Written by Maya Perry
Edited by Gavrielle Jacobovitz, Julian Shen-Berro
Art by Elizabeth Nichols, Sam Wilcox
Graphics by Spencer Bruce
Content Warning: This article deals with issues of sexual violence.
On a September day in 2016, senior Nick Wolferman made his way to College Walk for the annual activities fair and, like the first-years in attendance, meandered among the rows of Columbia’s student-run organizations. But while the first-years were there in earnest search for what might become their campus communities, he was there because of two distinct assumptions he had formed about student groups. The first was that they were the central infrastructure of Columbia student life. The second was that the leaders of these groups had a profound social influence on their peers, underclassmen in particular.
A message about sexual respect would have more weight coming from group leaders than from the subject line of an email from University Life, he figured.
As a member of the class of 2017, Wolferman bore witness to the most recent rise of anti-campus sexual violence advocacy, which briefly became one of the most urgent conversations in the country, with Columbia at its epicenter. In January of his first year, the Blue and White magazine published its investigation into Columbia’s mishandling of sexual assault claims, and 23 students collectively filed complaints with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights alleging Columbia’s violation of Title IX in April. In Wolferman’s sophomore year, Emma Sulkowicz launched “Carry That Weight,” and protesters ceremonially dumped 28 mattresses on President Lee Bollinger’s front lawn. The conversation at the time was centered on the broken university adjudication process, with Sulkowicz’s protest as its symbol.
But Wolferman saw the University’s role as just “one side of the coin.” He says he “probably cried” when he first heard the one in three statistic from the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation’s $2.2 million research project on sexual health and misconduct at Columbia.
“One in three by senior year. So if you looked left and right to the two people beside you at graduation…”
Wolferman couldn’t shake the fact that it was students who were hurting their peers at an alarming rate. If the goal was minimizing the frequency of instances of sexual violence, students had to hold themselves accountable.
After expressing interest in Columbia’s fledgling prevention programs—Wolferman was connected to the administration through his position as head of the Residence Hall Leadership Organization—he became a student representative for the Sexual Respect Initiative. Part of his role was to figure out how to get students to better engage with the program, which sought to connect the dots between individual conduct and a campus culture of sexual respect.
Wolferman’s strategy was to leverage the student group as a unit of social organization. By the end of the activities fair, Wolferman had spoken to representatives of over 50 different groups about hosting a sexual respect workshop while they jostled for the attention of first-years.
“It took hours,” he notes wryly. But every group was willing to listen, and everyone, he says, was receptive to his proposition.
More than a year later, on a Tuesday evening in the fraught post-Weinstein weeks of late November 2017, 20 leaders from Columbia’s various performing arts groups gathered in the Austin E. Quigley Black Box Theater, tucked away on the fifth floor of Lerner Hall to reckon with the issue of sexual violence in their community.
A little more than two weeks earlier, Spectator had published an article outlining the circumstances that had led to a member of the 124th Varsity Show’s 12-day-old creative team to abruptly step down, following an allegation of sexual assault. The news rippled through the performing arts bubble—the Varsity Show is the oldest, largest, and best-funded theater production on campus, where Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, and Kate McKinnon all cut their teeth. And people were upset: about the subject of the allegations, mainly, but also because of the perceived insufficiency of the Varsity Show leadership’s response.
The producers had known about the allegations for more than a week prior to the information being made public and, as far as many people could tell, had made no moves to confront or dismiss the accused individual.
By the time the meeting was convened, however, the Varsity Show incident was just the basis for a larger question: What should you do when a member of your group is accused of sexual violence?
In May, SHIFT, which is now entering its fourth year, touched on the prevalence of sexual assault in student organizations that are not commonly viewed as “rapey.”
Unlike the national fraternity system, whose connection to national conversations about sexual misconduct on college campuses has long been established, non-Greek student groups have rarely figured in. It’s easy to understand why: Structurally speaking, student group affiliations can mean a dozen different things to students, ranging from a bimonthly meeting in a Lerner Hall conference room to something so socially subsuming it becomes your campus peer group.
Only some of those groups host dimly lit parties in upperclassmen dorms, so they are not always linked with the well-documented fact that around one half of campus assaults involve alcohol. Only some are tight-knit, so they are not always linked with the well-documented fact that students who are assaulted will most likely face this by a member of their “in-group.” Only some feature prominent executive boards, so the way those positions might provide those leaders with wieldable, exploitable power is rarely interrogated.
But over the past few years, some of these vulnerabilities have been quietly confronted by a small number of leaders of such groups. Many of them, hoping to develop a mechanism for responsibly preventing, addressing, and mediating such incidents in a survivor-centric way, have arrived at an unexpected, even radical, solution: writing their own internal sexual misconduct policies as addendums to the constitutions most University-funded organizations are already required to maintain.
The tension of the November town hall came to rest on the implications of that idea. Should students, in the context of the groups they are affiliated with, have a role in sexual violence response? Are they equipped to fulfill that role?
The University maintains that its existing 54-page Gender-Based Misconduct policy sets up a sufficient framework to report, investigate, and adjudicate misconduct—and that this falls under University jurisdiction to ensure due process. But this policy doesn’t specify what role student group leaders can or cannot play in that system, nor does it account for the well-documented barriers to reporting sexual violence.
Many of the student leaders entered the Black Box that evening hoping to get clarity on how they could maintain the safety of the spaces they cared deeply about. Instead, they came face-to-face with their sheer powerlessness within Columbia’s current policy framework.
II. East Campus
February 5, 2016—On a cool winter evening in her first year at Barnard, Madeline (her first name, due to the nature of the subject) made her way over to a Varsity Show party. It was, as she describes it, like any other student group social gathering: There was alcohol, and it was held in an upperclassman’s East Campus suite. It was a little more crowded than most parties, because the show’s production team was so big.
She drank, no more than she had at other parties. But as the night wore on, she began to feel different. Not just tipsy or drunk in a way she had been before, but ‘out of her senses’. She remembers stumbling and slurring her words. She recalls her director asking her if she was okay and wonders what she must have looked like for him to ask. All of a sudden she was kissing an acquaintance, someone who was in the cast, though she doesn’t remember how that began. He started suggesting they go back to his room; she remembers repeatedly saying no to that.
