Will Columbia’s new sexual respect program solve its assault (and image) problem?

Last week, students at Columbia University received an email from the Dean of Columbia College, the Dean of the Engineering School, and the Dean of Undergraduate Student Life announcing a mandatory sexual respect program to be completed by all students over the next several weeks. Immediate criticism of the program has arisen, particularly among activist organizations, who have made accusations that Columbia’s new initiative is “poorly designed and demonstrates a willful neglect of empirical evidence and student feedback [and] will not prevent sexual or dating violence.” Harsh – but not without truth. The details of the program, including what degree of student effort is necessary to complete it, hardly inspire faith in sexual assault education.

The new program is intended to “explore the relationship between sexual respect and community membership,” according to its official introduction on Columbia’s CourseWorks site. It aims to do so through one of five participation options: Workshops & Trainings; Film Screening & Discussion; Videos & Reflection; The (already infamous) Arts Option; and Keys to Resiliency, an option designed for survivors and supporters of survivors who may feel triggered by the more direct workshops or videos. Despite circulating uncertainty about how mandatory the “mandatory” program really is, administration confirmed that any student who does not complete an assigned option by March 13th will be unable to register for classes or receive a diploma. 

The most vocal and critical responses made by students, particularly sexual assault activism group No Red Tape, attack the program for its insufficiently rigorous standards for participation. For instance, a student can fulfill his or her requirement by watching a movie or short video and writing a reaction paper, or by creating an original artwork from a poem to a 5-minute dance. Group work is also an option. Some Columbia students – understandably – find this approach infantilizing and a mockery of the educational and awareness deficits at work in campus sexual assault. The other major backlash: that this program is nothing more than a face-saving move for Columbia, an effort to protect its already-damaged image in national media. No Red Tape has firmly taken that line while publicly protesting the program in front of prospective students visiting Columbia, claiming that that the policy “allows 8th-grade level homework assignments to take the place of meaningful, participatory education.” 

The wider reception of the program, unfortunately, already confirms this condemnation: students on campus are already joking about drunkenly writing group poems or “reflections” for their requirements. And if poetry writing isn’t your thing, other activities that can fulfill the sexual respect education program include yoga classes and African dance classes, according to the program’s Courseworks page. Various students and RAs (Residential Advisors) have made the logical observation that because its different options require drastically different levels of work, the program will likely not have any effect on those who need to be educated the most. Think of it as a selection bias of sorts: students who care the most about sexual assault reforms will opt in for the more thoughtful and in-depth workshop meetings, while students who couldn’t care less will scrawl out a limerick in six minutes and move on with their day, not having engaged in any critical thought. Or so the argument goes. 

Across the street, the story is slightly different: Barnard women have the option to participate in the program, but are not required to, under the decision of the college’s administration. Why? Because apparently it’s not necessary for them thanks to their school’s “distinct climate,” a qualification that was left unclear. In the words of Barnard student and No Red Tape member Michela Weihl, “[Barnard administration] thinks that Barnard students don’t need it as much as Columbia students do.” We’re not sure whether “Columbia students,” then, really means “Columbia students” or “Columbia men.” Either way, it points to uncomfortable divisions already at work in what is meant to be a community-wide initiative.

Read the full email sent to CC and SEAS students below:

Dear Undergraduate Students,

We are writing to follow up on an important message that you received last month from Provost John H. Coatsworth and Suzanne B. Goldberg, executive vice president for University Life, regarding the University’s ongoing efforts to prevent gender-based misconduct, strengthen the response to such misconduct when it occurs, and enhance our campus climate.

The University is embarking on an initiative this semester that seeks to educate students and foster discussion around sexual respect and community membership in order to facilitate a community free of gender-based misconduct. The effort, which was guided by a working group of students, faculty and staff, will encourage reflection on what it means to be a citizen of a shared community, one committed to mutual respect and communal citizenship, along with honest and ethical intellectual exchange. As part of this effort, all Columbia students are required to take part in programming related to the ways in which sexual respect is essential to community membership.

Recognizing that undergraduates have a range of learning styles, backgrounds and experiences, and preferred ways of engaging, there are numerous options available for you to fulfill this requirement, ranging from workshops to film and talk-back discussions to individual or group art projects. Alternatively, student groups and residential communities are able to schedule workshops tailored to their specific community needs through the Office of Sexual Violence Response. The menu of options is available on Courseworks: https://courseworks.columbia.edu/portal/site/sexualrespectCCSEAS . As you engage with this initiative, please be sure to log your participation on Courseworks and complete a short assessment to help us gauge its effectiveness. Your participation should be completed before spring break (Friday, March 13).

These issues have engaged many on our campus and we want to do everything we can to advance these important conversations, and foster a safe and supportive community. Honor, integrity and community membership are at the foundation of the Columbia undergraduate experience — affirmed through the new Honor Code and emphasized throughout Core courses. We urge everyone to take this project seriously, recognizing it as an opportunity to think carefully about concerns that have been a focus on our campus and throughout the nation, and that, for some of you, have been a deeply personal part of your experience here.

As a reminder, we have included Provost Coatsworth and Executive Vice President Goldberg’s initial letter below. Thank you for joining us in this conversation and for taking the time to reflect on what it means to be a member of the Columbia community.

Sincerely,

James J. Valentini
Dean of Columbia College and
Vice President for Undergraduate Education
Henry L. and Lucy G. Moses Professor

Mary C. Boyce
Dean of The Fu Foundation School of
Engineering and Applied Science
Morris A. and Alma Schapiro Professor

Cristen Kromm
Dean of Undergraduate Student Life
Columbia College | The Fu Foundation School of
Engineering and Applied Science

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