What Really Caused the Change in Cornell’s Sexual Assault Policy?

What Really Caused the Change in Cornell’s Sexual Assault Policy?

What Really Caused the Change in Cornell’s Sexual Assault Policy?

Cornell's decision to update its policy has been framed as the administration’s unprompted decision to do the right thing, but students and faculty have been calling for change for some time.


A version of this article originally appeared in the {young}ist and is adapted here with permission.

The Huffington Post recently published an article called “Cornell Revamps Sexual Assault Policies, Takes Proactive Approach.” The piece, 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, the creation of additional committees and changes in the investigatory and judicial protocol for cases of sexual violence.

My problem isn’t with 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 these changes and the characterization of the policy changes themselves as “proactive” and unequivocally progressive.

The article’s problem can be summed up by a caption accompanying one of the photos in the post: “There’s No Controversy, But Cornell Is Changing Its Sexual Assault Policies Anyway.” As one of the students President Skorton repeatedly met with, I see things differently. 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 heroic administrative responses.

To start, there are a few problems with the use of the word “controversy” in this article. In the context of sexual assault, “controversy” seems to be a stand-in for a number of things. (Things that 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 educated guesses as to what “controversy” might mean in this context:

1. Sexual assault and rape. Wait, no, even Cornell’s Vice President Susan Murphy is quoted saying, “It’s clearly an issue in our society and we’re not exempt from that.”

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 repeatedly to demand the administrative changes that Kingkade characterizes as self-motivated. 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 more than 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 students’ 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 US 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.

Contrary to the photo caption, there was and will continue to be controversy. Cornell is starting to implement some changes only 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.”

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 it in identifying injustices, recommending remedies and demanding accountability until progress is made.

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