Then the night becomes dark except for two more moments of sharp clarity: tripping down the stairs on the EC bridge leading back to campus, and then coming to her senses in that acquaintance's bed, suddenly, with him on top of her, and thinking about how she didn’t want to be there doing that. She got dressed quickly, found her coat on the floor, and left, walking three cold blocks back to her dorm in the Barnard quad. When she woke up the next day, she vomited for a few hours, and then returned to his building to pick up the student ID she’d left there the previous night.
It took Madeline around two weeks and sudden, unexpected tears in her dorm room one day to first confront the trauma of that night. It took even longer for her to put a name to the thing that had caused it. She first used the term “sexual assault” when she went back home that summer but is still cautious when using it now. She knows what happened isn’t something that she wanted, and given how little she remembers of the night, she doesn’t think she was in any state of mind to be able to give consent. She knows what happened made her feel violated and unsafe, and that seeing him on campus made her feel nauseous and bad. But she also views it as something that didn’t fit within the prescribed definitions of rape and assault that she had been taught up to that point.
Madeline still enjoyed her experience in the Varsity Show—she was on the publicity team and the build/run crew that year. She even participated in it again the following year as master carpenter. But by her sophomore year, she decided to avoid sharing the same physical space as him. He was the 123rd show’s social chair, so this meant not attending any Varsity Show parties.
As a first-year and sophomore, she had not considered reporting what had happened to her to Varsity Show leadership or the University. At first, this was because of the time it took to label the experience as a violation. She explains that she harbored a lot of shame and didn’t know anyone on the creative team particularly well at that point.
But even later on, it didn’t seem like there was a serious need to report—she was already able to avoid him in her day-to-day life, and beyond a text from him the night after it happened, he wasn’t trying to contact her. She also doubted how much a formal reporting process, which she saw as murky, intimidating, and humiliating, would help her heal from what had happened. Her only impression of it came from following Emma Sulkowicz’s story, when she was still a high school senior.
The night still weighed on her mind, though. What she was thinking about the most—what she says she still thinks about, three years later—is “what I must have looked like, and his decision to take off my clothes anyway. And what I must have sounded like.”
In October of her junior year, not long after the Weinstein revelations and the beginning of #MeToo, she penned an anonymous op-ed about that night and the absence of nuanced conversation about consent on campus. A few days later, when the Varsity Show announced its new creative team, she found out her alleged perpetrator had been selected for a position.
The Varsity Show is a Columbia institution unto itself, with a 125-year legacy, and an enormous rumored budget to boot. Spots on its “C-team,” earned after a competitive series of interviews with its existing members, are one of the few leadership positions on campus that hold enough external cachet to be historically covered by both Bwog and Spectator.
So when Madeline found out her perpetrator would be in one of these positions, it struck her just how immense his power and influence would be. “It was too much power for somebody I knew was not above abusing it,” she says.
Student theater, she explains, is host to strange power dynamics, where “peers are telling other peers what they're going to do on stage and how they're going to do it,” but in the Varsity Show there is also no way to hold leaders accountable for their creative decisions, because there is no set story or script to refer back to. Everything—the script, the music, the choreography—is created from scratch by C-team members.
At first, Madeline hoped that one of her friends in the Columbia University Performing Arts League, armed with the knowledge of what happened to her during her first year, would be able to intervene. This didn’t work.
More than a week later, on the day that the New York Times broke its investigation on Louis C.K.—which Madeline says made her feel “so angry that male entitlement to certain spaces and opportunities was more important than women's comfort and safety”—she decided to email the former producers of the show herself.
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about sending this email because entangling myself in this situation is the last thing I want to do,” she wrote, “but I’ve decided that it’s too important not to.”
Speaking to her love of the Varsity Show, the influence of C-team members, and the endemic mistreatment of women by powerful men in the world, she implored the producers to remove him from the C-team. His role was not his right, and the Varsity Show is a student-run group, she reminded them. The choice of whether to remove him from the position was entirely theirs.
“I care about the safety and comfort of women involved in Columbia theater, and if he is not removed from this position, you will be complicit with a system that refuses to hold men accountable for their sexual misconduct,” Madeline’s email concluded.
She received a response a little under three hours later. The producers expressed sympathy, but explained that they had already spoken with a member of the Barnard administration about this and that owing to “bureaucratic policies,” there was nothing they could do at the present time. Madeline says she felt helpless, like nobody else was taking the stakes of the situation as seriously as she was. Auditions for the Varsity Show began in two days, and there was no indication that they would be postponed.
Feeling devoid of other options, she took to Facebook. Though aware that doing so would take away some of her anonymity, she posted in a private “Barnard/Columbia Safety Network” group about what had happened to her in 2016, warning students, particularly women, not to get involved in the Varsity Show this year.
The post promptly “exploded,” she remembers. Madeline hadn’t included the name of her alleged assaulter, but began receiving messages from other people in the group who cautiously asked her to confirm whether it was the person they thought it was. A few hours later, he had stepped down from his position.
In a recent statement to The Eye over email, he explains that he did so to hold himself accountable and, as expressed in a previous statement to Spectator, in the interest of the Varsity Show. On November 13, 2017 he self-reported the allegation against him to the Title IX office so he could face a fair trial, though the case was closed on December 6 on account of there being “currently insufficient information to support the initiation of an investigation,” according to an email sent by a Student Conduct and Community Standards officer that was obtained by The Eye.
“In the time that has passed since I became aware of this allegation, I’ve reevaluated and continue to reevaluate my understanding of interpersonal relationships. I profusely apologize to Madeline for the hurt my actions have caused,” he wrote in the email to The Eye. “While I remember the event differently, I don’t want to refute––but rather listen, acknowledge, learn and be better. What upsets me the most about this is my obliviousness to the impact of my own actions. Everyday, I’m making an active effort to be more aware, more careful, more conscious, more thoughtful and more respectful of people’s boundaries.”
In the aftermath of the Spectator article’s publication, both Barnard and Columbia’s Title IX offices reached out to Madeline. She was studying abroad in the spring and chose not to open an investigation.
“They basically told me I could Skype in from England if I wanted to,” she says. “I knew I just didn’t want to deal with that. I wanted to go abroad to get away from all of it because it was so awful.”
April 28, 2015—The first known sexual misconduct protocol in the theater community was borne from a crisis that emerged during the last week of classes in the spring 2015 semester, when Spectator published an anonymous op-ed titled “On Sexual Assault.”
