madibaartIllustrated by Minji Reem

“You have worked hard to get here.” With just seven words, Interim Dean Robert Scott robbed me of whatever trust he tried to build with respect to Columbia’s institutional response to sexual assault.

A little over a month ago, we law students received an email from Dean Scott addressing the university’s efforts to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. To many, this e-mail and the countless others we’ve received in the past few months were too little, too late.  A cold comfort for the students who had brought lawsuits against our university to force its accountability, or had resorted to distributing ‘rapist lists’ in our bathrooms to name their abusers, or had carried their mattresses across our campus to take a performative stand against Columbia’s inaction, or understandably had remained silent for an innumerable list of reasons.

Even so, or perhaps out of relief, I was poised to happily embrace Dean Scott’s email as a marker of progress and dedication to a continued effort to protect our student body. But then I reached the email’s final paragraph, which started with those troubling words: “You have worked hard to get here.” This choice of phrase made me fundamentally distrustful of the Law School’s ability to understand and appropriately respond to the needs of students who had been sexually assaulted.

It is insufficient to just talk about sexual assault. If the university seeks to fully protect its student body, it must be able to speak about assault in a way that does not contravene its intentions and undermine its efforts.

First, Dean Scott’s words convey deeply troubling priorities: the bottom line is not ‘do not assault your classmates because they are human beings,’ but rather, ‘do not assault your classmates because you are too successful to throw it all away on a thing like rape.’ This formulation suggests that the University ascribes more value to the wellbeing and weak cautioning of would-be rapists than to the support of potential victims – all the while espousing a commitment to protect students from sexual assault and harassment. By prioritizing the would-be rapist’s ‘hard work,’ Columbia is implicitly telling us that the enrollment status of the abuser is more important than the trauma of the abused.

Second, the statement is simply irrelevant to and detracts from the issue. How hard one works is completely disconnected to one’s capacity to victimize, or be victimized. The conduct is not less reprehensible for a student who got into Columbia without working hard, or who got into a different school, or attends no school at all. This is exactly the kind of blind thinking which leads people to believe Ivy League schools are immune from sexual assault, and makes it harder for victims to come forward about their experience. It promotes, even amongst those with institutional control, disbelief of morally bereft behavior when juxtaposed to otherwise praiseworthy characteristics. Given the caliber of students here, it is no wonder such thinking might proliferate at a place like Columbia.

Earlier articles have discussed victim silence and the opportunities that speech present to transform the discussion and empower the speaker. But Dean Scott’s email demonstrated how speech can do the opposite: the words employed here by the University exercised power in a way that marginalizes victims and misconstrues the focal point of concern. I do not think this was done with malice, but it represents the pervasiveness of unconscious biases and a lack of understanding. I am saddened by this message, and skeptical of the University’s capacity to adequately respond to sexual assault where the foundation of its policy concern is hard work and reputational superiority instead of human dignity and bodily integrity.