Lily Gordon, ’17
“As public figures, principals and presidents of academic institutions are under intense public scrutiny,” said Dr. Lerner, “the words we say are pinned on us forever.”
Bard College, one of BHSEC’s partner institutions, came under such scrutiny this December 7, 2015 as members of the student body spoke up against their administration. The Bard Anti-Sexual Assault Initiative filed a Title IX complaint to the Department of Education. BASAI is currently petitioning for the removal of President Botstein from the Title IX process and for his replacement with a more “suitable alternative.”
BASAI’s petition demands that Bard College “acknowledge that sexual assault and violence are problems at our school” and shift away from a “culture that shames survivors” to one that protects the community. They demand that the administration considers reporting not a “waste of time” or simply “part of the [victim’s] healing process,” but also a method of seeking justice. The students call for members of the Title IX board who are properly qualified to professionally and respectfully investigate, support, and make informed decisions about gender issues at Bard.
Mere hours after BASAI posted their demands on their website, they went viral among the BHSEC student community. Students shared the petition on Facebook on their walls and on group pages. By the next day at BHSEC, conversations intertwined Bard’s administrative policies with the propagation of rape culture, leaving a sense of unrest lingering on the minds of a generally progressive student body.
Rape on campus is not a new phenomenon, nor is it a rare occurrence. In fact, on December 2, 2015, there was a mandatory screening of The Hunting Ground for all of BHSEC’s Year 2s. The documentary discussed how rape is a nationwide epidemic on our college campuses and how colleges often put the preservation of profit and good name before seeking justice for survivors of sexual violence. With backwards rhetoric, misguided priorities, and antiquated notions of sexual responsibility, colleges have recently come under the public microscope as breeding grounds for an intolerable gender-based injustice. Dr. Lerner explained that he “wants BHSEC students to be prepared.”
So a question begins to emerge: what makes the case at Bard College special? In other words, why do BHSEC students feel particularly and personally affronted by a possible miscarriage of Title IV at Bard?
Britney Franco, a Year 1, stated, “As BHSEC students, we are an extension of the place we affectionately call Big Bard. The majority of us look up to the institution and to Leon Botstein, which is one of the reasons why this shocked us so much.” Many students like Britney feel that BHSEC should care because, as part of the Bard conglomeration, Big Bard acts as our “mother school.” We benefit economically and academically from our connection to Bard and ultimately share a common identity.
On the other hand, many argue that the situation at Bard is no different than any other college campus in America. Emma Morgan Bennett, a Year 2, who is the president of BHSEC’s gender equity club, sighed, “Sexual assault is not specific to any college. It’s not surprising that it’s happening at Bard. High schools aren’t safe either. Last year, S.T.A.G.E (Students Taking Action for Gender Equity) posted a series of five essays about experiences of sexual assault.
“Nowhere is safe.”
Dr. Lerner stated that he was, “Concerned like anyone is concerned.” He believes the responsibility of the administration of any institution is to “uphold the law, make students feel safe, and address issues such as gender, race, and access.” Dr. Lerner stressed that this obligation to create a safe supportive environment is “universal—any college is responsible.”
He also argues, “It’s everyone’s responsibility, it’s not mutually exclusive. Part of being a good citizen is that you don’t shirk responsibility. Students have responsibility to take care of each other and make people aware.”
Morgan-Bennett stressed that, despite the sort of progressivism associated with small liberal arts colleges like Bard College, they are not immune to sexism or rape culture. Sexual assault happens everywhere. What these colleges need, she adds, are “institutional structures after someone’s body has been violated.”
BASAI writes in their petition, “We understand that there are good people in the administration, who want to do the right thing, and who almost certainly have been silenced through pressure or from fear of imperiling their jobs. We hope our actions, and yours to support us, will bring them out of hiding and disempowerment, and that we can work with them to make Bard safe for every student.”
BASAI worries, however, that much of the Bard College administration dismisses students’ protests with empty words in “an attempt to salvage a reputation that Bard should not have.” They feel that the administration has a tendency to, “co-opt the efforts of student activists in order to bolster the image of Bard.”