The op-ed was written by a student involved in campus theater who had been raped by a friend, who was also in the community. One paragraph in the article set off what Rachel Chung, then a senior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the treasurer of the King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe, calls a “theater community scandal”:
“After explaining to the director why you cannot sing and dance with your rapist on stage, you are thanked for your time and taken out of the cast. The director sticks by the decision; your warnings go unheeded.”
Chung, who speaks with the sensibility of a first-year resident adviser, which she was, says that she and others on KCST’s board felt that the situation (which did not occur within a KCST production) could have been handled “better” by the director involved. But it also threw into question what it meant to be a leader in a student-run group. “That sort of changed overnight,” she says.
One year earlier, Chung, who spent most of her undergraduate years making shows with KCST, had applied for and clinched a spot on its 2014-2015 executive board along with a few of her closest friends. The new president, Alex Dabertin, one of her best friends and then a junior, quickly christened their e-board “the Superfriends.”
“We were goofy. Young and carefree,” she recalls. “This was in the spring of 2014. We were like, ‘This is great! Nothing bad could ever happen! We’re invincible! We’re 20!’”
Like many students who voluntarily take on large leadership roles, Chung and Dabertin cared a great deal about their group. But they had never imagined finding themselves in the position of needing to respond to a report of sexual violence in their community.
The troupe had already shown solidarity with the anti-sexual violence movement throughout Chung and Dabertin’s tenures: KCST was one of the first student organizations to help Sulkowicz lug their mattress around campus in a “collective carry,” and the troupe was one of the 28 groups that carried a mattress at the fall 2014 National Day of Action.
But the anonymous op-ed posed a difficult question to Chung and her board: What did that solidarity amount to if group leaders weren’t prepared to respond to incidents of sexual violence within their own communities?
For KCST, the issue was, in some ways, nothing less than a matter of the club’s core identity. According to its origin myth, the troupe was born in reaction to the perceived insularity of the Columbia theater scene circa 1995. “We wanted to be more fun and friendly,” Dabertin recounts. “Friendlier than the Varsity Show.”
It was the antithesis of the unadulterated fun they’d imagined in their halcyon Superfriend days, but they believed they had a duty to “do something”: be proactive, even though they were simultaneously directing and trying to put on that year’s spring show and their graduation day was quickly approaching and they really didn’t have “any skin in the game” anymore, as Dabertin puts it.
“Things will happen,” Chung says firmly, “and people are going to look to CUPAL, KCST, the Varsity Show. Now all of a sudden you're in the spotlight. Were you ready? Were you prepared?”
Earlier that academic year, an unlikely group became the first to publicly confront the issue of sexual violence in student group communities.
Known for putting on “Orgo Night” and having a penchant for “69” jokes, the Columbia University Marching Band is perhaps the most irreverent group on campus, including when it comes to their tools of self-governance. Its executive board is called the “Bored,” a quorum for any vote is six-ninths, and the outgoing Bored swaps with the incoming Bored each year during the halftime show of the last football game of the season.
But the band took the problem of misconduct in their community seriously. In the summer of 2014, members of the Bored began discussing its role in sexual violence response. A few of the band’s members had quietly experienced sexual assault within the group over the years. Since at least 2013, there was conversation around implementing mandatory consent training for Bandies.
Certain members had worried that starting the new year with workshops on consent would look reactive, like a signal of “some sort of institutional problem.” But they ultimately felt the group had, up until that point, failed its members in not providing an in-house recourse.
“This is not a band-specific issue,” Trip Eggert, a former Bored member who graduated from Barnard in 2016, told Spectator that October, “It's a problem that exists on our campus, on all campuses, in all student groups that I've been a part of. I think that the only thing that sets [the] band apart is the fact that we’ve actually stood up and said something about how it’s not OK.”
In September, the same month Emma Sulkowicz launched “Carry That Weight,” the band had unveiled two governance documents. The Bored Procedure for Supporting Band Members and Maintaining a Safe Environment was a survivor-centered five-step process for Bored members to follow if someone reported an experience of misconduct—from “harassment, discomfort, and/or teasing” to nonconsensual intercourse, which could lead to the Bored imposing a sanction on the alleged perpetrator. Sanctions ranged from a simple conversation, to restricting access to the band’s social events, to suspension or removal. Though just one part of the procedure, the member removal stipulation, which outlined that the Bored had a zero tolerance policy for all cases of alleged sexual assault, would come to reign over the discussion of community standards solution.
The Band Expectations and Standards was a one-page community standards agreement requiring signed recognition from all members of the band that they were accountable for neither condoning nor committing acts of sexual violence. Together, the documents reframed membership as a privilege, rather than a right.
KCST, recalling Spectator’s coverage of the band’s new policy, decided to create its own sexual misconduct protocol, synthesizing the band’s two documents into a singular set of community standards. Chung and Jo Chiang, then KCST’s community outreach coordinator, met with the author of the op-ed and cobbled together a small committee of board members to develop a first draft.
It was difficult work, and they left many holes for their successors to fill, Chung admits. “I truly never felt so powerless and so helpless,” she says of the two weeks they spent working on the standards, “until maybe this week in the news.” (It is June 27, the day that Supreme Justice Kennedy announces his retirement.)
With nearly four years of hindsight, she points out many of their document’s weaknesses: its reporting mechanism that didn’t fully account for many younger members of the troupe being less likely to have established relationships with a member of the e-board. That there was no mechanism for holding the e-board and the KCST Advisory Board, which selects the next semester’s shows, accountable. That the same closeness that made her e-board so cohesive may have also, she acknowledges, made it “one of those impenetrable power structures.”
Moreover, while Chung had received extensive training in the area of sexual violence response as an RA and felt equipped to take on the new theoretical extensions to her e-board role, she was also aware of how lacking the existing student-leader training was. “The executive boards aren't really equipped to deal with these sorts of things,” she remembers, “as much as we want to be. We’re student leaders; we put ourselves in these positions, but we're not all RAs or counselors. We’re theater nerds. We’re kids.”
She sighs. “As Shakespeare would say, our cake was dough on both sides.”
When they had a draft they were reasonably satisfied with, Dabertin and Chung brought it to their group adviser, David Milch, which is when much of their ambition for the standards came to a grinding halt.
