Dear Revised Sexual Violence and Gender-Based Misconduct Policy,
Welcome to Columbia!
Now that you’re here, let’s get you oriented. Let’s talk consent.
As a policy, you may be thinking, “Why do I need to hear this? Consent doesn’t apply to me.” But you said it yourself at Thursday’s Sexual Violence and Gender-Based Misconduct session: This affects all of us. As new members of the Columbia community, we need to have an open conversation about this.
I’m getting some mixed signals from you—one of your yellow “signs of gauging consent” that indicates we “should pause and talk.” At the aforementioned session, you told me there were several components to consent: We must mutually define clear expectations and clear intentions. You also told me that, in any potentially intimate relationship between two people—or perhaps, between a policy in place to protect people and the people whom that policy aims to protect—it is of absolute importance to maintain an ongoing conversation and to never make assumptions about the other party’s needs.
This August, your revisions got the green light without, in the opinion of many groups on campus, adequately considering the input of students. I even heard that some of my peers were “deeply disturbed” by your dismissal of their concerns.
You devoted an hour-long Step UP! presentation to teaching me how to be an active, pro-social bystander against behavior that may hamper the empowerment and safety of my community. In your presentation, you provided some examples of what these behaviors might look like. I think it’s time for me to step up and do the same.
A Policy (let’s call it “A” for now) has a history of failing to address the concerns of a Student Population (we’ll call the Population “B”).
A is revised without closely involving members of B. A unveils a new NSOP program that enthusiastically promotes itself but fails to encourage ongoing revisions and communication with B. In this situation, B feels powerless and perhaps unsafe. A’s lack of consideration for the needs of B could lead to serious harm.
I know that you had good intentions. You even addressed—although sometimes tangentially—many of my peers’ concerns. Both NSOP programs were mandatory (attendance was taken at both), and many of my classmates agreed that the subject matter was treated seriously. Your bystander intervention training was extensive, and a wide range of gender-based misconduct was discussed. You mentioned the effects of sexual violence on marginalized communities and brought up effects on people of all gender identities. You discussed alcohol as a tool of coercion.
However, you did not honor activists’ requests that students be assigned to workshops at random, and you did not have a confidential, transparently available option for survivors to opt out of them. You did not foster a discussion of rape culture. And I doubt that correctly answering “plagiarism” to the question “which of the following is not sexual assault” truly demonstrates a student’s readiness to be a responsible member of the community.
Revised Sexual Violence and Gender-Based Misconduct Policy, as the semester progresses, please take to heart everything you told us. You need to understand how power and privilege can play into your relationship with us—it’s important to keep communicating to avoid an unequal power dynamic.
I want to stress, as you stressed, that I’m not trying to blame you. I want to encourage you, as you encouraged me, to look at the community around you and think, “What a great resource this is.”
The consideration of student input in improving the NSOP programs is encouraging. Yes, your revisions got the green light. But remember, by your own definition, that the green light means, “Listen more.”
Saranna Rotgard is a first-year at Barnard College.