Last Thursday at 10:45 a.m., about 200 students and several professors formed a human chain in front of the Center for Women’s Studies. The chain effectively blocked the entrance to the center, where the administration had planned to hold a campus discussion of the results from the Sexual Assault Campus Climate Survey that Colgate participated in last spring.
Later that evening, the student organizers held a speak-out in the Colgate Memorial Chapel instead of the additional campus discussion the administration had planned in the chapel basement. The speak-out was a chance for the administration and the Colgate community to hear survivors of sexual assault share their stories and experiences going through the Equity Grievance Policy (EGP) process and working with the administration in the aftermath of the assaults. Before almost 20 students shared their stories, the organizers of the protest presented an 11-point list of demands that would strengthen Colgate’s efforts to combat sexual assault on campus by taking a survivor-centric approach in addition to the university’s existing prevention programs.
Building the Chain
Chants of “Silence is violence” and “We need transparency” reverberated across the quad Thursday morning. After reading the flyers being passed out with the protestors’ mission statement printed on them, students passing by set down their backpacks and joined the chain, stretching it further around East Hall.
Six women stood in the center of the chain directly in front of the center’s door. Three of these women—seniors Bailey Graves, Susan Miller and Monica Murphy—have been in conversation with the administration for a year under the name Colgate Forward. These conversations were initiated by the three women representing Colgate Forward and focused on specific “survivor-centric” actions, changes and programming proposed by the three students in an earlier version of the current 11-point plan. These points, said Colgate Forward, not only aim to improve the experiences of victims of sexual assault, sexual exploitation, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking, but they would also directly make Colgate a safer environment.
This semester, progress was being made toward completing two of these 11 points, said Colgate Forward. One was that Colgate would fund at least four nurses at Community Memorial Hospital to become certified as Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE), since currently students only have access to SANE nurses at Oneida Healthcare, which is a 40-minute drive from Colgate. Through other students, Colgate Forward heard about a Board of Trustees meeting in early October and attended to speak with the Board about many of their action points.
“The board really pushed for SANE nurses,” said Graves, “and there are two board members who are very dedicated to that particular point. But students have been pushing for years.”
Despite this progress, the women of Colgate Forward were frustrated by the administration’s inconsistent communication as well as the small amount of progress and the slow pace at which this progress was being made. Colgate administrators declined an interview to answer questions regarding these conversations, but Interim President Jill Harsin commented to the Maroon-News by email: “Dean Nelson and her staff have been working very hard over the course of the semester, in consultation with students, to identify ways to address sexual violence and the support of survivors. Many measures have been activated or planned for in the course of the semester.”
When senior Madison Paulk and juniors Rachel Drucker and Dayna Campbell – all members of the Association of Critical Collegians (ACC) – caught wind of what Colgate Forward was trying to achieve and the challenges they were facing, they reached out with the idea of a partnership.
Paulk and Drucker had recently had an unrelated experience with the Colgate administration that they viewed as an inadequate and inappropriate handling of an issue regarding sexual violence on campus.
Last October, students planned and held a Sexual Climate Forum. This event was a campus-wide discussion of sexual assault on college campuses featuring a collection of panelists and noted filmmaker Liz Canner. This year, said Drucker, who is a member of the Sexual Climate Advisory Committee (SCAC), the administration planned to hold an institution-run, rather than student-run, Sexual Climate Forum, where they would release and discuss Colgate’s results from the Higher Education Data Sharing (HEDS) Consortium’s Sexual Assault Campus Climate Survey taken last March.
Pursuant to the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, Colgate University is mandated to gather and share information about both crime on campus and the school’s efforts to improve safety on campus. The HEDS survey aims to help schools meet this requirement. However, Drucker said the last time Colgate students saw data like this was in 2009, and a different survey developed by Colgate professors was used. This previously used survey is not only tailored specifically to students at Colgate, Drucker said, it is also more comprehensive and addresses the importance of considering intersectional identities in relation to sexual violence on campus.
