On the Thursday before spring break, administrators held a town hall so that students could give feedback and hear updates on the University's sexual assault and gender-based misconduct policy. This was in response to months of student demands for public discussion of issues with the sexual assault reporting process at Columbia. The town hall included deans of all four undergraduate schools, who were joined by Title IX and Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct administrators, among others.
We are encouraged to see that Columbia has decided to respond to student demands for changes in sexual assault policy by holding a town hall. However, the execution and structure of the event itself—specifically, its timing and location—were significantly flawed in ways that weakened its impact.
It is noteworthy that the deans of all four undergraduate schools were in attendance—they are the ones who make the final decisions during the appeals process in cases of sexual assault and gender-based misconduct. Because of their pivotal role in both shaping and executing sexual assault policy, we were dismayed to see them largely silent during this town hall. After introducing themselves, the deans said nothing and did not answer any questions.
[Related: Administrators respond to student concerns about sexual assault policy]
The event was also inconveniently scheduled, on the Thursday before spring break, when many students had already left or were preparing to leave campus. Because 103 Jerome Greene Hall can seat only 122, many students interested in attending were turned away at the door.
Administrators seem interested in hearing what students have to say on such an important issue. But a town hall held at an unfit time, in an unsuitable place, sends the message that administrators fail to perceive just how important this issue is to the student body.
Several of the answers given by Title IX and Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct administrators during the meeting seemed to echo this gap in understanding. When students criticized the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center for not being open 24/7, Associate Vice President and Medical Director of Health Services Samuel Seward replied that administrators would look into the issue if they felt it was something the bulk of students on campus wanted. In response, students in the room loudly vocalized that yes, this was something they wanted. But at this point, especially following the release of the proposals written by the Coalition Against Sexual Violence, what students want has been eminently clear for some time.
[Related: A survivor's account of common misconceptions surrounding sexual assault]
After students have clearly presented the issues that most concern them—including how the Rape Crisis Center is staffed—administrators cannot claim to be waiting on student approval. Just as Counseling and Psychological Services would not wait for student approval to hire a new staff member, administrators can and should make changes they see as important and positive without waiting to be prompted by student protest and negative media coverage. Indeed, the few visible changes we've seen—the University having two Title IX investigators take notes during meetings and deciding to keep the RC/AVSC open during New Student Orientation Program—have been carried out, albeit after student prompt, without a referendum or student body poll. Being proactive and ahead of the curve about sexual assault policy can only help students and administrators.
Town halls are a valuable resource through which students and administrators can discuss important issues, but we're at the point where it's time to stop simply listening and start acting. This is an important conversation, but delaying action further just perpetuates the faulty system we must reform.
Moreover, not only is this conversation unproductive in its current form, but it's also distressing. Sexual assault is an incredibly painful and potentially traumatizing topic for many on this campus. The ongoing nature of the discussion has filled the past few months with constant reminders for survivors. This is unacceptable: Without a clear path for action to change clearly flawed policies, the nature of the topic makes it all the more important that we move quickly and focus on creating positive outcomes, instead of circular rhetoric and weak promises. Even a published transcript of the town hall—which Interim Dean of Student Affairs Terry Martinez promised to release in a timely manner—hasn't been made available at the time of this editorial, almost two weeks later.
We understand that policy changes don't happen overnight, but a demand for concrete, visible progress is far from unreasonable here. First of all, Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct should specify which actions, if any, Columbia plans to take in the immediate future regarding the current policy and reporting process. This is something that should have been made clear before we spent two hours voicing concerns about reforms that have previously been called for.
Moving forward, we expect the administration to hold itself accountable for making this painful conversation productive by taking real action. Whatever the first step is—whether it means sending out monthly updates on the progress they're making, reforming Consent 101, making the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center more easily accessible to non-Barnard students, or modifying and clarifying dean involvement in the judicial appeals process—it's time for progress to be made.
Talk isn't meaningful without the promise of future action, and the hard work that the Columbia University Democrats, Title IX Team, and Coalition Against Sexual Violence have put in for the entire Columbia community should be met promptly by administrators now, and proactively addressed in the future.
The students on this campus deserve it.
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