Sexual Climate Forum Sparks Conversation


On Monday, October 27, students filed into the Colgate Memorial Chapel for a much-discussed event on campus: a sexual climate forum. 

The forum was led by Liz Canner, an award-winning filmmaker who is currently creating a documentary about sexual assault on campuses called SilentU. Canner used excerpts from her film to frame the discussion. Students either spoke aloud or submitted their questions anonymously through an online platform. Counselors were stationed outside to attend to any students for whom the discussion about sexual assault triggered an emotional response. The forum also featured a panel with staff and administrators.

The forum was planned by seniors Cameron Costa, Tess Cumpstone, Dannie Putur, Lillie Laiks and Laura Wojcik.

“We hoped to start an educated, campus-wide discussion about sexual assault at Colgate. Our institution touts an education that provides a real understanding of the human experience and generates adults ready for leadership and productive citizenship; we believed that this forum was a necessary step in fulfilling this mission,” Costa  said.

Canner initially asked students to name places where they felt either safe or unsafe on campus, and the responses were varied. 

The conversation frequently centered on Greek Life, often placing the onus for sexual assault specifically on fraternities. This provoked mixed reactions as a large percentage of the student audience was affiliated with Greek Life.

“I think that the conversation definitely has to extend beyond Greek Life because one of my best friends was raped by a boy who isn’t in a frat. But I do think that there are many issues with Greek Life that do need to be addressed,” sophomore Megan Klebanoff said. 

Many men in the audience were not satisfied with Canner’s suggestions.

“I want to be an agent of change, but I end up sitting at an event like this and listening to fraternities and fraternity men getting bashed for their actions and wondering what I personally can do differently, and the speaker refused to address this in any realistic manner,” junior Theta Chi fraternity member Turner Rapp said.

“I think it is important to remember that just because there are members of fraternities who commit sexual assault does not mean all do or that they condone it, especially here at Colgate, where I know personally that a majority of them hold themselves and their brothers to much higher standards,” sophomore Emily Stabnick said. “I have an enormous amount of respect for the members of fraternities who were present at the forum, despite the fact that Greek Life was under such heavy criticism.” 

Canner said she believed Greek Life should be diminished on college campuses to truly decrease the prevalence of sexual assault. She cited specific studies indicating the strong correlation between perpetrators who commit sexual assault and affiliation with Greek Life. 

“The hardest thing for me as a man of Greek life that considers myself to be an ally of this movement is to find where I can situate myself in a conversation on sexual assault,” Rapp said. “It’s hard to be a part of the group being defined as the problem but not associating any of that behavior with myself.”

The discussion touched upon many issues on this campus surrounding sexual assault, such as the lack of a SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner)-trained nurse, frustrations with the legal process after reporting sexual assault and community support for survivors on campus. 

“I thought the forum was a great start for the Colgate campus community as a whole. The issue of sexual assault on this campus is definitely known and seen, but there had yet to have been a space for the entire community to gather and discuss this significant issue. I think the discourse was extremely powerful and provided the groundwork for how the discussion will continue on this campus,” sophomore Chloe Tawaststjerna said. 

“This is just the beginning. Judging by what we have heard (at the forum, afterwards, on Yik Yak, etc.) people are definitely talking about Colgate’s sexual climate, and we wanted to start a conversation. We’ve tapped into a communal sentiment of frustration and suffering, and we want the conversation about constructive change to continue,” Laiks said. 

Both Canner and the students asked questions of the panel, which included Assistant Director of Campus Safety/Investigator Val Brogan, Associate Vice President and  Dean of Students Brown, Associate Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Dawn LaFrance, Outreach Programming Coordinator of the Africana, Latin American, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Cultural Center Drea Finley, Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies and Director of Women’s Studies Meika Loe, Title IX Coordinator Professor Marilyn Rugg, Assistant Dean/Director of LGBTQ Initiatives Khristian Kemp-DeLisser and Office Manager of the COVE Colleen Nassimos.

The forum organizers noted that it was important that the panel of administrators were present. 

“We wanted to make sure that they could answer questions about certain things (the EGP process, campus safety, etc.) that we, as students, do not have insider information on. They also helped us with the event and wanted to show their support and solidarity. In addition, it is important to remember that the administrators are a part of our community; to help us initiate change, they understood that obtaining a comprehensive picture of the student body is only possible by listening to the students directly,” Laiks said. 

However, Tawaststjerna noted her disappointment that more first-years were not present at the forum. 

“I wish someone had begun this discussion with me during this time of my freshman year. I think it would have changed my life at Colgate,” Tawaststjerna said. 

There were also some aspects of sexual climate that the panel leaders believe were not fully addressed.

“We need an opportunity to discuss the cultural factors that enable students to feel entitled to violating the bodies of their peers. We also need a more thorough conversation about the definition of consent. A participant asked what specific student groups and individuals can do to help foster a safer, more supportive Colgate; we are beginning to think about ways we can create a community-wide brainstorm to explore this question further,” Laiks said.

The leaders of the panel hope that this event will allow Colgate to start to become a safer place for students to talk about sexual assault.

“We hope that this forum has highlighted the community’s desire for a different, better Colgate … We can eradicate the ignorance of sexual assault at Colgate. We can break the silence that suffocates all survivors, on all campuses, in all communities. We can be sensitive to each other and respectful of our experiences as students at Colgate University,”   Costa said.

On Monday, October 27, mattresses with quotes from students who were sexually assaulted were placed around campus. The mattresses remained until Wednesday, October 29, in which students participated in Carry That Weight Day of Action.