Neither the SCAC nor other student leaders on campus felt comfortable with the idea that the administration, rather than the students, would plan and hold the Sexual Climate Forum. In a meeting to determine whether planning an alternate, student-run forum would be possible, the SCAC and other student leaders on campus listened to a member of the Communications department present the HEDS survey data. Paulk, Drucker and many other students were disturbed by the stark manner in which the data was read aloud and visually represented using graphs.
“[They] listed statistic after statistic…” said Drucker. “It was hard for a lot of people to hear, especially because a lot of people in the room were literally seeing their own experience reduced to this statistic… and then just seeing it on there, swept into this neat little powerpoint presentation was difficult… A lot of people ended up in tears, including myself,” she said.
This experience, along with frustrations about the inefficiency of SCAC and the lack of a viable alternative to the administration’s planned Sexual Climate Forum, left Paulk, Drucker and Campbell wanting to do something. For almost a year, Colgate Forward had been trying to do something. These were the first two links in the chain.
“Stories Not Statistics”
The human chain remained connected until around 12:30 p.m. Vice President and Dean of the College Suzy Nelson and Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Scott Brown were scheduled to attend the institution-led campus discussion, and therefore arrived at the Center for Women’s Studies. In addition to Dean Nelson and Dean Brown, the protestors summoned Associate Dean for Conduct Kim Taylor, Associate Provost for Equity and Diversity and Title IX Coordinator Lyn Rugg and Interim President Harsin to the demonstration.
When all five administrators had arrived, the six organizers read aloud their mission statement and requested the administrators’ presence at the student-run speak-out later that day. In addition to survivors of sexual assault sharing their stories, the six organizers would outline their demands – an updated and evolved version of the 11-point action plan Colgate Forward originally proposed to the administration last year.
Senior Nick Yap, who participated in the protest, emphasized the importance of the speak-out in relation to the HEDS survey data.
“The 11 points speak to me a lot… I have a lot of friends–too many friends–who have gone through the EGP process, and the same problems keep coming up… The administration is doing a lot of good and preventative things, but not enough. The survey is almost irrelevant–we did not suddenly realize this was a problem,” Yap said.
First, the six organizers read aloud the 11-point action plan, which was also printed and distributed to audience members. Colgate Forward member Monica Murphy prefaced this with a clarification: “What we’re doing here today didn’t come out of any hatred or animosity towards Colgate or its administration. If any of us hated Colgate we wouldn’t be here. We’re here because we love Colgate and because it’s been our home… we decided to do this because we love Colgate so much and I need to know that there will be structures in place to protect the people who are still going to be here after I leave at the end of this year.”
After the demands were read aloud, about 20 women rose to the stage to speak out as survivors of sexual assault and other sex offenses at Colgate. The women spoke for over an hour and a half. Close friends accompanied many of these women on stage as they shared not only the pain and fear of experiencing an assault on campus, but also the frustration many of them felt with the way Colgate responded to their assaults.
Almost all of these survivors’ stories demonstrated just how productive the demands of the 11-point action plan would be. Perhaps most pressing are the points that outline ways Colgate should improve its EGP process. Many survivors who spoke about their experience going through the EGP process explained how it worsened their trauma and was emotionally devastating.
The 11-point plan declares that better publicity of all aspects of the EGP would result in transparency, and strictly defined sanctions and timelines would ensure the process is fair and conforms to the policy. Additionally, informing the campus when a student receives any type of sanction in response to a report of sexual violence would raise the student body’s awareness of this issue.
One of these possible sanctions is a “no contact” directive. Survivors who spoke out about their experiences confirmed the 11-point plan’s claim that these directives carry no weight and are not enforced properly, therefore supporting the need for the plan’s fourth demand: that the “no contact” directives are enforced by a strike system, meaning a student who violates the order more than once will be suspended.
Testimony from the speak-out also demonstrated the challenges faced by survivors who need to leave campus in order to heal. Those survivors can only leave campus if they take a medical leave of absence, rather than an academic leave of absence. A medical leave of absence involves a much more complicated re-admittance process and does not allow a returning student to participate in course selection or housing selection while they are off campus. In addition, medical leaves of absence can prevent students from graduating on time. The plan’s penultimate demand requires that survivors of sexual assault be allowed to take an academic leave of absence instead.
