Behind the Headlines

Usually, fall letters from college presidents are full of the typical fall joys: the trees, the leaves, the newly enrolled students and returning faculty. And we have all of these on campus indeed. The trees are lovely. The students are wonderful, curious and engaged and eager to leap into all that Barnard has to offer. This fall, the launch of our 125th anniversary, seems particularly beautiful on Morningside Heights, with banners proclaiming our legacy draped around Broadway and Claremont, and our new insignia (the Barnard “B,” surrounded by the same laurel leaves that grace the College’s official Athena seal) rapidly becoming part of the neighborhood. Even the weather is cooperating.

But there’s something else on campus this year; something that’s not so beautiful at all. Something that needs to be discussed and named and analyzed, even at the risk of inviting controversy and criticism.

And that something is sexual assault. In the spring of 2014, a group of more than 20 Barnard and Columbia students filed a Title IX complaint against the University, alleging that it had mishandled cases of gender-based misconduct. This fall, one of the students decided to further publicize the problem of rape on campus by undertaking a senior thesis devoted to the topic, carrying her 50-pound mattress around campus as both performance art and a protest against sexual assault.

Sadly, and crucially, the allegations we are witnessing in Morningside Heights are hardly unique. Indeed, 78 other campuses have been named in Title IX complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Education, including Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Amherst. Every other campus—named or not—has almost certainly had similar instances. In April, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill joined forces to request greater Congressional funds for fighting assault on campus, arguing that America’s colleges and universities have become “havens for rape and sexual assault.”

It is tempting under these circumstances to argue that these behaviors have long plagued college campuses and that the purported epidemic is only a reflection of higher levels of comfort around reporting. It is easy to blame the colleges alone for mishandling these cases, or to point a black-and-white finger towards either the alleged perpetrators or the accusers, depending on one’s point of view. And it is foolhardy to believe, much as I might want to, that Barnard’s status as a women’s college somehow protects us from the reality of sexual assault or the responsibility to deal with it. Episodes of assault do appear to be on the rise, and we must find ways—as a community and institution and sector—to deal with them.

At Barnard—oddly, perhaps, given our fierce commitment to the autonomy and wellbeing of women and girls—there are some things that we can’t do. Because the vast majority of alleged perpetrators in the cases reported on our campus are not our students, they are not subject to our disciplinary processes or sanctions. Because the students on our campus who report assault are legally adults, we cannot take it upon ourselves to bring their cases to the police or to the courts. From a purely legal standpoint, therefore, our role is to provide students with information about their rights and options so that they can make informed choices and be supported in the process.

But still, there is much we can and must do. First and foremost, we need to educate our community about the spectrum of sexual violence and the resources available to students, both on campus and off. We need to work with our colleagues on the other side of Broadway to inform all students at Barnard and Columbia about the nature and importance of consent.We need to provide, as we do, a fully staffed rape crisis center, where survivors of assault can receive expert confidential care.

And, along with others in our sector, we need to spread the word about bystander intervention techniques, so that friends and classmates can help steer both women and men away from potentially abusive situations. Barnard has long been actively engaged in the push for sexual assault prevention and response, and we have entered the academic year with renewed vigilance and commitment. Under the leadership of Amy Zavadil, our associate dean for equity and Title IX coordinator, members of our staff have been working on multiple fronts to improve processes and expand initiatives designed to meet the specific needs of Barnard students.We conduct training sessions to help students identify and respond to dangerous situations, and annual Campus Climate Surveys to better understand our students’ sense of security. We offer confidential counseling through the Furman Center and both professional and peer advocacy through the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center. We have a wonderful staff of professionals and peer educators in our Well Woman program, and a dedicated subcommittee of the Student Government Association that meets regularly with Dean Zavadil to explore ways to improve Barnard’s policies and resources. We may not yet be doing everything right, but we are determined to do the very best we can, working with our students and our community to prevent sexual abuse from further permeating our campus.

Even as we work to expand our resources and programs, however, we also—at Barnard and across the country—need to become more comfortable speaking about two inherently uncomfortable topics: sexual norms and alcohol. With sex, the unease relates to the hookup culture that prevails on college campuses; a culture that prizes uncommitted and sometimes even anonymous sex. Clearly, hooking up is not the cause of sexual assault, since hookup sex explicitly celebrates the willingness of both partners to engage in it. But the propensity for nonverbal cues to be misread or misperceived in a hookup situation is a possibility that needs to be considered and discussed, on campuses and across U.S. society more broadly. To that end, we applaud recent efforts such as the Yes Means Yes campaign, which attempts to define consent as explicitly “affirmative, conscious and voluntary.”

The prevalence of binge and excessive drinking is equally problematic and difficult to address.We know that drinking—often heavy drinking—occurs among the under-age population of U.S. college campuses.We know and must constantly insist that being inebriated during episodes of sexual abuse does not in any way shift blame from the perpetrator to the victim.Yet excessive drinking is a problem for men and women, across all age groups. Counseling students to drink wisely and carefully is not blaming the victim. It’s common sense.

On September 24, Columbia released aggregate data regarding sexual assault and adjudication on campus. According to these statistics, 12 students reported episodes of nonconsensual intercourse during the course of the 2013–14 academic year. Of these, four claims were subsequently either withdrawn or the students declined to pursue the complaints. Of the remaining eight, three complaints led to the respondent subsequently being suspended from or leaving the University; one found the respondent responsible, and four investigations were still underway.

On Barnard’s side of Broadway we find ourselves (as is so often the case) in a complicated relationship with Columbia. Because students on both campuses interact freely, Columbia’s issues of sexual assault are our issues as well. If our students report being assaulted by a Columbia student, then both students—theirs and ours—will go  through Columbia’s adjudication process. Dean Zavadil works closely with her counterparts at Columbia and supports every Barnard student who goes through Columbia’s process. But ultimately the process itself sits beyond our campus— just as it does in cases where Barnard students report being assaulted by students from any other college or university.

Despite these structural constraints, however, dealing with gender-based misconduct remains a major priority at Barnard. Our first responsibility as administrators is to keep our students safe and to protect them as best we possibly can from any forms of violence or assault or harassment.We will continue to build programs that raise awareness of gender- based misconduct and create resources that students can turn to for support, advice, and, if need be, help in seeking medical and legal assistance. We support the efforts of students—at Barnard, and Columbia, and across the United States— to speak up for their rights and demand justice. We applaud their efforts to garner attention and create political momentum around a problem that has for too long gone unheard. And we are confident that eventually they, and we, will succeed.

by Debora Spar

—Photograph by Steve DeCanio

Latest IssueSpring 2022

In this issue, you'll read about the New York governor's deputy chief of staff Linda Sun '06, a student-led mission to study bacteria in space, the alums leading the way in the sustainable flower movement, and more.