Milch was unequivocal: These are not allowed, and you cannot discipline a member by removing them from the group. If he found out that they’d tried to put them into practice, there would be serious consequences.
Chung recalls a stern talk about how a student group couldn’t be judge and jury, “which is very true,” she concedes. “But the way he put it, I’ll never forget this: He literally used the words ‘If you are a parent and two of your kids are fighting, you wouldn't kick one kid out of the family.’”
Milch, who left Columbia in 2016, did not respond for comment when contacted about their memories of this meeting.
The meeting, a deeply disheartening one for Chung, touched upon a duality of club leadership: You had a sense of power and responsibility when it came to the group you led, and simultaneously, felt abjectly powerless within the larger machinery of Columbia.
They ultimately softened the language to focus more on the idea of personal responsibility, but decided to retain its main principles and keep it as a separate document to their official constitution that is annually submitted for review. On the morning of May 6, Chung, Dabertin, and the rest of the Superfriends gathered in Dabertin’s suite to ratify their amended constitution and set of standards. They forwarded the documents to their successors, and then they graduated.
IV. Title IX
The origin of these diametrically opposed impulses—students trying to create their own accountability systems and the University trying to prevent such attempts at vigilante adjudication—are both rooted in the historical shortcomings of Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits sex discrimination at educational institutions.
Sexual assault is still roundly viewed as one of the country’s most underreported crimes, with a suspected three to four individuals not reporting for every one that does. Beyond a mere lack of faith in formal adjudication systems, this is often because reporting necessitates the very act of coming to terms with and talking about something that, on account of its deeply personal nature, frequently causes feelings of guilt, shame, and self-blame.
Title IX officialized universities as an alternative recourse option for students who had experienced some form of sexual misconduct. College-aged students have historically been the demographic most likely to experience sexual violence as well as the least likely to report it to law enforcement, notorious for losing rape kits and inflicting secondary trauma onto survivors, particularly on women of color.
But despite that innovation, the university recourse option didn’t fully overcome the psychological barriers of reporting. While Title IX resources and access to these resources have expanded exponentially in the last several years especially, and while the number of undergraduate reports made to Columbia’s Office of Gender-Based Misconduct has gone from 42 reports made by or on behalf of undergraduates in 2013 to 2014 to 115 in 2016 to 2017, underreporting remains a substantial problem, with more than 80 percent of instances of nonconsensual touching and penetrative acts involving incapacitation going unreported at Columbia, according to a 2015 survey. The survey found that the main reasons for not reporting were a feeling that what happened wasn’t “serious enough,” especially in cases of harassment, followed by the feelings of embarrassment and shame, and a fear that nothing would be done.
The report concluded that while continued improvements of these reporting and adjudication processes are very important, students also had “good reasons” for choosing not to engage with the investigation process.
Peter Lake, a professor of law and a Title IX expert at Stetson University, notes that current reporting systems often “ask too much” of individuals who have experienced assault: “You may become re-traumatized, or re-victimized, or re-expose yourself in different ways.”
“We have yet to create official systems that are attractive enough to draw the majority of people to them,” he continues, “Which means what? That means [students who have experienced assault] are going to turn to their friends, their clubs, their families.”
When formal systems do not work, informal systems often emerge to fill in the gaps. The small handful of student group adjudication processes that emerged during the 2014-2015 school year were, partly, a response to the activism of that year. Emily Jones, who graduated from Barnard in 2017, remembers that “when you talked about the administration and sexual assault and reporting and all of that, it was about how poorly they mishandle everything and what a terrible process it is to go through.”
But beyond the temporal relevance of such documents in that “explosive” political moment, they were not just reactionary and compensatory to the alleged failures of Columbia’s Title IX process at the time.
While on campus, Michela Weihl, who graduated from Barnard in 2017, split her time between No Red Tape, where she was its prevention coordinator, and criminal justice reform work. The juxtaposition between the two fields made her think “pretty hard,” she says, about the racist and classist implications of traditional punitive systems of handling harm, and she became curious about what other modes to addressing it in the community were out there.
So, from her graduation until a few months ago, Weihl worked in community accountability projects. The community accountability model arose primarily as an alternative solution to combating violence in black communities that did not rely on a racist police and prison system. Its essential principles are predicated on the understanding that existing justice systems often fail both survivors and perpetrators of violence.
Weihl believes—“absolutely!”—that these principles have a valuable and important place in undergraduate campus groups, particularly when the existing systems for handling sexual misconduct are infamously difficult for survivors.
After the band’s policies were released in the fall of 2014, NRT spent a lot of time discussing how to help other campus groups create similar documents. What it was trying to provide was something fundamentally different to what University adjudication could: a lower stakes way for students to address sexual misconduct they had experienced in the very communities they occured in, or were most connected with.
Columbia’s resistance to student adjudication projects—which Chung and Dabertin caught a glimpse of in their meeting with Milch—is likely a result of the watershed “Dear Colleague” letter released by the Obama administration’s Department of Education on April 4, 2011. (DCLs are regularly distributed by federal agencies. This one is often cited as the “Dear Colleague” letter.)
Prior to 2011, according to Lake, when more Title IX efforts were directed at equity issues and sports admissions, schools were not necessarily making themselves as accountable to dealing with sexual assault; he suspects there was a lot of off-the-grid, student-led justice-seeking occurring on campuses.
He thinks this student vigilantism “probably survived into the new [post-DCL] world.” And indeed, several people, including Madeline, say they know of student groups past and present who have dealt with situations like hers in quieter, more ad hoc ways. The difference is that universities now have stricter federal Title IX mandates. More than before, they were taking a “central command” approach when it came to responding to sexual violence, intervening in places they may not have before. (It was in the fall of 2011 that Columbia’s resident advisers were designated as “mandatory reporters.”)
When it came to student organizations, the DCL raised big questions about the relationship between student organization and the school in the realm of Title IX: Does a University have jurisdiction over the way its registered or affiliated student groups are internally managed? To what extent is it accountable for what occurs within them?
Legally, Lake says, “Broad questions of the responsibility and authority of an institution who manages these subgroups is on the table.”
Last year George Washington University sent an email to all of its student organization leaders giving them the jurisdiction to remove a member on the grounds of sexual assault, among other things, even if the incident has not been formally investigated by the University. Meanwhile, Columbia’s GBM policy notes that it governs “gender-based misconduct involving University students that occurs … in connection with University programs or activities.”
