Sexual assault dominates campus dialogue in a year of turmoil

by Sean Connolly and Sera Kwon | 5/15/14 7:12pm

About a year ago, a group of students interrupted a prospective students show chanting “Dartmouth has a problem” and citing incidents of homophobia, racism and underreported sexual assaults. Both the chant and the issues have since become ingrained in the Dartmouth lexicon and discussions of campus events.

It may seem inconceivable that a problem as severe as sexual assault could exist in the College’s idyllic setting. But in recent years, as students, alumni, faculty and staff have shared their narratives, many on campus have begun to grapple with a once-taboo subject.

Since that weekend, the theme of sexual assault has consistently resurfaced in campus news and conversations. In May 2013, 30 students and alumni filed a Clery Act complaint against the College, alleging widespread sexual assault, aggression against the LGBTQ community and allies, racial and religious discrimination, hate crimes, bullying and hazing.

That month, Parker Gilbert ’16 was charged with seven counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault and one misdemeanor count of criminal trespass, of which he was fully acquitted this past March.

A post on Bored at Baker this winter, which outlined the steps to rape an identified female member of the Class of 2017, resulted in demonstrations of outrage and solidarity in support of the student. In February, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights conducted its second round of interviews as part of an ongoing Title IX investigation into the College.

On Feb. 7, Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson announced the creation of the Center for Community Action and Prevention. She said that the new center aims to find “points of connection” for Dartmouth community members as well as external partners such as WISE, a non-profit organization that provides 24-hour crisis intervention and support services for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault in Vermont and New Hampshire.

On Feb. 24, a group of students released the “Freedom Budget.” Supporters held a sit-in inside College President Phil Hanlon’s office in April, insisting on a point-by-point response to the document’s 70-plus demands, which called for mandatory expulsion of a student found guilty of sexual assault or rape and the re-evaluation of the status of Greek life at Dartmouth as it relates to sexual assault.

The first day of the sit-in, Hanlon promised that the College would conduct a campus-wide survey to assess campus climate. A 2013 report by the Committee on Student Safety and Accountability recommended that the College partner with external social science experts to perform a data-driven campus study.

In mid-March, a women’s rights activist group, UltraViolet, circulated a petition online “demanding the elite college take action to address its campus rape problem.” The petition garnered tens of thousands of signatures.

On March 8, the Board of Trustees unanimously supported a proposal that would set a “strong presumption” that any sexual assault would result in expulsion, regardless of intent, means or a perpetrator’s prior violations. Under the new policy, the College would hire an external adjudicator to investigate sexual assault cases and end the current COS hearings.

The topic of sexual assault on college campuses has also been elevated in national discourse in recent months. In January, President Barack Obama established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, which submitted its recommendations for a coordinated federal response to campus rape and sexual assault at the end of April. The report, titled “Not Alone,” announced steps to help universities identify the scope of campus sexual assault, bolster prevention efforts and respond effectively to support victims. The report also addressed transparency in federal enforcement efforts.

Fifty-five colleges are currently under investigation for Title IX violations, the Education Department announced on May 1.

The Office for Civil Rights opened an independent investigation into possible Title IX violations at Dartmouth last May.

On April 24, in an interview on National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm Show, Hanlon acknowledged that the College still needs “a fundamental change in the social scene to end these high-risk behaviors.” He referenced an April 16 summit that discussed how to alter Dartmouth’s social scene. Invitations to the closed summit were extended to 120 community members.

A Shift in Tone

As the College emerges from a year spent under considerable scrutiny, activists and observers have noted a considerable shift in the tone of discussion.

Women’s and gender studies professor Michael Bronski credited student activism for sustaining campus discussion in the past few years. Drawing on his 14 years of teaching at the College, Bronski said he first saw public discussion on sexual assault in school publications, open forums and from the administration in 2006, when Dartmouth’s first openly gay Student Assembly president, Tim Andreadis ’07, was elected as a write-in running on a platform of ending sexual assault.

