Can’t tell your Title IX’s from your Title II’s? Think Clery is just the name of a small French commune (pop. 73)? Convinced that the most important recent news out of the West Wing for college students is who said what at the White House Correspondents' Dinner? If you answered yes to any of those questions, I hope (for your own sake) that you’ll read on:
Here’s what happened: 23 Barnard and Columbia students filed complaints with the federal government alleging that the University is in violation of Title II, Title IX, and the Clery Act on April 25. Title II is part of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects people with mental and physical disabilities from discrimination. Title IX protects students against “discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance,” and the Clery Act mandates disclosure of crimes that happen on or near most college campuses.
Columbia’s complaint follows on the heels of similar ones at many of our peer institutions, from Harvard to Dartmouth to Vanderbilt. New recommendations released by a White House task force on sexual assault on April 29 could help move an investigation into Columbia’s complaint along much faster than its predecessors, though.
Here’s my take: Administrators have certainly screwed up—big time—in their handling of sexual assault on campus. But as Michael Dunn, the director of investigations for sexual assault and gender-based misconduct, reminded us, “people make mistakes.”
Right, people do make mistakes. Like me flushing my yarmulke down the toilet at Passover when I was eight. Or getting sprayed in the face twice in one day by those goddamn lawn sprinklers last week. Or, like, forgetting to comply with a federal policy (Title IX) that was passed 42 years ago, right?
Administrators have responded to a number of student concerns (not without a slew of negative media attention, of course) about sexual assault policy, from keeping the Rape Crisis Center open during NSOP to releasing aggregate data on sexual assault and have indicated that they are open to discussing more. Lead complainant Zoe Ridolfi-Starr and a number of the other complainants have noted, rightfully so, that this is just too little, too late. To that end, these federal complaints could be useful to light a fire under their asses and force more drastic policy changes—such as having more professional staffers at the Rape Crisis Center—once Interim Dean of Student Affairs Terry Martinez leaves for the greener pastures of Baltimore and some of the complainants graduate.
I’m skeptical, though, that Title IX, II, and Clery Act complaints will help ameliorate one of the most important problems voiced by Ridolfi-Starr: that administrators have been unresponsive to all survivors except those whom they’ve already worked closely with. If administrators aren’t acting on students’ concerns now, it’s hard to imagine that they’d suddenly admit that they screwed up and change their policies when they’re under federal investigation.
But I sincerely hope that Ridolfi-Starr and the 22 other complainants will prove me wrong (and, with the White House’s strengthened commitment to ending campus sexual assault, I’m somewhat more optimistic that they will).
What’s yours? Are you satisfied with administrators’ responses to students’ concerns about Columbia’s sexual assault policies? Do you think that they’re too little, too late? Or are you just worried that our acceptance rate will inch up to 7 percent next year because there’s yet another article about us on Jezebel?
As always, drop us a line in the comments below or at email@example.com.
Ben Gittelson is a Spectrum opinion columnist and a former deputy and associate news editor at Spectator. Like Michael Dunn, he is also curious as to whether Columbia is Title IX-compliant, except that he isn’t getting paid to answer that question.