Asya Sagnak, a Barnard senior who has spent two years on the KCST e-board and currently serves as its historian, describes the KCST standards as a “tension between the broader University investigation and smaller scale privatization of spaces, almost.” The troupe has never made it its argument, she clarifies, that the Title IX system “doesn’t do its job well.”
“If a member came to us and said, ‘Please help me report to Title IX,’ that’s obviously something we would be happy to do. But if they just want to feel safe in the troupe, their only option shouldn’t be going to court.”
V. The Allegation
October 30, 2017—What do you do when a member of the group you lead is accused of sexual misconduct?
When Rachel Andres, one of the producers of the 123rd Varsity Show, first received the email alleging the Varsity Show’s C-team member’s assault and harassment, it was just past one in the morning, far too late to reach out to any adults—their group adviser, for example, or another administrator in the Office for Student Life—for guidance on how she should proceed. So she turned to the Columbia and Barnard websites, and found nothing.
Andres, a Barnard senior, relates this story beside co-producers of the 124th Varsity Show, Alana Herrnson, another Barnard senior, and Emeline Bookspan, a Barnard junior. In addition to working on the Varsity Show, they have, between the three of them, been involved in over a dozen productions in just under half a dozen Columbia theatre groups in various acting, producing, and behind-the-scenes capacities. All three currently sit on the Columbia Musical Theater Society executive board.
Their first steps, in the days that followed, was to reach out to administrators, first at Barnard and then at Columbia, where they had to engage in linguistic gymnastics, explaining their situation using only hypotheticals, as all Columbia faculty and staff are mandatory reporters under its current gender-based misconduct reporting policy.
Bookspan is clear that “if there was a perpetrator of sexual assault [in the Varsity Show], we did not want them involved in any way.”
But from their very first meetings a single roadblock to direct action emerged: Madeline had not gone through the formal gender-based misconduct reporting process. The group was told that therefore any direct response, even approaching the accused student about the allegations, was strictly forbidden. It was suggested—Herrnson says it was never “quite made clear” why—that they could face potential disciplinary or legal action were they to make the accused individual feel called out in any way. (Later, Sagnak also adds that the “legal” risks were not made clear to her group either. She feels the phrase “the law” and the phrase “legal repercussions” were “sort of being thrown around in a purposefully vague way to intimidate students.”)
When they were given suggestions on prevention tactics to implement moving forward—workshops and that kind of thing—the “undertone of all of it was ‘make sure none of this is directed toward the [alleged] perpetrator.’”
Being a longtime student leader, normally, is an asset in handling complicated group crises: Besides the value of experience, Columbia is generally quite stringent in its training of student leaders. Each semester, four group officers, such as the president or vice president, from every University-recognized group must go through the rigamarole that is Club ReFuel to secure their funding. Club ReFuel’s requirements are threefold: a daylong orientation, a meeting with one’s advisor, and, for the fall iteration, a 42-question quiz called the Student Organization Knowledge Assessment (which tests leaders’ depth of understanding of, say, whether they can use a Columbia-branded T-shirt as a promotional item, or whether a poet you have invited as a guest performer for a group event should be offered an honorarium.)
And, at least on paper, Club ReFuel prepares leaders to handle sexual misconduct, too. During the orientation day, group officers must attend an hour-long Sexual Violence Response session (over the two semesters, club leaders fulfill the two-hour training requirement that New York state’s “Enough is Enough” bill passed in 2015). Alana Koenig (Andres’ co-producer) Andres, and Bookspan had all been through this training before, Koenig several times over. Andres notes that she and her co-producer felt like very experienced student leaders.
But despite that, Bookspan says they had never been told what steps to take in this kind of situation. The Club ReFuel SVR session for the fall of 2017, a month before they were faced with handling an incident of alleged assault, filled its allotted hour with a discussion on the issue of stalking, something several other student group leaders bring up too as somewhat irrelevant to their actual concerns.
Columbia confirmed that this session was not focused on policy. The University also said that in the mandatory adviser meeting, student leaders are told they should be aware of other University and governing policies in addition to what is covered in the SOKA, and pointed out that the Gender-Based Misconduct policy is linked at the bottom of the Club ReFuel webpage. (It is one of 19 policies listed here, in the company of the “Advertising” policy and the policy on “Parking and Unloading on College Walk.”)
In addition to their frustration that they couldn’t take action to ensure the safety and comfort of their group, the producers point to two main problems that exacerbated the difficulty of their situation: that the rules around what they could and could not do were opaque, and that even the administrators they spoke with seemed unsure about how they should be applied in their situation. “The amount of times they said ‘Oh, I have to go to someone else to ask this question’... I felt like they were in just as new territory as we were,” Bookspan says.
Columbia confirmed that supplementary trainings for group advisors, which covered the GBM process and reiterated that groups could not create their own sexual misconduct policies, took place in April 2018, and that in October 2018 Undergraduate Student Life gave a follow-up presentation to advisors on addressing GBM within student group settings.
The producers spent a significant amount of time just sorting out the innumerable campus policy players: the Governing Board at Barnard, the Activities Board at Columbia, Columbia’s Gender-Based Misconduct Office, Columbia’s Office of Undergraduate Student Life, Barnard’s Office of Student Life, and the Title IX coordinators at both campuses. Andres adds that “it felt like there wasn’t really a clear policy, a written policy, on [what] student groups should do should this happen.”
They are frank about the difficulty of being plunged into a dimension of student leadership they hadn’t realized they had signed onto when they started taking up leadership roles in the community.
“Something that I always loved about being a student leader and producing in particular was problem-solving,” Bookspan says. “You’ve got to handle tech week; you have to get this set done in two minutes; it’s stressful, but it’s fun. You’re working together.”
She pauses. “I think I hit a point in theater through this where it was ... the problem-solving was for problems that were not fun,” she admits. “I think that it sort of made me realize ... I don't know what it made me realize.”
Andres jumps in. “I think having to interact with and negotiate with and work with the University was really tiring for a student leader. It’s a lot of work and time and a lot of closed doors. And you don’t necessarily see results.”
“When we were faced with navigating the bureaucracy of Columbia as a whole, that’s when we realized we aren’t working within a bubble of a student group where everything will be okay in the end,” Herrnson adds.