In a series of emails sent to campus for Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April, Movement Against Violence noted a transformation in its facilitated discussions.

“The student collective increasingly acknowledges the existence and severity of sexual assault,” one email read. “Our conversations have been more productive and we are seeing more students engaging committedly. We are moving forward.”

Women’s and gender studies professor Giavanna Munafo, who first came to Dartmouth in 1994 as the director for the Center for Women and Gender, now the Center for Gender and Student Engagement, said she had observed waves of active engagement come and go throughout her time at the College. Munafo said she sees Dartmouth students entering the College better prepared to understand how race, class and gender shape learning environments, a development she largely attributed to a shift in national awareness of these issues.

“We are, at this moment, at the most engaged and most inclusive level of campus conversation about the issue of sexual assault that we’ve ever seen,” Munafo said. “At this moment it has been sustained longer, caused by a confluence of various forces.”

Holli Weed ’14, who has been extensively involved in various student groups dealing with sexual assault, said that compared to her first two years, the tenor of the issue has become much more proactive.

“This year is really the first year when I’ve heard people asking about rape culture, what is it, why are we talking about it, how does it manifest at Dartmouth?” she said.

Still, some have argued that campus discussion remains imperfect.

In an email, history professor Russell Rickford wrote that he found the extent to which discussions of social issues currently revolve around sexual assault appropriate. But Rickford also noted that sexual assault is inextricable from other questions of social relations and power on campus, including race, class, gender and sexuality.

“The volume of the conversation about rape and sexual assault has risen, but self-deception, false consciousness and local structures of power preclude more effective approaches,” Rickford wrote. “We seem unable or unwilling to transcend the dominant discourse of ‘a few bad apples’ and ‘we are better than this.’ These false narratives obscure the reality of our rape culture, and smother the self-critique and self-transformation that are desperately needed.”

Jillian Mayer ’14, who identified herself as a sexual assault survivor, said she has qualms with the current discussion of sexual assault on campus. Although other issues such as racism, homophobia and classism also relate to sexual assault, campus discussion seems to be one-dimensional rather than intersectional, Mayer said.

Much discussion stems from the question of whether current initiatives and committees address the symptoms, rather than the causes, of sexual assault, she said.

Theater professor Peter Hackett ’75 said that though he finds the current environment more open to discussion, he still feels troubled by the pushback at those who speak about the issue. He said there was a tendency for people to equate his criticisms of the College with a lack of loyalty, when his calls for reform really stem from a deep love for the College and its students.

Weed said she has been threatened and targeted for being vocal.

“My efforts to promote student accountability and to reign in behaviors that I perceive as inherently harmful to community have not always been well-received,” she said. “I have received death threats on Bored at Baker quite a few times. I’ve had people threaten to rape me. I have been called in the middle of the night. I’ve struggled with hostile behavior from certain student organizations on campus. There was an extended period of time where I could not walk to class by myself because it wasn’t a safe option.”

Weed said she had heard other activists say that they have also experienced harassment.

Students, alumni and faculty expressed mixed sentiments on whether administrative responses are enough to tackle and eliminate sexual assault.

When asked if she thought that this period is a departure from previous administrative responses, Dartmouth Change co-founder Susy Struble ’93 said she remained skeptical.

“I don’t know if we’re at the tipping point,” she said. “What’s different this time? I wish I could feel more positive.”

Hackett said he thought that the College’s branding itself as a leader in sexual assault prevention was misleading and discouraged survivors from coming forward.

Reflecting on her experiences at the College, Weed said that she feels heartened to see student perspectives on sexual violence evolve over such a short time. By prioritizing the issue, administrators had made themselves more available to have people come forward, she said.

“Dartmouth needs to prove that it is a leader in sexual violence prevention,” Weed said. “I would personally love to hold the title of being one of the first campuses to eliminate sexual violence — that would be incredible.”

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