Two weeks ago, Dean of Students Avis Hinkson at Pomona College, and Sue McCarthy, the college’s Title IX coordinator, sent an email to the student body ordering that groups engaging in “blacklisting”—excluding students from certain student club events based on anonymous accusations made online—“must end immediately.” Blacklisting has a lot of implications, and the Women’s Union held a discussion about “viable alternatives” to the practice of blacklisting and bridging the gap between the administration and the students. This article will be a summary of the principle arguments made and issues raised; as a condition of being allowed to attend the meeting, no participants will be referred to by name.
The meeting began with criticisms of Pomona’s existing network of support for survivors of sexual assault. According to one student, “[i]t’s never seemed to me…that it’s a process centered around survivors.”
Others agreed: “The processes the administration has in place for survivors are inherently retraumatizing…[the administration’s processes] are so inherently violent towards survivors.”
The general consensus was that making survivors recount the events surrounding their assault may be psychologically damaging, harming more than helping in the process of rehabilitation.
This consensus was concerning to some; one student stated that her worry “with any institutional system that’s in place is the focus on having survivors confirm their stories.” Some were more blunt: “I just have a profound distrust in institutions.”
The underlying attitude was that survivors should be believed without reserve in all but the most exceptional cases, and that the administration had “failed on an institutional level to create safe spaces at events.”
This perspective fed into the second of the primary complaints raised by pro-blacklisters: Pomona’s emphasis on legality in its disciplinary proceedings. Per one student, “[t]hese lists exist because of a lack of trust in the legal system.” Another student concurred, stating that“[b]ased off the state of our country right now, it just doesn’t feel like [legal] institutions are going to believe [survivors]…It’s up to us, the students.”
Other students believe that the blacklists are “not a verdict…what exactly other than one [social] event is affected in that perpetrator’s life?”
There is no “master list” of names compiled from all those banned from social events; being barred from one event, many purported, does not rise to the level of a legal infraction. Some argued that the administration was overreacting to “the student culture that students have developed over years to support survivors” in an attempt to “cover it’s own a** [legally].”
These were not the only perspectives in the room. As one student said, “[w]hat I’m concerned about is when it’s less clear-cut…I hear things like ‘Oh, he’s problematic’ said a lot.” According to this view, Pomona students are prone to conflating lesser transgressions, such as name-calling, with greater transgressions, such as harassment or assault. Another agreed; “[t]here’s hardly any space for nuance in Pomona dialogue …they point at someone and say ‘Oh that person’s problematic’…that holier-than-thou activism that goes unchecked sometimes.” One student even said that “I don’t use the word ‘problematic’ anymore,” citing the ambiguity of the term. Instead, she recommended simply asking “Is that person unsafe?” as a way “to clear things up.” While this terminology could become just as muddled as the term “problematic,” asking explicitly whether an individual is safe to be around seems a more nuanced method than, as one student recommended, weighing “the cost of cutting an [alleged] perpetrator out of my life,” or cutting “‘problematic’ individuals off first “and ask[ing] questions later.”
The problem of sexual assault on college campuses is a contentious one, and viable solutions to complex problems tend to be more complex than we would like. In the wake of the Kavanugh hearings, survivors of sexual assault need more support than they ordinarily receive. On the other hand, the ambiguity of the terminology surrounding some forms of harassment, sexual or otherwise, and the implications of cutting off members of any community, mean that a reactionary attitude of “isolate first, ask questions maybe,” may not be the ideal solution.
Survivors of sexual assault deserve respect, and they deserve to be taken seriously, but their allegations should be handled according to established and effective rules, not an informal system of vigilante justice. If students are dissatisfied with the policies currently in place, they should work with the administration to come up with a codified set of regulations by which instances of sexual misconduct can be handled. Doing so would not only improve the administrative policies so many Pomona students are unhappy with; it would also serve to bring the administration and the students together on an issue of great import, and would lay the foundations for future collaboration between the College and students .
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