“We’re not just having fun and playing pretend. We’re working with real people, real experiences, and things that have implications in the real world.”
VI. The Black Box
November 28, 2017—The primary conflict facing the Varsity Show’s leaders was swiftly resolved when the accused creative team member voluntarily stepped down from his position upon learning about the allegations against him. The story, for some, ended there.
For others, this was just the preface to a protracted and frustrating reckoning over the autonomy of student groups in keeping their members safe. On November 12, KCST’s 2017-2018 executive board, feeling a constitutional obligation to speak up, sent an email to all 17 other members of the Columbia University Performing Arts League denouncing the way the Varsity Show leadership handled the allegations. In response, CUPAL called a meeting in the Lerner Hall Black Box.
The 20 student leaders who showed up to the meeting were joined by three administrators from Columbia’s Office of Student Engagement and one administrator from Barnard Student Life, as well as Madie Lee, the president of the Activities Board at Columbia, and ABC’s performing arts representative, Thomas Arbuckle II.
Community leaders in attendance were given the same information the Varsity Show leaders had been given in the preceding weeks: A Columbia student group does not have the jurisdiction to remove a member for any disciplinary problem that is a violation of the University’s code of conduct. Taking action in response to an allegation of sexual misconduct in your group is not allowed because of the University’s “retaliation” policy. Retaliating against a group member “could result in legal action.”
The language Columbia uses to define “retaliation” in its GBM policy limits its range of application to those who have engaged “with the Office and/or the disciplinary process”, meaning it would not be applicable in cases where the incident has not been brought to Columbia’s Title IX office.
In any case the information, according to many of those in attendance, came as a surprise to the room. “How does it work if you have things against gender-based misconduct in your constitution?” one student asked. They were told explicitly that they shouldn’t have anything like this in their governance documents.
“What if somebody dealt with [sexual misconduct] but did not want it reported to the University?” another questioned. “Like they want action taken within the group but not at the University level?” It’s everyone’s right to report, they were told. But if action means taking steps against the alleged perpetrator, you can’t do that.
The meeting was, for the most part, a polite but strained event and the palpable frustration lay in what many felt was a “ridiculous” line between their jurisdiction and the University’s. The issue wasn’t about the power to remove a member, Sylvia Korman, who graduated from Barnard in 2018 and was then the President of KCST, clarifies a few months later. They note that groups can take action against a member who is habitually rude to others, habitually late to meetings, or not learning their lines. KCST once fired a team member for not being clear about his other extracurricular commitments. “And we can’t fire an actor for raping someone.”
The ABC and administrative representatives at the meeting showed empathy: At one point, Arbuckle quipped that, “Columbia doesn’t always make sense, we all know that,” and the room let out a cathartic laugh. At another, one of the Columbia administrators admitted, “I know it sucks. I don’t like it. I don’t like that Columbia has that rule. ... This infuriates me a lot.”
And then, as the meeting neared its end, a new solution, derived from that very fact that group leaders can take action against group members for other, more trivial reasons, emerged. Earlier in the year, Lee explained, another ABC group faced a similar dilemma: How could it “legally” remove a member who had committed sexual misconduct from the group? With the help of ABC, it worked on revising part of its constitution to write in a “loophole” that allowed them to prohibit the member’s participation in certain central group activities on different grounds, effectively removing him from the organization.
Realizing that this kind of loophole could be a useful mechanism for its other groups, Lee outlined its plan: to develop a blanket removal procedure—where groups can remove a member on grounds unrelated to University-level misconduct—to incorporate into ABC’s governing documents, which would then be automatically applicable for all ABC-governed groups (which include the majority of Columbia’s performing arts groups).
The room seemed more encouraged. An administrator said that they plan to ensure that the Enough is Enough portion of Club ReFuel clearly explains what student leaders can and cannot do in these situations going forward. The refrain of the last twenty minutes of the meeting was that this is “just the beginning of the conversation.”
“A very unfortunate event brought this issue to our attention, and now we need to be reactive to it,” one administrator said, then corrects themself: “Proactive.”
This January, more than one year later, ABC quietly uploaded a new “Code of Conduct” to its website, which appears to be the fruition of ABC’s proposed “loophole” project. “The procedure for the removal of any member may be undertaken if they fail to meet any of the member requirements according to the constitution of any ABC group,” it reads, stating that club members have a right to an environment that is supportive, respectful, and that sex-based harassment, among other things, will not be tolerated.
The hushed debut—as of February 23, ABC groups in contact with The Eye say they have not been informed of the new governing document or of any implications it might have on their constitutions and need to articulate “member requirements”—is reflective of the overall lack of follow-through on the promise of continued conversation. (Lee did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Overall, students seemed underwhelmed by the steps that have been taken since last year to clarify Columbia’s rules regarding student group response mechanisms or better prepare group leaders to respond to cases of misconduct in the groups they oversee. Herrnson remembers that this past year’s Barnard Club ReFuel session included “about ten minutes ... on how to write loopholes into your constitutions that allow you to eject a person from your group.”
Bookspan remembers Columbia’s Club ReFuel session, which she attended at the beginning of this academic year, as touching on the topic only through the lens of how to rectify group optics in the wake of a public incident of sexual misconduct. “I personally found that very upsetting,” she says “that that is what they thought club leaders found to be the problem they faced after this, when of course the bigger problem was the personal and emotional and community ramifications of how hard dealing with this situation is.”
When asked if a clear policy has been developed since November 2017 to clarify what student group leaders can and cannot do in these situations, a University spokesperson directed The Eye to the existing GBM policy, which outlines how reports of misconduct can be reported to and arbitrated by the University but does not include language specifying the roles of student group leaders.
According to the spokesperson, the University’s GBM policy is reinforced by mechanisms specific to student groups, including the ABC’s ”Code of Conduct” and the Student Group Adjudication Board, a new body formed in November 2017 that is charged with adjudicating incidents related to student organizations. In an email, however, SGAB’s chair explains that the SGAB would not be the entity charged with adjudicating something like the Varsity Show incident. Meanwhile, the ABC code of conduct would only be relevant to the 164 groups recognized by ABC. Nearly 250 student groups, including four theater groups, are overseen by different governing boards. The University defends this process of deferring to GBM on the basis of ensuring due process.
