Student Activists Push for Change
by Michelle Simmons
March 31, 2011
“Nothing made me happier to be a Dickinsonian than to protest against the sexual misconduct policy,” Chalise Saunders ’14 blogged during the sit-in. “Even while we were sleeping on the floor of Memorial Hall, students still wore their Dickinson apparel, still talked about the classes and professors they loved and still defended our school by saying that sexual assault is a serious problem everywhere, not just here.”
During the last two years, Dickinson College has embarked on a self-study of its sexual-misconduct policies, fueled by student requests for change that surfaced in spring 2009. College administrators invited an outside consultant to interview students, faculty and staff about those policies’ effectiveness; formed a subcommittee of the Enrollment & Student Life Committee (ESLC) to revise those policies; and received a $300,000 grant from the United States Department of Justice to hire a violence-prevention coordinator.
Largely unaware of the status of these efforts, nearly 300 students marched on March 3 from Morgan Field to Old West to protest what they perceived to be the college’s inadequate response to sexual violence on campus. They quickly occupied Memorial Hall, and about 150 staged a three-day sit-in. Through social-media venues such as Twitter and Facebook, organizers riveted the campus community and beyond with constant updates, and they shared messages of support.
Their demands included more transparency about the internal judicial process, immediate alerts to the campus community when a sexual assault is reported, a more comprehensive definition of sexual violence and automatic expulsion for any student found guilty of rape.
The protests came as a surprise to the ESLC members and many in the campus community, said Tom Reed, professor of English and chair of the ESLC. Students, faculty and administrators constitute the committee.
“I can understand the frustration that students might feel if they thought the college was acting slowly on this,” he said. “Students don’t always understand the institutional structure, and we are well reminded that they’re on a quick trip—they want to see things happen.”
In that spirit, special ESLC meetings were held on March 10 and 30 for the campus community to learn more about the policy-revision process and offer feedback. About 400 students, faculty and administrators turned out in the Holland Union Building’s Social Hall for the two meetings.
Crime and punishment
Many in the audience had not been aware of or did not fully understand the college’s existing policy as outlined in the Student Handbook, nor did they know about the steps the college had taken to combat sexual violence.
Tiffany Hwang ’11, one of the sit-in organizers, had participated in a similar but smaller-scale protest in spring 2009. She pointed to a general lack of communication within the campus community about the college’s progress.
“When the subcommittee [of ESLC] met in fall 2010, I would have liked greater transparency in creating a capacity assessment of what the community needs were in drafting a new policy,” she told the attendees. “I don’t feel that my or my peers’ voices were heard in that process … which ultimately led to the sit-in.”
Others voiced their concern that the policy was not being applied consistently or forcefully enough.
“Rape is considered a felony crime, so expulsion doesn’t seem like enough to me,” said Bryn McNamee-Tweed ’11 at the March 10 meeting. “If we’re talking about punishment for a felony crime as someone leaving school, that doesn’t seem quite on the same plane as someone serving several years in jail. We would like to see more victims pursue the [criminal-prosecution] option.”
Leonard Brown ’92, dean of students, responded that victims always have the option of reporting sexual assault to law-enforcement officials—whether it’s through the college’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) or the Carlisle Police Department.
Dee Danser, director of DPS, added that the college’s public-safety officers have full police authority to investigate and pursue criminal prosecution for sexual assault.
Ultimately, the campus climate and culture need to change, said many students, faculty and administrators. “The college may have the best policies in the world, but they are only as good as the people facilitating the process,” sit-in co-organizer Ashley Peel ’11 told the March 10 meeting participants. “We need to hold people accountable.”
“This issue has poisoned the campus for too long,” Professor of Philosophy Susan Feldman noted. “Although 100 percent security is never possible, we have the obligation to press forward with reform.”
Discussion at the March 30 meeting focused on three key issues: the composition of the panel that hears sexual-misconduct cases (whether it remain three administrators or be comprised of an administrator, faculty member and student), sanctions for a range of offenses and defined community standards regarding hate speech.
Also at that meeting, Joyce Bylander, special assistant to the president for institutional and diversity initiatives, announced a May 3 collegewide dialogue in the Kline Athletic Center to address the concerns of all campus constituents and reach out to those who have been silent thus far. “This is our collective problem to solve,” she said. “We won’t change our campus by pointing fingers at each other.”
Meanwhile, Reed said that the ESLC has been energized by the protests and plans to have a new policy ready for a faculty vote in May. Faculty members also are becoming more engaged with the issue, he said, pointing to ongoing conversations about what professors can do in and out of the classroom.
According to Megan Yost, who teaches a course titled Psychology of Women and Gender, her classroom discussions about sexual violence often focus on changing perceptions about gender and violence.
“There’s a continuum, from lewd comments and catcalls at one end to sexual coercion and rape at the other,” explained the assistant professor of psychology. “It doesn’t mean that someone who makes a comment will become a rapist,” but there are connections between attitudes and behavior.
Sexual violence “is not just a women’s issue,” Yost added. “Men need to intervene with other men. How would you feel if this was your daughter, your sister, your mother?”
Editor’s Note: Student-protest organizers declined to be interviewed for this article. This article is based on information gathered from news reports and student blogs, the writer’s attendance at the ESLC open meetings on March 10 and 30 and interviews and conversations with faculty members and administrators.
Read student responses to the article.
View photos from the March 30 ESLC open meeting.