This story has received press by the Huffington Post on at least two occasions since the publishing of the petition. In one article, journalist Tyler Kingkade interviewed a senior (who asked to be referred to as Allison for anonymity) at Bard College. Police and paramedics found Allison overdosed from attempted suicide. She explained that a fellow student raped her and the rapist had been allowed to stay on campus, “even though Bard had determined that he had violated the school’s sexual assault policy.” All Bard offered to do was mandate alcohol use and “effective consent” counseling as well as a social probation that stated further violations at Bard would lead to “more severe sanctioning.” Afterward, Bard’s Title IX’s coordinator Tamara Stafford told Allison she needed more evidence in order to appeal his penalty. Allison fumed, “What do I need to prove to you besides he raped me to remove him from school?”
Many people believe their colleges will provide justice much faster than the police because of the amount of proof required by law enforcement. Yet in Allison’s case, where police were unexpectedly more supportive and investigative, it is clear that colleges such as Bard are vastly under-qualified to be handling the sort of intense criminal injustice of sexual violence and all of the emotional trauma that emerge as a result.
Additionally, a second Huffington Post article by Kingkade wrote of President Botstein’s victim-blaming remarks about sexual assault. Three students, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid penalization for speaking up, recalled Botstein’s comments at an April 14 open house event. Botstein allegedly said, “You have to use common sense. A girl drinking a bottle of vodka and then going to a party is as wise as me walking into a Nuremberg Rally while wearing the yellow badge.”
The students at BASAI took Botstein’s quote to mean that he blames both victims for the violence of their attackers—the girl for the sexual assailant and the Jew for the Neo-Nazi murderer.
Mark Primoff, Bard’s spokesperson, told Huffington Post that the quotes are “gross distortions and bear no resemblance to his [Botstein’s] views on sexual assault.”
Despite administration’s pleas that the students falsely represent Botstein’s views, complaints seem to be piling up. At the same open house, Botstein allegedly said that it wasn’t Bard’s responsibility to police student’s “personal lives.” One student reports how she retaliated against Botstein by saying, “you can’t equate sexual violence to intimacy. It’s about power.” She claims Botstein responded, “Oh, she’s already a philosopher.” If Botstein did in fact relegate this student’s statement about a very concrete and real life institutional problem to the amorphous intellectual realm, he fails to recognize that rape is not a ‘Writing and Thinking’ exercise, but an assault against the bodily and emotional safety of his students.
Another student who experienced sexual violence at Bard believes she was denied a proper school investigation when Botstein signed a letter saying her case did not have enough evidence to support her claim against the accused student.
Although the primary concern of BASAI is to address how the Bard community deals with sexual assault, they also state concerns over other Title IX issues and call for leadership that has a stronger more progressive understanding of proper gender equity. BASAI writes, “We believe it is not appropriate for a college president, who presides over tenure, hiring and firing, and financial decisions, to have such overlapping powers, and we call for his replacement in the Title IX process.”
On December 14, 2015, BASAI received support from Bard MFA professors and students. The signers of the letter included current and former students and faculty. The letter demonstrated their outrage at “recent acts of racial and sexual violence on Bard’s campus…. These aggressive acts and words are hateful and intolerable. We extend our unequivocal support to those who have experienced this aggression, and to those who are speaking out against it.”
Franco laments, “I am afraid, as a junior, of college. I am not afraid because of monotonous applications or the heavy hand of the SAT/ACT, but because of the chance that I may not only be sexually assaulted by one of my own peers, I may have to deal with an administration I trusted telling me that this violation of my body and soul is a ‘personal issue.’ That, to me, is just as visceral an attack.”
Morgan-Bennett, when considering the role of administrative leaders and students, argued that, “No matter how high up a position you have, everyone can still make mistakes. Sometimes mistakes can be significant. The general population has to understand people can make mistakes.” She added that it is “up to the leader, especially a leader with power, to take responsibility for those mistakes. That is what differentiates a good and a great leader.” She believes that Botstein, if BASAI’s claims hold water, is not the proper figure to deal with these issues. “That’s okay. It’s not necessary for the president to be involved in sexual cases.” BASAI and much of the BHSEC community feel that Botstein, along with other administrative staff have proved untrained, unqualified, and unfit to properly handle cases of gender discrimination with empathy and extensive understanding.
Members of BASAI said they are in the midst of finals and were not available for an interview, but expressed that they glad that BHSEC has taken an interest in what is going on at Big Bard. As tensions build between administration and the student body, it is important to recognize that change at academic institutions has to come from both students and staff as a cohesive community.