In an interview with Spectator last September, Executive Vice President of University Life Suzanne Goldberg also pointed toward the recently developed restorative justice program as an option for students who don’t want to use traditional methods of investigation (though she noted that it’s not a resolution option in cases of alleged penetrative sexual assault.)
VII. An Imperfect Answer
Why do some of these student leaders feel the need to be able to respond to reports of sexual misconduct?
Among those who chose to speak with The Eye, the answer stems from two fundamental convictions about power and the role of student groups in the lives of Columbia students.
“Power” in a student group is often intangible, especially as you get older and more comfortable on campus and feel, perhaps, like just one among a group of cool, fun college friends putting plays on for free. Everyone is here voluntarily, everyone is around the same age, and outside of meeting and rehearsal spaces, you study and eat and party together on perfectly equal footing.
But it would be disingenuous, Sagnak believes, to pretend there isn’t some subtle power differentiation between, for example, a first-year eager to impress and a senior, between a director and a fresh-faced actor being told what to physically do on stage, or even between two friends, one of whom has a prominent board position and sometimes has to wield authority over the other.
Likewise, the significance of a strong extracurricular community—one in which you find close friends, a refuge from the pressures of academic life, and a sense of fulfillment and campus identity—at a school known for its stress culture and scarcity of community entails a huge amount of responsibility on the part of the students who run those spaces. “With that whole ‘we’re a family’ schtick comes the follow-through of actually making sure people are supported,” Sagnak says.
Madeline—who, beyond the Varsity Show, has also been involved with CMTS, the Columbia University Players, WKCR and the Barnard Writing Fellows Program—says it’s “impossible to overstate” how important each of those communities have been to her time at Barnard.
“If those spaces become unsafe for people,” she continues, “that’s kind of the worst possible thing.”
But a student group cannot thoroughly investigate a claim of sexual violence. So when they create sexual misconduct protocols, they follow a well-intentioned but controversial praxis of “believe survivors.”
The band faced immediate pushback, most notably from Spectator’s editorial board, because of its zero tolerance policy for allegations of assault. “Without due process, there is no justice,” it wrote. KCST also faced pushback on the same grounds from within its board when it was making its standards, Dabertin recalls: Does one person’s statement get you expelled? “And to be honest with you, that’s still a question I don’t have an answer to,” he admits.
He, like others, notes the rarity of false allegations and adds that he doesn’t think someone’s right to be in a voluntary extracurricular group outweighs the importance of a survivor-centric protocol and members’ sense of safety. After all, if someone is removed from KCST, the extent to which that will impact them in the grand scheme of things is limited. “You’re not going to not get into grad school,” he says, “You’re not going to not graduate. They're going to have less fun, and they're going to lose. But then that has to become a learning experience for the person.”
There are reasonable concerns when it comes to allowing students to adjudicate their peers, particularly when it comes to the historical racial risks of sexual assault accusations.
In 2017, a group of Harvard Law School professors wrote an open letter expressing concerns about the Office for Civil Rights’ obliviousness to race discrimination in sexual assault cases (As Emily Yoffe noted in The Atlantic, schools are currently not required to document the race of the complainant and respondent in sexual misconduct complaints.) In an article for the Harvard Law Review Forum, Janet Halley, one of those professors, wrote:
From Emmett Till to the Central Park Five, American racial history is laced with vendetta-like scandals in which black men are accused of sexually assaulting white women that become reverse scandals when it is revealed that the accused men were not wrongdoers at all.
“We should heed our legacy of bias against black men in rape accusations,” Jeannie Suk Gersen, Halley’s colleague, echoed in the New Yorker. If both the criminal justice system and the educational disciplinary systems have been found to be racist, one can imagine how student-led response procedures, run by untrained students, could easily fall victim to these same prejudices.
Weihl emphasizes training as being extremely essential in community accountability, particularly in the context of sexual violence. Students would need to be trained in models of conflict resolution and in the dynamics of sexual violence. They would need to learn to acknowledge and address power dynamics in the room, which can be “hard to do when you're not actively thinking about it.”
When reflecting on the discussions NRT had about community standards in fall 2014, Weihl also adds that what she would do differently now is encourage a less punitive approach when developing such protocols. Though she understands that in some cases the violence that has been experienced by someone is so severe that there may not be another option besides expulsion, she thinks a central element of the community accountability model is to let group action be driven by the people directly involved in the situation and, if possible, find ways to help both individuals share a space again.
VIII. Now What?
After his long afternoon spent at the activities fair, Wolferman sent an email to all of the groups he had spoken with, asking them to confirm their commitment to hosting an SVR workshop for their organization. “THIS IS OUR PROBLEM, IT’S ON US to address it,” he wrote, speaking encouragingly to the potential power of a student-enforced cultural standard of respect. “If the one takeaway from the SRI is that student leaders are looking at their own community to ensure the safety of fellow students, that would be a huge step in the right direction to make Columbia a safer place,” he said and offered to assist any group that wanted help coordinating with SVR.
In the end, however, fewer than half of the groups contacted followed through, making this, in its basic outline, a small exemplum for one half of the problem: that by and large, the onus is on individual student groups themselves to start this conversation in the context of their own communities. “While the administration’s inadequate response to sexual assault on campus is shameful,” that anonymous spring 2015 op-ed read, “it is the apathy of the student body on an individual level that disturbs you.”
In the past year, however, there have been glimpses that groups across campus have started to acknowledge the issue, from the Black Students’ Organization in a public statement on its Facebook page to the Student Organization of Latinxs in a community-wide email. In April, the Columbia Women’s Business Society developed its own set of community standards with recommendations from Alex Parkhurst, a Columbia College senior and its current president and a three-term Marching Band Bored member. She admits that CWBS doesn’t “have as many social events” as the band nor events involving alcohol, but that it still felt important to articulate required standards of respect for members.
Most noticeably, since last year, swaths of theater groups have taken their own proactive steps to try and turn something painful and upsetting into something that, at the very least, might positively change the community for years to come.
"Some of the most dangerous rhetoric is ‘It doesn't happen here,’” says Eliza Moss-Horwitz, a Barnard senior and co-president of LateNite Theatre. “The most powerful thing is to always say in communities ‘It is happening here.’ It could happen anywhere. I think that’s the most honest understanding of the reality we are living in.” Her group has had community standards for as long as she’s been on campus and has spent the last year grappling with what it means to not be able to use them in the way they would like. She thinks that there is power in ensuring there are clear mechanisms for members to anonymously report discomfort, and in having explicit language about what their ‘ideal community’ should be like—a sentiment that points towards the evolving use of community standards from response mechanisms to tools for sexual violence prevention and the promotion of community citizenship.
