Columbia and Sexual Assault: What About the Workers?

Columbia University recently garnered national attention amid allegations that the University permitted a serial rapist to remain on campus and graduate.  The case is horrendous for many reasons, not least of which is the University’s response.  I want to set aside the very legitimate questions raised regarding the response as it affects the University’s undergraduate students, and instead focus on the response as it pertains to the University’s graduate students.

Sure, graduate students are students, but most of them are also employees (even if Columbia is currently working to derail unionization efforts by graduate students seeking to bargain collectively).  In most cases, they teach courses and perform research.  The University is, for them, also a workplace.  In this context, many of these graduate students have understandably raised concerns about a plan for workplace equality that “explores the relationship between sexual respect and community membership.”

To be sure, the goal—“creating a community and campus in which all can participate freely in the robust, pluralistic life of this great University”—is honorable.  But as workplace-equality litigators, my colleagues and I have found that the problem in most hostile workplaces isn’t getting buy-in from those committed to equality, it’s changing the behavior of those who are blind to the problem, or, worse yet, condone it.

In this context, Columbia’s offerings of “workshops, trainings, film screenings with discussion, videos and reflections, an arts option, and keys to resiliency, which are offerings specially intended for survivors, those who support survivors, and others who have experienced trauma” simply don’t go far enough.  One Columbia administrator says, “we hope and expect that many more students and faculty will become interested and join in, and that more ideas will be generated as we learn from experience and continue this work into the future.”  I hope so too. But that doesn’t change the fact that those most in need of this education are precisely those least likely to participate.

Some Columbia graduate students are now raising some very legitimate concerns about their role in this policy.  In an open letter to university administrators, they explained as follows:

The required Sexual Respect activities remove the burden and the responsibility for immediate reform from the administration and place it back onto the student body…

We thus fear that in instituting these as mandatory activities, the real priority of the university administration is to protect its reputation and limit its exposure to legal liability, not to ensure the welfare of its students…

A conscientious intervention should, minimally, educate graduate students about existing formal processes for dealing with these cases and resources available for support, rather than requiring us to participate in workshops and expressive exercises alongside the same students who confide in us as authority figures. We refuse to complete any such university mandated activities until they include both training in the university procedures for handling sexual assault, violence and intimidation suitable for us in our roles as teaching and research assistants and a clear articulation of the specific changes the administration has made to these policies in order to redress Columbia’s past failings.

Kudos to these students for understanding what we as workplace equality litigators know: Education about both educational and workplace equality is important, but it is no substitute for legal safeguards when things go awry.  Sure, it’s always better to get participation and commitment from everybody, but you also have to have a plan if that doesn’t happen.  And, ultimately, responsibility for developing and implementing that plan resides with upper management.  Hopefully the University will heed the call.

Russell Kornblith

Russell Kornblith represents employees in all sorts of cases as a member of the NY office of Sanford Heisler, LLP .  He is proud to distinguish himself from Maya S. in that he is from Oberlin, OH – not Cleveland – home of the first college to integrate education on both race and gender lines.  He is also willing to volunteer to fly you in a prop plane to the nearest Willie Nelson concert, as he has his pilot’s license and thinks Willie is the BEST. 

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