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With the release of the campus climate survey results earlier this semester, we once again saw our campus rocked by discussion about sexual violence. Students shared personal narratives, called for peers and administrators to address social spaces and final clubs, and demanded resources and information. In her official statement about the survey results, President Faust wrote that “all of us share the obligation to create and sustain a community of which we can all be proud.” She seemed to redirect concerns about Harvard’s obligations, prioritizing community responsibility over administrator responsibility. The message from Harvard administration is clear: This is our problem.
We agree with President Faust: Sexual violence is our collective problem, and addressing it will take deep investment from every member of the Harvard community. However, our years of activism on this issue on campus have made us skeptical about what Harvard means when they ask what we can all do together.
In the past few years, students have been continually sidelined when it comes to actually influencing important university policies. After a 2012 UC referendum in which 85 percent of the student body voted to see changes to Harvard’s sexual assault policy, Harvard drafted its current University-wide sexual violence policy in a working group that ignored the mandate for a policy that included affirmative consent. Since the rollout of the policy, open meetings by several task forces have taken place, but none of these groups has had the goal or ability to change policy.
Students have been vocal and consistent in their demands, calling for (among other things) yearly trainings, better allocation of social space, and an affirmative consent policy. The audience for President Faust’s forum filled two Science Center Auditoriums, and many asked pointed questions about what the University planned to do in the wake of these results. Students have demonstrated their commitment to these issues, yet extremely few of our voices are heard in actual decision-making processes. Every task force or working group selectively appoints only two or three students to represent the entire student body. This kind of token representation can never be fully adequate for an incredibly diverse and multifaceted community, no matter how open and hardworking the individuals selected. These task forces are not transparent to the population they are working to protect, and as such they are not accountable to the vast community of students that will have to live under whatever decisions they make.
Administrative focus since the survey release has focused on social spaces and final clubs. While cultural change is certainly important, students cannot do this alone. Policy and culture are mutually reinforcing—true cultural change cannot take root without a policy that reflects its values. The administration shares the burden to create a safe campus environment for all and to respond justly to survivors’ needs—and they have yet to admit, let alone truly uphold, their responsibility. The focus on community conversations and community responsibility is meaningless if administrators continue to marginalize student voices in actual policy change on campus.
Students should have input into the policies that affect our lives. We should be included in the process of reform and growth so that our voices actually matter in a community we are supposed to call home. Meetings should be opened to all interested students—even if we disagree with each other around precise policy language, the inclusion of more student voices creates a dialogue, not a monologue, that is necessary for good change. Students cannot have honest conversations about their behavior and values if university policies use language no students can understand. Students cannot feel safe here if they do not believe this university cares about what they have to say.
This week, students will have the opportunity to vote on Our Harvard Can Do Better’s UC referendum question, which reads, "Should Harvard be required to open the meetings of current task forces reviewing sexual violence policy to all interested students?" We see this referendum as the first step towards a broader engagement of students in changing our campus for the better, opening up an avenue for dialogue with one another and with our administration about how to improve all aspects of our community.
We hope our referendum will demonstrate to Harvard administration that students are listening, invested, and will not be silent. If Harvard wants its student community to take ownership, as Faust has indicated time and time again, then they have to facilitate that ownership rather than shut us down at every turn. Students have much to contribute to the conversations about policy reform happening now and that will continue to happen in the future. The first step is to let us into the room. We hope you will vote "yes" to tell the administration to do just that.
Jessica R. Fournier ’17, a studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator, lives in Winthrop House. Julia R. Geiger ’16, a social studies concentrator, lives in Eliot House.
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