Kim, McMahon & Perez Ternent: Even When Cases Get Cleared, Cultures of Harm Persist
Changing a culture of harm at Dartmouth requires community members to support survivors, especially when reacting to the Final Report of Maha Hasan Alshawi’s Investigation.
Last summer, former PhD student Maha Hasan Alshawi gathered student and community support when her allegations of sexual harassment from computer science professor Alberto Quattrini Li were not sufficiently addressed. During this time, we, as members of the Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault, took part in various conversations with administrators, hosted round tables and collaborated with Alshawi, as well as the advocacy group Justice4Maha, in response to the allegations and the lack of response by the College. We stand by our decision to have done so and will continue supporting and advocating for survivors on campus without hesitation. A formal investigation process began only after Alshawi risked her life in order to increase the visibility of the harm she experienced on campus.
On April 30, the final investigation report was released; it found Quattrini Li “not responsible” for the allegations brought forth by Alshawi. The release of this report prompted articles and commentary from the Valley News, The Dartmouth and Spare Rib, as well as other community members on social media platforms like Librex. As executives of the SPCSA, we were ultimately disappointed by the lack of respect, care and empathy expressed in these responses when discussing the report. We do not write to debate or reject the findings of the report, but rather to encourage the Dartmouth community to listen, to be more empathetic and to be careful when discussing sexual violence to not perpetuate the culture of harm against survivors in the community. The Title IX office works to ensure the College’s compliance with the law by guaranteeing equitable access to education for all, but the work of creating a culture on campus that is intolerant of gender-based violence and supportive of survivors falls on us as students and community members. This work demands that we recognize the culture of harm that is still pervasive in our community rather than utilize the findings of this report as an excuse to stop believing survivors.
Comments and statements made by community members invalidating experiences, inappropriately insinuating and falsely diagnosing mental illnesses, as well as using derogatory name-calling on Librex, are disappointing, inexcusable actions that perpetuate violence in our community. Before posting a message that assumes Alshawi “lied” or attacking student organizations for supporting her, consider the impact of such a statement. These words have the potential to deeply harm students who heard their own stories in Alshawi’s story and advocated for her because they identified Alshawi’s experience as one event in a broader pattern of Dartmouth, as an institution and community, failing to adequately support survivors. Discussions that focus on defining Alshawi as a liar only further harm and increase violence in the community because they invalidate many survivors’ experiences and increase fears of not being believed.
We want to ask: Why do community members feel a greater need to immediately blame, disrespect and highlight one experience than to express outrage at the power imbalances and gender-based violence endemic to our campus which has harmed so many? For those who want to express disappointment and anger towards Alshawi, consider the culture of harm that motivated over 20,000 petition signatories to call for accountability. These signatures came not just from Dartmouth students, but from local community members, alumni and many others who recognize the impact of Dartmouth’s culture of harm on survivors.
Cultures of harm exist on our campus irrespective of the findings in an isolated incident. They are the sum of beliefs, attitudes, norms and actions that fuel a culture and system of power imbalances in our community. It is these power imbalances that allow for gender-based violence to take root and prosper. Harm does not merely occur in distinct incidents of violence; rather, harm is continuous and ongoing. It is the feeling of unsafety that causes you to avoid classes in a certain department, the feeling of perceived danger that makes you leave a basement early and the feeling of hesitation when seeking help for fear you will not be believed or supported. A student should not feel relief when they finally find that one staff member, faculty member or student who believes them; believing survivors should be the rule, not the exception.
Dartmouth College has had a history of gender-based violence being aired publicly, including — but not limited to — the school’s appearance in the 2015 documentary “The Hunting Ground,” the psychological and brain sciences department lawsuit and the @dartmouthsurvivors Instagram page. For every survivor whose case receives public acknowledgement, many others go unseen, unreported and unsupported; over 75% of sexual assaults that happen on Dartmouth’s campus are never reported to any campus official. We must acknowledge the violence many of our peers have experienced and the shortcomings of our institution and community in supporting them. No one should feel they have to risk their life, as Alshawi did, for the College to take the harm they have experienced seriously.
As we stated last summer in a letter to campus, “Changing a culture of harm at Dartmouth requires community members to always believe and support survivors, not only when convenient. It is our collective responsibility to educate ourselves about power-based violence, and its intersectional nature, to understand and address the ways it is perpetuated within our community. The onus should not be on survivors and our most marginalized students to educate our community, but on the entire student body and the administration to take action in eliminating violence at Dartmouth.” This statement holds true today. We are not asking people to reject the findings of the investigation, but rather to support survivors through considering the impact of their language in reactions to the investigation.
Gia Kim, Claire McMahon and Anastasia Perez Ternent are the executive chairs of the Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault for the 2021-2022 year.
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