On Monday, University President Lee Bollinger sent an email that was both an update on sexual assault policy reforms and a reassurance that he was listening to student concerns brought up during last month’s town hall. We are impressed and encouraged by the unequivocal tone of Bollinger’s email and the course of action it dictates.
The reforms listed in this email were bold, specific, and far from the platitudes that often come from administrators. They included improved access to resources through the 4-HELP phone line, a new method for releasing aggregate sexual assault data, and a reassessment of the location and hours of the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center. Of the reforms mentioned in the email, the most notable was the creation the position of an executive vice president for student affairs, which is to be filled by the fall.
Columbia currently has 10 EVPs, all of whom report directly to Bollinger and cover areas from facilities and operations to finance to research. The EVP for student affairs, like his or her counterparts, will report directly to Bollinger and have the power to make sweeping executive decisions about policy across the University.
As noted in Bollinger’s email, the position was specifically created in response to student concerns, and its primary objective is to address sexual assault. The new EVP position will bring a concerted focus and executive authority to sexual assault policy University-wide. This represents a sharp adjustment from the way that Columbia’s administration has dealt with student affairs and, in particular, sexual assault. It should also be noted that this change, while made in response to student concerns, represents serious administrative initiative. Nowhere did students ask for this position—rather, its creation was driven by the administration. We applaud Bollinger for taking this significant measure.
Although the EVP for student affairs exists because of student concerns about sexual assault, its purpose will no doubt extend further than addressing this one issue. The purpose of this job is to have oversight of matters that are University-wide concerns—like space, wellness, and judicial affairs. This includes the larger task of standardization and attending to issues across all schools. There is no doubt that this will be a difficult and complicated job. Currently, there are even differences in disciplinary procedures between the four undergraduate schools, never mind the rest of the University. But other large, multi-school universities, such as Yale and the University of Chicago, have similar positions that are successful. We believe that the new EVP has the potential to surmount these challenges to improve the quality of student life.
Many questions about the EVP for student affairs remain. We know nothing about how policies will be reconciled across schools, or whether they even will be. And we can only guess as to what measures the new EVP will be willing to take and how much authority he or she will exert over each school. But what we do know is that this will be someone whose job is to listen to students from all schools—and that is a strong, positive step forward.
We can’t afford to scoff at the administration’s response to a problem like sexual assault—pessimistic dismissals are unproductive in our effort to address sexual assault. Despite our usual misgivings, we must acknowledge when administrators take real action. We have far too much work left to do.
And, on that, we must not be found wanting.
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