Despite the recent media attention surrounding Columbia’s sexual assault adjudication process, administrators have seemed reluctant to speak publicly on the issue.
But on Thursday, administrators who work closely with sexual assault and gender-based misconduct policy told Spectator that while they had concerns about the content of some of the stories, they believe the press attention has ultimately moved campus dialogue forward in a positive direction.
Last October, the Columbia University Democrats circulated a petition calling for more transparency in the University’s sexual assault policy. Since then, a wave of press attention from both on- and off-campus publications have detailed students’ experiences with the judicial process.
Earlier this semester, the Blue and White published a two-part series about sexual assault policy at Columbia that included anonymous accounts of students who said they felt misrepresented and unsupported throughout the investigation and their hearings. Administrators declined to comment for most of these stories.
‘None of us want to hear that’
“The range of emotions that each of us went through as individuals went through is … important in this,” Amy Zavadil, Barnard’s Title IX coordinator, said. “It is unfortunate to hear that individuals had a horrific experience and none of us want to hear that.”
Still, many administrators expressed concern for the privacy of students mentioned in the stories and worried about how students on campus would react to the stories.
“My first concern is still the people mentioned in the articles because I don’t know how they feel and it being out in the press is difficult,” Melissa Rooker, Columbia’s Title IX coordinator, said. “I also have concerns for other students on campus because it’s so explicit.”
La’Shawn Rivera, the director of the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center on Barnard’s campus, said she hoped that the stories wouldn’t discourage other survivors and cause them to lose confidence in the system.
Rivera said that she was “really concerned with some of the reactions, secondary injury that may occur for someone who can relate to the experiences that were published … and kind of reliving it.”
Administrators responded that the were concerned the Blue and White piece did not paint a full picture becauses the alleged respondents declined to comment or did not respond.
Michael Dunn, the director of investigations for sexual assault and gender-based misconduct, said that these stories “are necessarily incomplete in a way in that other voices cannot be heard or are not heard.”
Spectator has tried to schedule interviews with various administrators involved in these processes for months, starting last semester in some cases. Anna Bahr, the former managing editor of the Blue and White and the author of the magazine’s two-part series on sexual assault, said that she had been working on the story for four months.
Both publications have been rerouted to various communications officers, and often denied interview requests.
Rooker attributed the administration’s reluctance to grant interviews and provide comment for these stories to the complex structure of the offices and the lack of communication offices to handle media requests.
“Some of our offices aren’t used to dealing with that,” Rooker said. “It’s like ‘what do we do with that?’”
“And then there are so many offices involved, so I think it’s taken us some time to figure out how we can process this in a better way to get one cohesive voice,” Rooker added.
Samuel Seward, associate vice president of Columbia Health, also emphasized that their offices couldn’t comment on specific cases, despite requests from media.
“We do really, really, really worry about survivors. And a lot of the questions were very pointed around cases, and we can’t go there,” Seward said. “What’s that interview other than saying ‘I’m sorry, we can’t talk about that?’”
Administrators also had concerns about publishing anonymous, aggregate data on the way the University adjudicates sexual assault prior to University President Lee Bollinger’s reversal last month.
“So some of that hesitancy was actually firm hesitancy on the part of professionals who care about individual students who, in some instances, have had truly horrific experiences,” Seward said. “And all students have had experiences that were deeply impacted for them on both side of any case. We just can’t talk about the cases—it wouldn’t be fair to them.”
‘People make mistakes’
While administrators couldn’t comment on the specific cases mentioned in the stories, they did talk generally about some of the reasonings behind their policies, including the decision to not record their interviews and the process behind how students are chosen for hearing panels—two issues raised by the Blue and White article.
Administrators said they felt that notes could provide more context than a recording—when asked about the possibility of transcribing recordings to provide more context, they reiterated their preference for hand-written notes.
While answering a question about students coming into contact with their alleged attackers in residence halls and classrooms despite sanctions that prohibited this, they said that mistakes sometimes occur in the process.
“One thing I will say about students being let back into residence halls or classes like that—the Student Services for Gender-Based Misconduct Offices are relatively new,” Rooker said. “But, because this was such a new office, [having checks to make sure offices were aware of each other’s actions] wasn’t going to happen the first year, or even the second year.”
“But now in the third year, these are things that are starting to happen,” she added. “We now have processes in place to catch when students are coming to campus or to see where people are.”
“People make mistakes,” Dunn said. “The nature of this work is so sensitive—it’s crucially important, and it does require heightened level of attention to detail. And we do our best to fulfill that with every interaction, every email, every decision, every encounter with the student.”
“Sometimes we fall short of that,” Dunn said. “We do our best to recover, make it right, and move forward.”
Nevertheless, many administrators said that the media attention has ultimately been beneficial, contributing to discussions about policy that have been ongoing since last semester.
“Overall, we’ve been delighted with the press attention—our own community’s press attention,” Seward said. “I think we are always happy to know that students are talking about these issues.”
“It’s an extremely important issue—it’s getting a lot of attention right now, and I think that’s completely appropriate that it is,” University President Lee Bollinger told Spectator on Friday. “I feel very strongly that this is something we need to make as clear as possible that this isn’t tolerated at Columbia and that we will do everything possible to protect students and we will also have a fair process.”
Since the first Blue and White story was published, administrators and student governing bodies have made several moves: assigning two investigators to oversee each case, having the University Senate review the President’s Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault, promising the release of anonymous, aggregate data on how Columbia adjudicates sexual assault, and planning a town hall for students to discuss these issues for March 13—the Thursday before spring break.
Rooker added that some of the changes, like increasing the number of investigators, have been in the works since September, but that they didn’t have the personnel to do so until this January.
“While the Bwog articles were certainly a catalyst for change, there’s always an ongoing process of development and refinement,” Dunn said.
Dunn also added that the stories haven’t changed how the administrators work with survivors who come into their office to report an assault.
“In some ways, I don’t think that conversation has really changed,” Dunn said. “I think when we first meet with a student during an intake meeting after a report is filed, the goal of that conversation is to address any concerns they may have.”
“Often those concerns are about their privacy, who has to know about this, what they have to do, about any future encounters they may have with the other party involved in the case,” Dunn added. “I think we do address a lot of those issues in that conversation, but I certainly think that some of the recent articles have brought new attention to issues like interim measures.”
While administrators have expressed that they appreciate the ongoing dialogue surrounding these issues, some students still have concerns. When Bollinger announced the town hall, the student group Red Tape published a response questioning the timing and if all the relevant administrators would be in attendance.
And administrators still have work to do, including determining how to release the data by the semester’s end and working with the University Senate to implement changes to PACSA.
For a Q &A with more answers from administrators regarding these topics, check out our other story here. Also check out part III of this story, which focuses on the University’s Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Center.