Claire Rodenbush is a rising junior at Emerson College who was recently elected as SGA’s executive president for the 2020-2021 academic year.
My initial reaction to the opinion piece “Us Versus Them” was one of disgust. Telling survivors of sexual assault not to criticize the administration that absolves their abusers of guilt is a privileged take. The administration can, should, and needs to be criticized on all levels. If students are reporting sexual assault and abuse taking place on campus, it is the responsibility of the administration to take serious action regarding these accusations. Students and survivors feel as if the college is failing to fulfill these responsibilities.
Students do not owe anything, let alone respect, to an administration that refuses to address even our most basic concerns. We don’t owe respect to an administration that would rather side with abusers than help survivors. We don’t owe respect to an administration that would rather create another committee than directly address the concerns of its students.
When I was assaulted on campus last semester, I had no idea just how much of a nightmare navigating the Title IX process at Emerson would be. My abuser still walked on this campus until the day the semester ended. Every time I saw their face, I was forced to relive that moment. And Emerson did next to nothing to help. I went through the proper channels, I did everything I thought I was supposed to, and yet, my abuser received nothing more than an unenforceable stay-away order.
The graffiti on Little Building last spring marked a moment of student frustration so intense that the administration could no longer turn a blind eye. The incident was a last-ditch effort to get the administration to acknowledge the abuse they had been harboring on campus. Prior to the incident, the administration had offered no help beyond saying that they’d look into it.
Colleges are businesses, they’re run like businesses. They shouldn’t be. Students are not paid to attend class, it’s the other way around. Emerson College serves its students, not the other way around. When parents drop their kids off for freshman orientation, they have a reasonable expectation that the college will keep them safe. Students are not providing a service to the administration; it is the other way around. If colleges are a business, then the administration is not sticking to their end of the deal.
The fact of the matter is, up until the graffiti incident, the administration was hardly doing enough to protect survivors. Can it really be claimed that the administration wants Emerson to be safer if they consistently didn’t respond to survivors’ complaints about the Title IX process? While on a basic level, students and the administration might not be so different, in this case, the administration has acted in direct opposition to students’ best interests.
In 2014, Sarah Tedesco, a former student, spoke out about the college’s handling of her assault, saying an investigation took months and that an administrator told her not to make a “big deal” about it. Sometimes, we need to realize that reaching across the aisle is an unrealistic fantasy. It is next to impossible to compromise with the same system that botched the investigations of Jillian Doherty, Sarah Tedesco, and Sarita Nadkarni’s Title IX cases, which were later reported on in sources like The Huffington Post. Had the college’s actions not driven students to the point of vandalism, Emerson would have never created the Presidential Working Group. You can’t expect the same students who were disenfranchised to buy into the same system that had worked against them.
Student activists have also raised concerns about how the proposed solutions of the working group ignored their input. The Presidential Working Group is little more than a way for the administration to avoid taking responsibility for systemic problems. It’s composed mainly of PR experts, not trauma experts. As a survivor of assault, I have little faith that it’s more than a PR stunt. The author of the “Us Versus Them” op-ed criticized performative activism, but the Presidential Working Group itself is performative activism. It shouldn’t take a committee an entire year to point out structural problems that a single survivor on campus could tell you in one conversation.
I want to echo a few points made by Leah Cedeño, Students Supporting Survivors president and former member of the Presidential Working Group, made in her interview with The Beacon. The Presidential Working Group draft does not address a single concern that S3 brought to President M. Lee Pelton and his Presidential Working Group. The college benefits from filibustering students as long as possible so that they don’t have to take any action once they graduate or leave the college. The creation of the Presidential Working Group as a solution for the assaults on campus is yet another way to filibuster student activists. This conversation has been happening for over a decade and no meaningful progress has been made. In my time at Emerson, more work has been done by frustrated students than the administration.
Without constant pressure from student activists, the administration will not do anything for students. They thrive and survive on delays. We, as students, have a responsibility to hold the administration accountable and convince them to make tangible, lasting changes.
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