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Sitting in a cramped Quincy House senior common room on Tuesday night, about two dozen students reacted to recently released findings about the incidence of sexual assault at Harvard, telling administrators about a climate of distrust on campus and questioning if the College can change it.
Students and administrators discussed the topic in a “lively” back-and-forth of about 90 minutes, according to Aaron M. Mukerjee ’16, a student who attended the town hall, which was not open to the press. Students and administrators addressed topics such as on-campus party space and training student bystanders to intervene and stop incidents of assault, Mukerjee said.
The town hall was the first of several the College plans to hold this week in response to what administrators have called the “anguishing” results of a University-wide sexual conduct climate survey, developed by the Association of American Universities and also administered on 26 other campuses last spring.
Among other points, the survey found that more than 30 percent of female undergraduate seniors at the College surveyed reported being victims of some kind of sexual misconduct during their time at Harvard, while many respondents said they lacked knowledge of and confidence in the University’s response resources. The results come as the College faces a federal investigation into its compliance with anti-sex discrimination law Title IX.
Although people at the town hall event on Tuesday said they found the statistics disturbing, they also found them unsurprising, Mukerjee said.
Students at the meeting made several suggestions, according to Colin J.F. Diersing ’16, who also attended. They called for more inclusive social spaces on campus, like a student bar or more private common rooms in the Houses, he said; attendees also suggested that better sexual assault prevention education programming be included throughout all four years of students’ time at the College.
According to Mukerjee, students also noted undergraduates’ pessimism in Harvard’s ability to make tangible change on the issues at hand.
Discussion about social space addressed a recent topic of administrative scrutiny—the College’s single-gender and unrecognized final clubs—but also touched on sanctioned space, like the upperclassman Houses, according to Diersing.
According to the Harvard-specific survey results released Monday, more than 75 percent of sexual assaults reported by female College seniors reportedly occurred in dormitories, while about 15 percent happened at “single-sex organizations that are not fraternities or sororities,” a category that was designed to include Harvard’s final clubs.
At Tuesday’s town hall, students argued that existing campus social spaces outside final clubs are insufficient, according to Mukerjee, and some suggested that future House renewal projects include more private common rooms.
Harvard is in the process of renovating its upperclassman Houses, and in construction projects completed so far, administrators have prioritized creating more building-wide common spaces at the expense of some private space, creating some hallway double and single bedrooms and hall bathrooms.
For her part, attendee Jessica C. Levy ’18 said administrators were receptive to student comments and “cleared the air” when they switched to a new topic. “Satisfied” is not the right word to describe her feelings after the event, Levy said, since concrete policy change and action have yet to happen, but she said she appreciates that conversation on the issue is now happening.
Luke A. Leafgren, the resident dean in Mather House who facilitated the discussion, called the tone of the meeting “constructive.”
Administrators including Dean of Student Life Stephen Lassonde, College Title IX coordinator Emily J. Miller, and various House masters, tutors, and deans attended the event. Mukerjee, for his part, said he would have liked to see more students go, but he added that students dominated the conversation.
Administrators held a similar town hall meeting in Harvard Yard, in Straus Hall, on Tuesday as well. They will hold two more this week, on Wednesday in Leverett and Pforzheimer Houses.
—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @meg_bernhard.
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