By Emily Tai
Just as United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced plans, last June, to review previous measures taken by the Obama administration to protect students from for-profit educational institutions, so, too, has she now moved to rescind another Obama-era Higher Education policy: this one related to sexual assault and Title IX legislation. Secretary DeVos’s step has been lauded by some, concerned by reports that on-campus proceedings don’t always adequately protect the rights of the accused. DeVos’s actions have drawn criticism, by contrast, from women’s groups and others who supported the Obama-era Title IX “Dear Colleague” letter—including former vice-president Joe Biden.
Not in New York
Title IX is alive and well in New York, however, thanks to Governor Cuomo’s Enough is Enough initiative, which requires all New York colleges and universities to adopt a set of comprehensive procedures and guidelines related to domestic violence, dating violence, stalking and sexual assault. At CUNY, student club officers and the faculty who advise them are required to participate in HAVEN training, which provides an introduction to concepts, vocabulary, and procedure related to sexual misconduct. Trainees read and answer questions relating to sexual harassment as defined by the CUNY Policy on Sexual Misconduct. They are also advised of key resources for victims of sexual misconduct, including The National Sexual Abuse Hotline; The Victims Rights Law Center; Not Alone (a resource for sexual abuse survivors through the U.S. Department of Justice that is still available, notwithstanding Secretary DeVos’s policy decision); and Men Can Stop Rape. As of this writing, twenty-nine New York institutions of higher learning—four of them at CUNY—have nevertheless been judged non-compliant, for reasons that remain unclear, as of this writing.
Models for Improvement—or not
Part of the problem in evaluating the success of Enough is Enough at CUNY may be the extent to which CUNY students live off-campus. “Affirmative consent” programs that have met state standards at our sister colleges in the State University of New York (SUNY) system seem focused, primarily, upon the so-called “traditional” college student: under 24 years of age; attending college as a full-time resident; and dependent, partially or primarily, upon parental economic support. Although several units of CUNY do offer residential life options, the vast majority of CUNY’s 250,000 students are, by contrast, commuters, 25% over the age of 25. (source: CUNY, “A Profile of Undergraduates at CUNY Senior and Community Colleges: Fall 2015.”) Indeed, non-traditional college students—now the majority of college students in the United States–have been identified as “the new normal” in American higher education.
It’s not always easy to assess how best to support these students during the hours—even days—when they live their lives off-campus, involved as friends, family members and employees in a web of relationships often far removed from their academic careers at CUNY. Would a program like the “Protect Her” campaign of Alexis Jones– which has garnered national media attention for its focus on young male athletes, but also drawn feminist critiques for its reliance upon paradigms of female helplessness—really be appropriate for CUNY’s diverse student body? Would our students be helped, or merely amused, by a song, such as the “Consent” ballad taught at freshmen orientations at the University of Indiana at Bloomington? Or a play, such as Catharsis Production’s humorous instructional skit about affirmative consent, Sex Signals? Could CUNY students be encouraged to share narratives of their own experience, such as through the projects Consent Stories or Voicing Consent?
Making the Title IX Debate part of the Liberal Arts Curriculum
The challenge of teaching students about healthy personal relationships may seem removed from the responsibilities many of us embrace as specialists in our disciplines. Yet, it could be argued that teaching students to understand standards of affirmative consent is consistent with many of the educational goals professors have for students in academic courses. As professors, we want our college graduates to have well-honed communication skills; to cultivate self-awareness and respect for others. Aren’t these the qualities we believe our students can hone by studying the sciences and humanities? Perhaps it’s not a specialized “consent” curriculum our students need, but an educational program that provides multiple opportunities for members of our diverse student body to engage in thoughtful dialogue across differing cultural experiences and backgrounds. CUNY faculty might consider assigning books on Title IX such as Susan Ware’s Title IX: A Brief History with Documents (Illinois: Waveland Press, 2007); Laura Kipnis’s Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus; Brooklyn College’s own K.C. Johnson (with Stuart Taylor Jr.) The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America’s Universities; and Annie E. Clark and Andrea L. Pinto, We Believe You: Survivors of Campus Sexual Assault Speak Out (2016), or titles taken from the bibliography on Title IX established at Yale University.
If we can find ways to model and encourage best practices in the public discussions we promote on our campuses and in our classrooms, perhaps we’ll incidentally be teaching our students how to respect others in their private lives—not with gimmicks, or jokes, but seriously, through academic study, and by example.
Emily S. Tai is a professor of History at Queensborough Community College who serves on the UFS Executive Committee, and edits the UFS Blog.
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photo: Oak Park High School. notes from “AAUW Issues: Title IX,” by American Association of University Women and from American Civil Liberties Union informational page on Title IX; designed by Gui Andrade, layout editor.