In the immediate wake of the incident, CUPAL dove straight into developing a “community guideline” for all of its member groups, pulling input from across its member organizations. This past September it helped coordinate “Consent in the Performing Arts” with Cristen Kennedy, who runs “Being Barnard,” a sexual violence education initiative.
This past fall, also with the help of Kennedy, NOMADS developed community standards and inaugurated a new board position called the “Community Chair,” a role Zoey Massie came up with in a spur of the moment last spring while interviewing for NOMADS’ 2018-2019 executive board. She was asked to come up with an idea, silly or serious, for a new e-board position and, with the events of fall 2017 in her mind, she began describing something between an in-house social worker and HR department: someone who would make sure NOMADS remains a safe working environment, act as a “bridge” between the group and relevant Columbia and Barnard administrators, and be a dedicated advocate for any member wishing to navigate any of the University’s gender-based misconduct resources and processes. She was offered the new position shortly after.
Sagnak—nearly four years removed from the original KCST standards and a full year removed from the Varsity Show incident—spent much of the latter part of the fall of 2018 on a substantial revision of the KCST community standards. Her goal was to turn them into something sustainable and not in explicit violation of University policy. She worked with a Barnard administrator on this, who went through their previous iteration and pointed out its major “red flags.” Her suggestions, Sagnak says, allowed the policy to essentially function more or less in the way it had before, just with more neutral, vague language that also widened its scope to inappropriate behaviors beyond sexual violence. She also confirms that the conversation was framed in terms of finding “loopholes.” (When asked about the encouraged use of “loopholes” to get around current University policies, which other members of the theater community discuss as well, Barnard declined to comment.)
It was both empowering and overwhelming work, and there were a few moments of feeling frustrated and small in the face of a task so daunting in its consequence. In one of those moments, it was another member of the troupe, Tina Simpson—who is currently producing Romeo and Juliet with her—who reframed the project’s stakes: You are going to be leaving behind something that will be useful for generations of troupe members to come.
Madeline, who is now a senior, directed a show with CMTS this year: Spring Awakening. At its crux is a scene depicting a sexual encounter that in the original Frank Wedekind play is a rape, and in the musical is often depicted, at the very least, as something she describes as “murky and complicated and upsetting.” She and the show’s choreographer and producer worked closely with Kennedy as well as the two actors involved in the scene. On account of the complicated power dynamics of the show’s material itself, Madeline also made it a priority to have the cast and several members of the production team work with a professional intimacy director whom she met during her spring semester abroad at Pembroke College, Cambridge last year.
Beyond the particulars of the show, she was thinking a lot about her role and power as a director and leader, both in the rehearsal space and in accompanying social spaces. She rattles off some of the measures she took to try and make the production space safer: She and other leaders in the group will stay “more or less sober” at social events that involve alcohol and have pushed for more social gatherings that don’t; she created an anonymous feedback form (“I know that’s not anything amazing,” she downplays, “But anybody—actors, crew members, anybody—can reach out to us directly”). CMTS also had a “community liaison” on its board, who was introduced to the team as another confidential resource if someone wished to speak to someone without creative ties to the show.
“I know that this happens elsewhere,” Madeline says later in reference to her experience, “and people graduate and move on, and then no one says anything about it.” She doesn’t know if a community standards document would have changed what happened last year but hopes that clearer policies and more openness would have a positive impact on incidents like hers.
This past August when she came back to campus early for the New Student Orientation Program, an acquaintance of hers started talking talking about ‘that whole thing in the Varsity Show last year’, not realizing Madeline’s connection to it. “I became so anonymous in that story, and in the catalyst for this thing,” she says, not with any bitterness, just in a matter-of-fact way. “It was really strange how quickly the narrative belonged to the community and cut me out of it.” She says she would have liked people to have reached out to her, or to at least have updated her on how the community was responding.
She is clear and quick in recognizing the inherent challenges of asking students to handle issues relating to sexual misconduct. She takes a long pause, as do many others, when asked what student groups can do to prevent what happened to her from happening to others.
Acknowledging that things like harassment and assault can and do happen in student communities is a good first step, she thinks.
Then, groups should develop a way to hold those in power accountable for working to maintain the safety of the space. She cites Massie’s role as a good example of this, though it may not be the “perfect answer.”
“I think it’s still probably very difficult for anyone in NOMADS to directly approach Zoey and say, ‘You’re the community chair; can I tell you about something that happened to me?’”
In an op-ed published shortly after the Varsity Show news was made public, Juliana Kaplan, a Barnard senior, wrote about the beginning of the #MeToo news cycle and Columbia’s whisper networks, which she and many others say they have observed and participated in while on campus. In the theater community, it is a network that has influenced individuals’ decisions on whether to participate in a given show or whether to cast a given actor. Two people even add that the whisper network is how they learned about Madeline’s story, prior to the selection of the 124th C-team. In her op-ed, Kaplan wrote that these networks are “informal Band-Aids on a much larger systemic issue. … they are better than nothing, but they are not enough.”
The idea of community standards is, in some ways, an intermediary between whisper networks and formal reporting, overcoming some of the former’s social exclusivity and lack of institutional legitimacy, but still falling short of being a perfect solution, both in what they might require of student leaders and their inability to provide due process. It is extremely significant, however, that some students feel they are far better than nothing.
Bookspan likes the idea of community standards and says she would feel “safer” in spaces where they have been laid out, but is also cautious about whether student groups should be given the autonomy to remove members following allegations of something as serious as sexual misconduct.
“On the one hand, I want to say we should be able to remove people. But on the other hand, it’s a lot of pressure to put on a student to be responsible for this,” she says, later noting she was still an underclassman when she had to handle the allegation. “I think the goal of the Columbia policy is that a 19-year-old should not be the one who has to deal with such a heavy situation; it should be adults who are trained in this.”
She pauses. “At the same time, when the policies of the school don’t work and don’t allow for action to be taken swiftly and in ways that don’t harm victims ... I think then it would have been great if groups could take action.”
Enjoy leafing through our third issue!