The Cruel Reality of Columbia's Sexual Assault Policy

In an oblique email sent out on January 29th, President Bollinger assured students that “gender-based misconduct and sexual assault have no place in [the Columbia] community. Period.” Bollinger’s statement came on the heels of widespread calls for reform by various student groups asking for a review of the administrative processes regarding sexual assault. The campus buzz over sexual assault at Columbia is the effect of several semesters worth of activism on the part of various student leaders and groups. Two major breakthroughs in their efforts coalesced to prompt Bollinger’s now infamous statement; on January 23rd, Bwog published Anna Bahr’s article detailing the story of the inept official handling of a case in which three women accused the same man(who was never formally sanctioned) of sexual assault, and in the previous week, major news sources, including the NYPost and the Huffington Post, wrote about the CU Democrats’ petition calling for the release of official data on the administrative response to reports of sexual assault.

The campus-wide focus on sexual assault policies coincides with an increase in nationwide attention to the issue of the incidence and handling of cases of sexual violence by various colleges around the country. In the last year, Amherst, Yale, and UNC-Chapel Hill have all filed federal complaints under Title IX(which prohibits sexual discrimination in education) over alleged inequities in administrative policy on sexual misconduct. These colleges are among dozens of schools at which official administrative policy on sexual assault has come under fire for a startlingly wide range of inconsistencies, inadequacies, and insensitivities.

The issue has even made its way to President Obama's agenda this year: the President recently hopped on the bandwagon by creating a task force to fight the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. And it is indeed a true epidemic: the White House report released upon Obama's announcement grimly estimates that a full fifth of college women have survived a sexual assault, making this demographic the most at-risk for sexual assault in the entire nation. The report also revealed an equally disturbing statistic about the serial nature of rape, citing a study that found that of the 7% of college men who admitted to committing a rape or attempted rape, “63% of these men admitted to committing multiple offenses, averaging six rapes each.”

Given the above statistics, Bollinger’s recently-issued statement regarding sexual assault on campus demonstrates an administrative attitude that might be described “too little, too late.” In fact, the University President did not seem at all concerned about Columbia’s official policy on sexual assault until the pressure from students and the press peaked in these last few weeks. Regardless of Bollinger's timing, he has much work to do to fix a very broken system.

The first bungling of administrative policy lies in the official data Columbia reports on sexual assault. According to Columbia’s administration, a mere 16 forcible sex incidents were reported in 2012 by an undergraduate student body numbering more than six-thousand. At face value, this ratio suggests that only 0.2% of Columbia students experienced sexual assault last year. However, as I mentioned previously, the White House reports that 20% of college-aged women have been sexually assaulted. According to Columbia's statistics, then, sexual assault is 100 times less likely on our Morningside Heights campus than the national average.

Far from a demonstration of a better situation at Columbia, the discrepancy between the Columbia and the national data seems due to an administrative lack of sensitivity for survivors of sexual assault, which ultimately dissuades survivors from officially reporting their experiences or following them fully through the judicial process. In other words, survivors, recognizing the near impossibility of a fair outcome from the administration, are dissuaded from seeking justice, keeping Columbia's official statistics on sexual assault artificially low.

(I would also like to take a moment here to recognize the cultural elements behind the actual occurrence of sexual assault; I am not suggesting that the University is responsible for the phenomenon, rather, that their response to sexual assault only serves to aggravate the issue.)

Here is just one glaring example of administrative disregard to the gravity of the issue; the Rape Crisis Center is not open during NSOP or after 11 pm on most nights, making it unavailable during the times when it is most needed (the White House report cites a study that claims 58% of incapacitated rapes and 28% of forced rapes took place at a party).

Furthermore, Columbia policy makes Deans the final arbiters of sexual assault cases that make it through hearings, giving the power of sanctioning policy to the people most interested in maintaining flattering statistics, a clear case of moral hazard. Moreover, the panel that holds the hearings for sexual assault trials is composed of administrators and faculty members, people who lack any significant expertise or background on sexual assault.

We can also see Columbia’s indifferent attitude towards the issue of sexual assault on campus in its “Consent is Sexy” program. The purportedly “educational” event is offered to incoming undergraduates during their orientation week and uses role-play activities and silly competitions to demonstrate effective ways to ask for consent, rewarding groups who come up with the funniest punch lines with candy and colorful trinkets. The hour is punctuated by occasional laughter and jokes galore.

The lighthearted nature of this presentation has led certain students to flee the program in tears, wondering why an act as horrific as sexual assault is covered in such a flippant way. When asked about the casual coverage of the serious issue of sexual assault by “Consent is Sexy,” the program coordinator explicitly stated that the program itself was not meant to prevent or address sexual assault at Columbia.

Confusing policies, inadequate training for staff, and ineffective outreach to the student body make the official policy on campus sexual assault inadequate at best, negligent at worst, all the while discouraging students from reporting attacks against them.

In sum, the absence of any recognition of the magnitude and importance of sexual assault prevention is symptomatic of a greater administrative disregard for student safety and wellbeing that riddles the University’s official policy on sexual assault. So, now we recognize the issue, but what is actually being done to combat the bureaucratic complacency and indifference towards the plight of its students?

The Coalition Against Sexual Violence (an alliance formed between various student groups) is currently reviewing University policy on sexual assault and will—with the oversight and advice of the legal advisory group Students Active for Ending Rape—release a comprehensive outline of suggested reforms in the coming month. These reforms will be presented to the Presidents’ Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault, a group of University Senators and administrators, for endorsement. Once this endorsement is official, the policies will have to pass through the University Senate for their implementation to come into effect. Alternative means to revising administrative policy exist as well: The USenate route is “plan A,” so to speak.

These important steps, along with the campus conversation on the topic of sexual assault, all have something in common: they do not rely on administrative initiative. In fact, they have an almost negligible relation to University administrators. Campus sexual assault policy primarily affects students, and thus all revisions or amendments to the policy have come from and will continue to come from the sole initiative of students. I think that without the sustained, united, and insistent initiative on the parts of students in the last months, administrative reform on the issue of campus sexual assault would never have even been considered.

In my opinion, the revelation of the administration’s negligent attitude towards campus sexual assault is symptomatic of a greater problem; in other words, the inertia of Columbia’s administration on the issue of campus sexual assault is not merely a by-product of bureaucratic inefficiency, but rather is indicative of the institutionalized marginalization of student voices and concerns. The Columbia behemoth, it seems, will only move when negative press threatens to scare away its deep-pocketed donors, whose generous contributions 'feed the Beast', so to speak. The University President, Deans, and Board of Trustees are not attuned to the needs of the student body unless those needs are shouted at them, from the rooftops, and then covered by news corporations with national readership. This school is supposed to be a safe haven for knowledge and the community that has come here to be educated. Instead, it is a business, run for profit by people whose interests lay not with the students, but with their own bulging salaries.

And so I ask: what are we, the students, going to do about it?