On Wednesday, February 11, Columbia undergraduates received emails from their schools’ deans alerting them to a new sexual respect program. The “University Initiative on Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship,” as Deans Valentini and Boyce refer to it — or Dean Awn’s gentler “Sexual Respect: Engaging the Columbia Community” — requires that all Columbia College, School of Engineering and Applied Science, and General Studies students participate in some way. Barnard College has not mandated its students’ participation.
Dean Awn writes that “since your participation is required — and given the wide range of backgrounds, knowledge and experiences that students bring to these issues — we will propose multiple options for engagement so that all students can choose to participate in the way that works best for them between now and mid-March.” The deadline to complete the program, based in CourseWorks, is March 13. Students new to Columbia this semester already met the requirement during their orientation.
What Awn’s message demonstrates, and Valentini and Boyce’s reiterate (“undergraduates have a range of learning styles, backgrounds and experiences, and preferred ways of engaging, there are numerous options available for you to fulfill this requirement, ranging from workshops to film and talk-back discussions to individual or group art projects”) is that there is no exemption from this program for Columbia University undergraduates — unless one were a Barnard student, of course. Survivors, while presented with a fairly diverse set of options to complete the program, are regardless forced to confront the “sexual respect” material.
One student emailed Bwog, questioning the policy: “Why isn’t there an option to allow a CPS or outside counselor to exempt you? Do they seriously think that someone going to weekly counselling after an assault might not feel comfortable in a room full of people talking about triggering shit? Survivors for sure should be part of the conversation — but not without the option not to be.”
The program seems rushed, on an early deadline. Perhaps due to pressure from a semester’s worth of protests and more than a year’s worth of media attention, Columbia University has chosen to require its students to fulfill immediately a large “initiative.” Seniors must complete the project before graduation, and rising juniors and sophomores must as well find the time before March 13. This places a great weight on students nearing midterms and in the thick of job applications, when it might better have been addressed during the New Student Orientation Program, or through some, any, timelier process.
Survivors — especially those who have chosen not to share their history with their peers — are now subjected to a program from which they cannot necessarily be easily or quietly exempted. There are no statements in the program which outline an exemption process for students triggered by issues of sexual assault and gender-based misconduct, but rather, there are “alternatives.” There are film- and art- and storytelling-related options, but none that allow their rightful exclusion. There are “tell your story,” “post-trauma,” and “mindfulness” workshops.
Although this program represents an excellent step toward “ongoing efforts to prevent gender-based misconduct, strengthen the response to such misconduct when it occurs, and enhance our campus climate,” Columbia’s implementation and rules do not seem to naturally enhance the campus climate. While survivors — those reported and those quiet — are still exposed to material so outright triggering, the issue has not yet fairly been addressed.
Images of the program on CourseWorks may be viewed here.