Columbia's President Calls for Increased Sexual Assault Transparency

Following a wildly infuriating and very damning report on Columbia University's severe mishandling of three rapes on campus, the school's president has announced new policies intended to make its sexual assault procedures more transparent.

Last week, Columbia's student-run newspaper The Blue and White published a very thorough, very rage-inducing piece by Anna Bahr. Bahr interviewed three sexual assault survivors, all of whom had a traumatizing and horribly ineffective experience attempting to report their assaults to Columbia's Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct. All three were assaulted by the same man, who was never punished. One of the assault victims was anally raped; at her sexual misconduct panel, she was told by an "expert panelist" that "I don't understand how it's possible to have anal sex without using lubrication first" — as though the fact that the man who raped her didn't use lubrication when forcibly entering her somehow discredited her testimony. Another female student received incompletes in half of her classes after the perpetrator was allowed to return to campus residence halls.

One of the victim's lawyers told Bahr that the university's concern with its public image has undermined its commitment to safety and fairness. "The University weighs discretion more than justice," he said. "It is trying so hard to keep these acts discrete that, to some extent, the process belies an effective justice."

Three days after the article's publication, the school's Student Affairs Committee published an open letter calling on Columbia to "to clarify and initiate any needed reforms to the adjudication process within the Office of Gender - Based Misconduct." Specifically, the SAC asked that the President release a statement detailing his "position and priorities regarding sexual misconduct, harassment, and retaliation," that the school host a town hall-style meeting on the school's sexual assault program and associated systemic issues and that data pertaining to sexual assault and other gender-based misconduct be made readily available. Three days after that, Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger released a statement on sexual assault on campus affirming the university's commitment to taking the issue seriously.

According to Bollinger's statement, a review of policies and procedures has been underway for months; he claims that several initiatives are on the way, the first of which is a newly-launched website meant to "set forth our policies on gender-based misconduct and explains to members of our community what they can do and where they can turn if they believe they have been harmed by such misconduct." He also said that "aggregate, anonymous data related to sexual assaults and other gender-based misconduct will be released beginning with the current academic year," noting that releasing such data "will require a delicate balancing of confidentiality and transparency."

Sejal Singh, president of the Columbia University Democrats, told the New York Timesthat the statement from Mr. Bollinger is a significant development. "This means we'll finally get information about how long the process takes, what sort of interim measures are being undertaken, and what kind of punishments are being given out to those who are found responsible for sexual misconduct through the university's procedures," she said. Of course, there's much more to be done — as Alexandra Brodsky points out at The American Prospect, transparency is very important, but it has to extend all the way to the Department of Education in order to be truly meaningful. And, on a smaller scale, schools must institute programs to teach students about consent and institute meaningful resources for survivors.

Image via AP.