response.” The victim is being judged even before the case begins; they’ve complained.
Separately, two others stepped forward to speak on new topics. One representative of the Columbia University Medical Center stressed the availability of their Emergency Room, and their 24/7 open access to social workers and psychiatric help, a space non-judgmental, confidential, and where the student can “choose to report or not.” Another student brought up the way in which the administration has been conveying their intent—primarily via email, if little elsewhere—and proposed that the University begin to utilize consciously campus media sources like Bwog, Spectator, and The Lion to disseminate their messages, too, however directly unaffiliated the sources.
Our last speaker is male, and identifies himself only as a current professor in the engineering school, someone who’s “been here longer than many of you have been alive.” He begins not terribly, but soon clarifies that he feels our school has maybe gone “too far” in changing things, making a really not great comparison to McCarthyism. He then relays his entire story—which I will not share—about how he once was alleged of misconduct, and consequently temporarily relieved of teaching a class. While the school was surely following protocol in not letting a potential sexual assailant—”respondent”?—teach students, he complained today of being investigated at all, it seemed, upset that he could not teach his class. He was not fired, it is important to note; he came to vent today about how he does not think we should investigate so thoroughly reported cases. He said that even with his “okay record,” one “weak allegation destroyed [his] academic freedom.” This was deeply upsetting for many audience members (who shared as much, citing the necessity of robust response, and the relative rarity that is a false report), and the administration too tread carefully in response. Heinrich told the audience that nobody is advocating for an unjust system, just a more transparent one. Everybody in attendance seemed to agree on that.
Whatever further actions Columbia takes to involve students, I do hope any other students at all concerned do attend or involve themselves; hearing from personal experience is incredible and makes absolutely clear the necessary attendance to these issues. I feel that the “Q&A” segments of these Town Halls have been far more resonant than any statements of “commitment,” “interest in feedback,” and “pledge to [do something]” that the administrators have to offer, and which Martinez always seems to offer with a healthy dose of “but we’re all really responsible here.” The students are why changes are being made in any way.