Last Wednesday, I received an invitation from Laura Weiss, the director of the Women's Resource Center, to the first meeting of the Sexual Violence Working Group. The invitation read as follows:
“We seek any community member committed to working collaboratively to create and implement solutions to the challenges rape culture presents to our community. We will begin by engaging in a discussion of the demands and recommendations set forward by students in previous settings.”
I’ll be honest: I was not optimistic. To explain why, I’d like to lay out a little history:
The “demands and recommendations” to which Weiss refers are a modified version of the demands set forth by the Assembly for Justice last Spring following the racist violence at Sigma Pi. They include the development of “a mandatory anti-sexual violence training for all incoming and current students that targets rape culture and does not victim-blame,” “comprehensive training on all aspects of sexual violence” for all University employees, and the establishment of “a coordinated, seamless, survivor-centered response service.”
These demands are concrete. They are reasonable. They are radical, in the sense that they go to the root of the problem, rather than merely seeking to ameliorate the symptoms. For these reasons, I was optimistic about these demands when they were made last Spring.
That was four months ago. Since then, we’ve had open forums galore, both immediately after the Sigma Pi incident and following the sexual assaults and racist and homophobic violence earlier this academic year. Each time, a facilitator writes down our concerns on a big sheet of paper, which, for all the results we see, may as well go straight from the conference room to the dumpster. The Assembly for Justice has repeatedly asked the administration to address the demands, and virtually no progress has been made.
Why is this the case? Who is to blame?
One argument, perhaps best articulated by the anonymous anti-oppression group Scorpions X, puts the blame on an administration which is more interested in preserving Cornell’s reputation than it is in addressing sexual violence on campus. This argument quite effectively explains the motivation behind, for example, Chief of Police Kathy Zoner’s baseless claim that the recent string of sexual assaults reflects an increase in reporting rather than an increase in actual crime rates. The sexual assaults that most often go unreported are probably not the ones that we would hear about through Crime Alerts. Zoner has zero evidence for her claim, but it’s the sort of thing you say when you’re in the business of making the campus seem safe.
This portrayal of Cornell administrators falls in line with much of my own experience. There is, however, more to the story of the unmet demands. Some administrators clearly are more concerned with Cornell’s reputation than with its students, but some have consistently demonstrated a sincere desire to engage constructively with the demands.
And yet, we seem to walk out of every meeting without getting the administration to commit to a timetable. Some students interpret the administration’s refusal to commit as deliberate equivocation and stalling, and sometimes I think they’re right.
Sometimes, though, I think we become a little too committed to our narrative of administrators as calloused and manipulative politicians. Cornell University is a sprawling institution, across which responsibility and accountability are thinly spread. Thus, when President Skorton looks us in the eye and tells us he can’t give us a solid timetable for when the University will address our demands, he’s kind of telling the truth.
And there’s the wiggle room. There’s the proverbial Big Red Tape that gets between a campus in crisis and the achievement of meaningful change.
Which brings us back to the meeting on Friday. When I arrived, the room was overflowing with dozens of students I’d never seen before. The latest incident of sexual violence, the attempted rape on Wednesday night on the bridge behind the Engineering Quad, had had a profound effect. The room we’d reserved was at capacity and the hall was full, so we moved to Barton Hall and broke into smaller groups.
When my group sat down and we all said our names and explained why we had come to the meeting, I realized for the first time the depth of the crisis this campus is facing right now. As we went around the circle, I heard the same or similar stories time and time again:
“I walk that bridge every night.”
“That could have been me.”
“I don’t feel safe walking home from the library.”
Let me be clear: It is not my intention to “speak for” the women of this campus. The women of this campus spoke loud and clear on Friday afternoon, and I’m just trying to relay what I heard. I heard a campus in crisis. I heard women from every corner of the Cornell community speaking in firm solidarity: The status quo is unacceptable. This University needs to change, and this administration needs to stop fucking around.
We spent the next couple hours talking with administrators, CUPD officers and each other, working through very concrete details of what the University can do better. These included both reactive measures, like better coverage and publicity for the Blue Light Shuttles, and proactive measures, as outlined in the demands I describe above.
If any of this talk is going to stick, if we really want a safer campus, we’re going to have to keep showing up to meetings like the one we had on Friday. These meetings will often be unexciting and frustrating, but change is like that sometimes. University policy doesn’t change in a day, and it doesn’t change at all unless students light a fire under the administration’s ass and keep it lit.
Tom Moore is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. What Even Is All This? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.