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No kegs, no Outkast. Diminishing space for student groups. Much of the student body mildly dislikes the University’s administration, and that doesn’t bother me too much. But many of these students distrust it. Activists seem particularly jaded, and cite the opaque corporation structure of governance, few ethnic studies opportunities, the small population of female professors and poor sexual assault disciplinary policy as reasons for wariness. Some distrust between a large, old institution and students might be inevitable, but the fact that students doubt the University administration’s commitment to strengthening sexual assault prevention and resources for survivors is highly disturbing. These sentiments illustrate how severely the administration needs to work on building trust with the student body. Luckily for the University, they have a chance to affirm their commitment to student needs—a chance to build trust with both the activists and joe-schmoes of Harvard. This chance is the Committee Addressing Sexual Assault at Harvard (CASAH).
The committee is “charged with reviewing and strengthening the University’s efforts on two fronts: Preventing sexual assault at Harvard” and “Responding to student needs when prevention efforts fail.” It will make recommendations to the administration this spring.
The stakes are high. If the administration implements committee recommendations that reflect student interests, every undergrad who participates in prevention education or uses the University’s resources after being assaulted will see the administration’s commitment to student safety and well-being. If the administration fails to implement them promptly and extensively, then Harvard’s administration will have proven itself callous to student needs to the point of disregarding their safety, disregarding the reality that CASV often repeats—that “rape happens at Harvard.”
Surely, one might say, in this case general students, activists and the administration all want the same thing: to prevent sexual violence and provide survivors of such assault with compassionate, fair treatment. Surely with this very important issue the administration will not disregard or disappoint the student body.
The administration will build trust with the student body when student interests and opinions are clearly respected. In a very positive step that is much to its credit, CASAH has sought student opinion much more actively than many University committees have in the past. By Nov. 18 members of the committee had held 40 private meeting with various individuals and groups, from both within the University and outside it. By winter break the committee will have run six discussions in different houses, an idea which Coalition Against Sexual Violence member Alisha Johnson ’03 said her group suggested at a summer meeting with the committee, but which Judy Fox, special assistant to the Dean of the College and committee staffer, described as “part of our plan all along.” Additionally, they are soliciting opinions, ideas and appointment requests from the student body at leancomm@fas. This opportunity for input has been highlighted in a number of University letters since this spring and been posted around the Houses. CASV’s efforts to prompt letter writing have been far more visible and effective and are a hopeful step in the right direction.
But in the case of CASAH, the University will not be able to build student trust simply by having solicited student opinion throughout the committee process. Due to the confidentiality of all personal meetings with and letters to CASAH, it will be difficult to judge the degree to which student input is incorporated into the committee’s final recommendations. Additionally, if student interests are represented in to the committee’s recommendations but are not reflected in what the administration chooses to implement, the trust that has been built by the committee thus far will have been in vain.
Johnson has her eyes on implementation. “I’m not looking for pieces of paper,” she told me. “I want actual change.” When asked if she trusted the committee, she responded immediately. “I personally do not blindly trust anyone…and that’s why I feel like it’s so important for students to get involved, to show that they’re watching.”
Later, over e-mail, Johnson qualified her distrust and expressed her hope for the committee. “The Coalition began early in 1998” Johnson explained, “to reform education, resources and disciplinary procedures dealing with sexual assault at Harvard. Few of the changes we have sought over the past five years have been realized and our efforts at improvement have been frequently resisted by the University. However, we hope that CASAH is the beginning of a change in that mindset and are looking forward to the concrete, tangible improvements that will come from the committee’s recommendations.”
The Committee Addressing Sexual Assault at Harvard is a promising opportunity for the administration to begin the “change in mindset” to which Johnson refers. The administration should continue to demonstrate an interest in and respect for student interests and opinion through the implementation of CASAH recommendations. The administration can work on becoming more likeable later—it should start building trust now.
Katie DiSalvo ’05 is a religion concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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