Sunday morning, New York Times readers across the country faced a front-page profile of one female student’s horrific experience with sexual assault at Columbia. Sexual assault has been in the spotlight since February, when the Blue and White published a story about Columbia’s failure to properly adjudicate a repeat sexual assault offender. Two patterns have emerged in the dialogue since then. First: There is lack of accountability in the University’s response to complaints. Second: There are flaws in student culture around consent. Perpetrators, the direct cause of sexual assault, are products of our very own Columbia community and culture. Columbians can and should hold University administrators accountable for their failures, but we also must take ownership of Columbia’s culture around consent and support for survivors.
As alumni, it deeply upsets us to envision a future Columbia that still doesn’t tackle this issue with the necessary thoroughness and sensitivity. Alumni donate to improve the quality of life and education for all students on campus, not to uphold a glossy reputation. We want to believe in the integrity of our alma mater, but we cannot if the University is mishandling instances of sexual assault or not giving survivors the support they deserve. Most importantly, rape culture is not limited to college campuses. As alumni, we want future students to leave Columbia with a thorough understanding of how entrenched rape culture is in our society and how it affects everyone.
The cases cited in campus and national media outlets over the last few months—including the recent federal complaint against Columbia—are not isolated incidents, and the cultural problems they indicate won’t go away in a single semester or with a single set of policy changes. The larger issue is the University’s people problem, as individuals involved in adjudication appear to mishandle the policies Columbia already has in place. This institution must properly instruct and prepare the people involved in the adjudication process. Columbia needs to critically reassess how and to what extent administrators, educators, and third-party professionals understand the many different forms sexual assault can take, not merely the graphic or headline-grabbing ones. Policy is useless if the individuals enacting said policy are not properly educated and trained. As we have seen, with an issue as complex as sexual assault, the cases rarely go by the book.
We are proud of student groups such as the Coalition Against Sexual Violence, Columbia University College Democrats, and No Red Tape Columbia, which are bringing mainstream attention to this issue in a serious and conscientious way. We are also grateful for other groups, including Take Back The Night and Columbia’s Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center, whose unsung work over many years has provided ongoing support and resources for survivors.
We trust these groups and others will continue to hold the University accountable. It’s up to us, as alumni, to do our part in holding Columbia accountable and supporting students from afar. Campus-level success, though, requires another step. It’s up to all students to stand up to sexual assault or harassment when they see it happening. It’s up to all students, particularly juniors, seniors, and student leaders, to serve as role models for new students who don’t necessarily understand consent and too often see sexual assault as merely a statistic. It’s up to all of us to ensure our actions reflect the values we want the University to embody. It’s up to all of us, not just an active few current students, to take ownership of Columbia’s culture by cultivating a climate that embraces consent and supports survivors.
Ben Cotton is a CC ’11 graduate. Hannah D’Apice, CC ’12, is a member of the Columbia University Club of North Texas and Columbia College Women. Andrea García-Vargas, CC ’13, is a member of the Columbia University Alumni Representative Committee. Andrew Hitti, CC ’13, is a member of the Columbia Venture Community. The authors are all former managing board members of Spectator and members of Columbia Alumni Allied Against Sexual Assault.
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