It’s clear that the success of the speak-out lies in the bravery and strength of the survivors who generously shared their stories, as it is ultimately these human stories that reveal the urgent necessity of the plan’s implementation.
Graves, Miller, Murphy, Paulk, Drucker and Campbell concluded the speak-out by proclaiming in unison: “To the administration: These are your HEDS data. These are the students in your statistics. This is not the end of this conversation.”
On Friday, November 6, the day after the protest and speak-out, Harsin and Nelson sent an email addressed to the Colgate community acknowledging the power of the speak-out: “We were moved as many survivors found the courage to speak about their experiences and their pain. Their testimonies underscored the need for our community to join together to address sexual violence on this campus.”
However, this email made no mention of Thursday’s earlier protest outside of the Center for Women’s Studies. The email included links to several webpages including the HEDS Survey Overview.
This same afternoon, the Sexual Climate Advisory Committee was scheduled to meet. The administration sent an email postponing this meeting.
“I emailed Dean Brown and called President Harsin’s office because I felt that was not the right decision and that we needed to meet on Friday more than ever,” said Drucker.
Neither administrator responded, but many faculty, staff and student members did respond saying they wanted to hold the meeting anyway. No administrators–including Brown, Taylor or Rugg–attended the meeting.
On Monday, November 9, the administration hosted an informational meeting at 11:30 a.m. for faculty to discuss the student-led protest and speak-out. According to Director of Women’s Studies Meika Loe, about 50 professors attended and many expressed their support for the students’ initiative.
Colgate administrators declined to sit down for an interview with the Maroon-News regarding the long year of conversations with Colgate Forward leading up to the protest and speak-out, but both Nelson and Harsin offered statements of support for the speak-out.
“I believe the speak-out broke the silence about sexual violence on this campus, and I am very grateful to the organizers and the bravery of the many participants who brought this issue to the fore by sharing their stories. We have more work to do, and the speak-out was an important step toward joining together to confront sexual violence and support survivors,” Nelson said.
Echoing this statement, Harsin said, “The speak-out was full of moving and heartbreaking testimonies, and I can only applaud the courage of the students who shared their stories.… In addition (to previously planned measures), Dean Nelson and I are assembling an external review team to look at our survivor support mechanisms, and to suggest further measures that we might take.”
Faculty members were also moved by both the protest and the speak-out. Visiting Assistant Professor in the Educational Studies Berlisha Morton stood as a link in the human chain.
“I’m very proud of the students. I think that the crowd was representative of Colgate. I thought it was beautiful… it was just a beautiful sight,” she said.
The sheer number of students who attended the protest and the speak-out–200 and 700, respectively–is proof that the members of Colgate Forward achieved at least one of their goals.
“A big part of what the three of us were doing was trying to increase transparency,” explained Miller. “We knew that some of our 11 points were starting slowly to move forward, like the SANE nurse, but we were the only three who knew that. We wanted to let people know that this was happening so that they could join us in holding everyone accountable and making sure that these things got done… The three of us are graduating in a semester and we’re terrified that when we leave things are just going to fall apart and just stop happening,” she said.
Graves agreed and also emphasized how she hoped the protest and speak-out would underscore to the administration just how many people sexual violence affects on campus.
“For me, I wanted a visual representation for the administration that it wasn’t just the three of us. Our 11 points came out of conversations we had with survivors and their experiences… I really wanted [the administration] to see–and to have to look in the eye–all of the people who have been affected and impacted by this on campus,” she said.
Despite the high attendance at both events and the community’s support for the protest on social media, as of Tuesday night the six organizers were disappointed with the administration’s response.
Colgate Forward knew when they planned the protest and speak-out that several of the 11 points were already underway, Graves said.
“We were giving them a chance to acknowledge that, and all they had to say was, ‘We’re doing this, we just wanted the campus community to know about it,’” Graves said. “We threw them a beach ball and all they had to do was hit it.”
They still have a chance, the six organizers agreed.
“This isn’t an us versus them situation,” said Paulk. “We are all clearly very angry right now, but we do hope to work with the administration because this is bigger than just these 11 points and what happened on Thursday. We hope that those conversations can continue.”