A seat at the table

University-led programming dealing with sexual assault silences the voices of actual campus survivors.

In spring 2013, the Student Government (SG) Annual Allocations Committee denied the UChicago Clothesline Project funding for the 2013 – 14 school year. The community response to this denial was powerful; an online petition drew nearly 1,000 signatures and funding was granted by the SG Finance Committee that summer. In spring 2014, SG established a $10,000 Sexual Assault Awareness fund for the 2014 – 15 school year, which we are finally seeing in action; most of the funds have been used for Sexual Assault Awareness Week, set for eighth week, May 17–22. This week has been sponsored in part by generous grants from the Campus Dialogue Fund, the Office of LGBTQ Student Life, and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA). The programming includes workshops by RSOs and the third annual spring installment of the UChicago Clothesline Project in Hutch Courtyard. It boasts events featuring prominent anti–sexual violence activists, including Dana Bolger, a founding co-director of Know Your IX; Wagatwe Wanjuki, coiner of the nationally trending #SurvivorPrivilege hashtag; and John Kelly, the first person to testify before the Senate about queer dating violence. This student-led, survivor-driven programming amplifies sexual assault survivors’ voices in an institutional environment that silences them.

Student Government has certainly come a long way since 2013, but this progress stands in stark contrast to the University-led events this year. A concerning pattern regarding this issue has arisen: Students have submitted event proposals featuring student and survivor activists to the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality (CSGS) and the Institute of Politics since fall 2014, but none of these requests has been granted. Instead, programming like the CSGS Sexual Violence on Campus series this school year has primarily featured academic speakers: The first event in the series, in October 2014, featured Harvard Law professor Janet Halley. The panel after the The Hunting Ground screening this April was the first time a student activist or survivor was included in this series, and the film itself portrayed a narrow narrative of campus sexual violence. In March, the IOP held the student-proposed panel Strengthening Title IX. Only at the last minute did it agree to add a UChicago student survivor to the program and remove UChicago Title IX Coordinator for Students Belinda Cortez Vazquez from the panel; the only UChicago voice that the IOP initially deemed acceptable to comment on the ongoing federal Title IX investigation was that of an administrator. This was an event that was meant to focus on local and national student activists, yet we struggled to get even one student on the panel. University programming fails to reflect student, survivor, and activist proposals and does not treat student survivors as key stakeholders in issues that intimately affect them.

What is more concerning than the lack of inclusion from departmental event leaders and coordinators is the lack of inclusion from administrators on policies that directly affect survivors. A Provost-appointed committee met in winter 2014 to review changes to the Policy on Unlawful Discrimination and Sexual Misconduct, but student survivors and our organizations—like the Phoenix Survivors Alliance and the UChicago Clothesline Project—were excluded from these meetings. While some student survivors have been appointed to the Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) Student Emergency Response Systems advisory council, this council’s power has yet to be proven—Dean of Students in the University Michele Rasmussen has stated to council members that we do not actually advise Campus and Student Life but rather provide feedback to the small RSVP office. Instead of inclusion in powerful entities like the Provost’s committee, survivors are delegated to powerless councils.

Administrators not only fail to include survivors in key decision-making sessions, but they also outright refuse to cooperate with us. In April 2014, Dean of Students in the College Jay Ellison stated via e-mail that he will not meet with Phoenix Survivors Alliance to discuss Title IX non-compliance after the group published an op-ed on the issue. Other powerful administrators, such as Karen Warren Coleman, vice president for campus life and student services, and John Boyer, dean of the College, have never so much as replied to one e-mail requesting a meeting to discuss these key topics of campus safety. As survivors of sexual violence, our existences should not be treated as liabilities that could harm the University’s brand. Our painful lived experiences should not disqualify our opinions but instead make them all the more valuable.

There is a myth that the University as an institution is “trying hard” to do better by survivors and that it “means well.” In an e-mail, CSGS director Linda Zerilli has stated that “many of these administrators are actually trying to help. They are in a crisis right now and scrambling around trying to make sense of what to do next.” What Zerilli seems to not understand is that those who are truly “in crisis” are the sexual assault survivors at this University, not the incompetent administrators. While we support the campus climate survey, the claim via e-mail from Karen Warren Coleman to students about the survey, that it will be used to “inform [University] efforts to improve sexual misconduct prevention, education and awareness programs, as well as [their] commitment to provide the best resources to survivors,” implies that the University is ignorant concerning these issues. The existence of the UChicago Clothesline Project since fall 2012 and our public statements and installations with more than 175 stories of violence from students, not to mention the ongoing federal investigation into Title IX violations, are sufficient evidence that the University of Chicago knows it has a rape problem. Even with this evidence, though, the University remains apathetic, and at times antagonistic, to survivor concerns.

If the University cared about making meaningful change, then it would allocate its plentiful resources to properly train University employees, enforce no-contact orders to protect traumatized students, and actually support survivors. Instead, as seen with the planned programming of Sexual Assault Awareness Week and refusal of administrative cooperation, students will have to bear that responsibility themselves.

Veronica Portillo Heap is a fourth-year in the College majoring in history and gender and sexuality studies.

Olivia Ortiz is a linguistics major in the College.