Members of the Columbia and Barnard theater community expressed dissatisfaction with what they called an unclear reporting process for issues of gender-based misconduct and an inability to remove members within their own groups.
At a meeting held by the Activities Board of Columbia, which took place in the Lerner Black Box Theater on Tuesday night, attendees discussed sexual misconduct and community standards for theater groups. The meeting was attended by members of ABC, Columbia theater groups, Columbia University Performing Arts League, and student advisors, and came in the wake of a student alleging sexual impropriety perpetuated by a fellow member of the 122nd Varsity Show in spring 2016 while they were both working on the show.
All reports of sexual misconduct in student organizations must be reported to ABC or the group’s student advisor in order to take action in removing the accused; in many cases, a formal complaint must be filed. Organizations are unable to remove students without the consultation of either ABC or their advisor.
However, theater groups were confused by the role of CUPAL—an umbrella organization for the theater community that allocates resources, organizes rehearsal and performance space, and oversees auditions and casting each semester—in cases of gender-based misconduct in theater groups. They were also dissatisfied that they could not remove students from their organization without reporting through official university channels, a process that they argued could often take weeks, stalling rehearsals for performances on already tight schedules.
Thomas Arbuckle II, CC ’18 and the performance representative for ABC, advised attendees that while many viewed CUPAL as a “parent” organization for theater groups, in actuality, it has the same level of authority as all other theater organizations and therefore cannot remove members of groups without consulting with ABC or student advisors. He also stated that other student theater groups could not take action against students who had allegations raised against them and must contact ABC or their advisor first.
“CUPAL is, for all intents and purposes, another group that will report up to ABC and advisors,” Arbuckle said. “When it comes to conflict resolution, it actually would fall onto the governing board or the advisors.”
However, theater representatives argued that this distinction was never made clear to them and that they were unaware that ABC was a resource available to them in resolving situations, and expressed frustration with CUPAL’s failure to address the situation before the Varsity Show cast member’s post on Facebook. The Varsity Show performer reported the incident of misconduct to the CUPAL board prior to her post, but not ABC; because of this, the accused student could not be removed, but instead stepped down of his own accord.
“[King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe] had a meeting, following this going public via Spec, in which the KCST e-board felt uncomfortable being partners with a group that dealt with sexual assault in that way. We felt like the actions of CUPAL leaders did not abide by our community standards,” said KCST Advisory Board Chair Sophia Seidenberg, BC ’19.
KCST and other groups were uncomfortable that, with the inability to remove members of their groups for accusations of sexual misconduct, they could only hold conversations with the accused—and take no further action—unless formal complaints were filed and the ABC or their advisor was contacted. Meanwhile, they said that formal complaints could often take months for the administration to address, while performances occur within a span of weeks.
“There is a policy within the University in which you, as student group leaders, cannot retaliate against any person within [your] group, and retaliation would be any action taken in issues of misconduct,” Arbuckle said.
Instead, he advocated for bringing the issue directly to ABC or advisors, and holding discussions on what members of theater groups can do, such as holding rehearsals in separate rooms so that students involved in potential conflicts do not have to interact.
Theater community representatives in attendance were unsatisfied with this solution, arguing that it removed agency from theater group leaders and that many reports of sexual assault were not dealt with in a timely matter.
ABC President Madeline Lee, CC ’18, said that ABC was taking steps to ensure clear language on how to deal with situations of sexual assault were incorporated into the board’s bylaws. She said she will create a Google Doc for all theater groups to include language and rules they would like to see in new ABC bylaws and will send out an email with the Doc and notes from the meeting within the next week.
“Definite tangible steps will be for us to start drafting bylaws and working with Enough is Enough. We will definitely continue to have these conversations,” Lee said.
Arbuckle restated that there would be a collaborative effort between ABC and campus theater groups to create clear guidelines for future issues of sexual assault within the performing arts community.
“I have never worked in a theater that had a sexual harassment policy,” Arbuckle said. “This is really, really new territory, so that’s why it’s difficult to say—this kind of protocol does not exist in the industry in our city.”