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Cornell 'Revamps' Sexual Assault Policy, Not Time for Praise

By Anna-Lisa Castle

Photo of a row of young women sitting outside, one holding a sign that says 'Join us if you fight rape culture'

The Huffington Post published an article Wednesday entitled “Cornell Revamps Sexual Assault Policies, Takes Proactive Approach.” The piece, written by Tyler Kingkade, is largely dedicated to lauding my institution’s “proactive approach” to its sexual assault policies—namely, President Skorton’s meeting with students, creating additional committees, changing the investigatory and judicial protocol for cases of sexual violence, and as part of these changes, lowering the burden of proof for survivors. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not explicitly bothered by these changes; I support them for the most part, and in fact I have been active on the issue of sexual violence for much of my time on campus. However, I wholeheartedly object to the smug portrayal of Cornell and its administrative moves, the simultaneous erasure of the roles of students, faculty and staff in bringing about this “revamping,” and the characterization of the policy changes themselves as “proactive” and unequivocally progressive.

The article caught my eye and simultaneously triggered my gag reflex when it showed up on my newsfeed. The caption accompanying the thumbnail read, “There’s No Controversy, But Cornell Is Changing It’s Sexual Assault Policies Anyway.” As one of the students President Skorton repeatedly met with, I see things differently. I call bullshit. I call bullshit on all of it: that this is a spontaneous act of good conscience; that there has been no ‘controversy’; the euphemistic use of the word ‘controversy’ to begin with; the framing of these changes as unquestionably good; and the notion that policy improvements only happen in response to headline-making violence and that change for any other reason (like listening to students after long last or complying with federal law) is somehow heroic.

The lead sentence of the article credulously celebrates the work of the institution: “Cornell University didn’t wait for a controversy to start overhauling its sexual assault policies.” Despite the author’s enthusiastic, if naïve insistence that this policy shift is a voluntary, righteous (even chivalrous, perhaps?) move on behalf of Cornell’s powers that be, I have a very hard time believing that the upper-level administrators happened to take little time for introspection and decided of their own volition that they really ought to make some changes.

To start, there are a few problems with the use of the word “controversy” in this article. In the context of sexual assault, it seems that “controversy” might be a stand-in for a number of things. (Things which the article and undoubtedly the Cornell Communications Department’s press release would rather not be associated with Cornell.) Euphemisms demand a little imagination, so here are a few guesses as to what allegedly did not happen at Cornell:

  1. Sexual assault and rape. Wait, no, even Vice President Susan Murphy is quoted saying, “It’s clearly an issue in our society and we’re not exempt from that.” But I guess that doesn’t count as controversial.

  2. Public attacks on campus. Oh right, that happens here, too. Maybe this would be the stuff of controversy if the headlines were bigger than those in the student or local newspapers—say regional publications, or maybe something with national reach.

  3. Student protests. Come to think of it, there were several. Students organized time and again to demand the changes that Kingkade characterizes as spontaneous. In the article Murphy is quoted saying, “There’s a lot more discussion about ‘rape culture.’ That’s not a phrase I would’ve heard of a year ago.” She must not have been listening because as the Cornell Daily Sun reported, student protesters were holding signs saying “join us if you fight rape culture” outside her office just over a year ago, and the “discussion” had been going on for years.

  4. Faculty intervention. Nope, that happened, too. Forty-seven faculty members signed a letter in solidarity with student’s efforts to effect policy change on sexual assault and hate crimes.

At least we’re not “one of the schools under fire,” as the author puts it (by which he means we’re not currently being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights). This is presumably what Kingkade is referring to when he says there have been no controversies to motivate Cornell’s shift in sexual assault policies—-although by my count there have been several because if continuing violence, a rash of public assaults, organized student protests, and gross misunderstanding (some might claim willful ignorance) by the university don’t constitute controversy, I don’t know what does. It is infuriating that the bar is set so low that sexual violence on campus is not considered controversial unless an institution is under investigation by the DOE for Title IX violations. This is not just a critique of diction or the cowardly, euphemistic language of privileged liberals. I am concerned because I see this as a reflection of a larger, systematically permissive attitude toward sexual violence, an unwillingness to be candid on the issue, and a self-congratulatory disposition.

Policy changes are not a result of the administration’s unprompted decision to do the right thing. This is part of a long-overdue response to the ongoing and increasingly visible trauma of sexual assault survivors, the very hard work of student activists, and the support of faculty and staff allies who have stepped up to do the administration’s job for them in identifying injustices, recommending remedies, and demanding accountability until progress is made.

Just as the process of bringing about this shift in policy is far more complicated than Kingkade’s article lets on, the changes themselves are too complex to be heralded as categorically good. Perhaps the biggest change that has taken place at Cornell is that, as the article explains, “sexual assault and harassment complaints are no longer handled under the school’s Campus Code of Conduct. As of spring 2012, those cases are investigated by a judicial administrator in the same manner as allegations against faculty or staff, with a less rigorous burden of proof for the victim.” This change allows a survivor to avoid bringing her or his case before their peers and instead pursue a more private investigation. The lower burden of proof also makes cases more winnable in the campus setting against a backdrop of appallingly low sexual assault conviction rates. All of this hopefully encourages more survivors to come forward. As some have pointed out, however, lowering the burden of proof in cases that often have no witnesses presents a risk to the rights of the accused, which disproportionately affects Black and Latino men. There is a long history in this country of stigmatizing men of color as sexual predators which cannot be ignored. While I am not convinced that handling sexual assault among students in the same manner as employee cases will lead to great injustice, the policy changes that Cornell has implemented represent a step in a direction that for now may be an improvement but must be treated with great caution moving forward.

Looking at the issue of sexual assault through rose-colored glasses and patting ourselves on the back might make everyone feel better, but the administration and larger community must take responsibility for their own culpability, respect student voices and engage their concerns, and be careful not to erase very legitimate concerns raised by some of the policy changes in question. Contrary to the article’s title, there was and will continue to be controversy. Cornell is only starting to implement some changes because it became a choice between amending an archaic system or continuing to ignore an increasingly vocal bloc of students and other community members who had been demanding change for a long, long time. As the Cornell Daily Sun reported in April, 2012, “if Cornell did not make the changes quickly, the administrators said, the University would be ‘out of compliance’ [with Title IX] and could be sanctioned by the Education Department.” Great, we’re not breaking the law and we’re not joining our peers in horrific national headlines. Hail, all hail Cornell!

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Anna-Lisa Castle

sexual violence


higher education



January 10, 2014

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