Columbia Announces It Will "Deal With the Issues of Sexual Assault"

Columbia University plans to create a second rape-crisis center on campus and add staff positions to help it "deal with the issues of sexual assault and related misconduct," the school's president, Lee Bollinger, announced yesterday. The university also intends to add Title IX investigators on campus and to create a new position of executive vice president for student affairs, with responsibility for overseeing sexual-assault claims.

The announcement came after weeks of scrutiny of the university's handling of sexual assault, and days after a list of alleged student rapists tuned up on walls around campus—a list that two assault victims told Gawker they believed to be accurate.

In late April, 23 students at Columbia and Barnard College filed a federal Title IX complaint alleging that their claims of having been assaulted had been mishandled. Last week, a student with access to three different campus buildings wrote graffiti and left flyers naming four students as repeat sexual offenders.

The list, scrawled in bathroom stalls in three different campus buildings, named those students as "Sexual Assault Violators on Campus." It was labeled as "counterproductive" by some students and denounced by anonymous students as an anti-male rumor-mill witch hunt.

Columbia isn't the first school to have to deal with such lists. Twenty-four years ago, Brown University had a list pop up around campus for most of a semester, eventually swelling to 30 names and breaking open a debate on campus assaults that was previously off-limits for discussion. Students then saw the list as a mixed blessing, getting results from the administration but fracturing relations between the sexes.

But two women Gawker spoke with, who say they were assaulted by the same man at Columbia and who have joined the federal complaint, said the students on last week's list earned that distinction with their actions, and the list's existence was a logical result of the university administration's failure to make the campus safe for women.

"I personally know women who have been assaulted by every man on that list, including the man who assaulted me. He deserves to be on that list," said Emma Sulkowicz, who related the story of her own rape, and the administration's ham-fisted response, to the New York Times last week. "I know one woman who was raped by two men on that list."

"I can't condone [the list], but I also think it's super shitty that it's gotten to this point," said the other woman, who asked not to be identified. "It could have been some trolly person" making up names on the wall, she said, but knowing that her attacker was on the list "adds legitimacy to it."

And she said that seeing the list was personally gratifying. "I really hate to say it, but I felt some sense of satisfaction, almost. I felt like they prioritized him and privileged him over me in the process so much. I felt impotent."

Both women said the university's existing system was not only demeaning to them, but dangerous to fellow students, who didn't know the identities of accused predators in their midst. "I have always been frustrated with the school about not letting us discuss the names of our rapists on campus and threatening us," Sulkowicz said.

She added that she had seen other women she knew talking to men who had attacked multiple other students, and "I'm not able to tell them, 'You should not talk to that guy, because he's raped someone else.'"

In that atmosphere, the list—and the publicity it produced—seems to have forced the administration into action. "The resentment towards the administration for not keeping us safe has just built up to this point," Sulkowicz said.

"At the time, I felt, Columbia isn't listening to me. No one was listening to me," the other woman said. "Now, someone is listening to me."

Here is the full text of Bollinger's announcement:

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

Before the academic year comes to a close, I want to provide one more brief update on our ongoing efforts to improve our capacity within the University to prevent and address issues of sexual assault and misconduct. Many people on the campus—students, faculty, and administrators—have worked diligently on this critically important matter. The work will continue. Here, then, are some additional changes.

Since my last update, I have charged the Presidential Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault (PACSA) with developing an ongoing, multi-year, comprehensive plan to address sexual assault within our community. There are, of course, many elements already identified and being developed—an annual campus climate survey, enhanced training both during orientation and on an ongoing basis, the release of annual aggregate data after the completion of the academic year, and stronger bystander training.

Over the last several weeks, we have authorized the addition of Title IX investigators and have consolidated the investigative offices to improve the adjudicatory process. The Office of Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct will now report directly to the Associate Provost for Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, Title IX Coordinator. We also have facilitated the expansion of the professional staff in the Office of Sexual Violence Response to ensure 24-hour on-call access to professional staff, while keeping fully intact existing access to peer advocates. Furthermore, we have identified an additional location for the Rape Crisis Center in Lerner Hall, which will provide an alternative to the current location in Hewitt Hall. These and other resources are detailed and will be regularly updated on the new website, Sexual Respect, launched earlier this year.

A critical component of reform is the creation of the new office of Executive Vice President for Student Affairs, which, among other things, will help centralize overall responsibility and facilitate better coordination. The search for the person to take up this position is underway. I have retained the services of an executive search firm and very soon will announce the members of an advisory committee of students and other key individuals to assist in the process of identifying candidates. The EVP will then work closely with PACSA to help ensure that our campus culture does not tolerate sexual assault and that our adjudicatory process is responsive, sensitive, efficient, and fair.

Columbia is rightly known as the place of strong and deeply held core academic and community values. We have to deal with the issues of sexual assault and related misconduct consistent with those values.

Sincerely,

Lee C. Bollinger

[Photo credit: Cami Quarta/Bwog]