Credit: Eugena Ossi/Governor’s Office, Deval Patrick on Flickr, under Creative Commons
(WOMENSENEWS)–When my daughter was an undergraduate at Harvard six years ago, there was an incident involving a gunman in the basement of her river house, Kirkland. The college moved swiftly to ensure her and her peers’ safety.
Yet on-campus rape continues and the college drags its feet through more research, studies, surveys and discussions.
As a founding member of the new multi-college alumni coalition addressing the issue of on-campus rape, I must say that the time to study is over. We know that the first two months of college are the most dangerous in this regard. Now is the time for concerned alumni and parents to speak and act.
For centuries, our most prestigious universities have been driven by money, and thus ruled by the elite. Although they have been by law opened to women, minorities and scholarship students, the underlying culture hasn’t changed.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, writes in her book “Lean In” that nothing will change in corporations that discriminate based on gender until there are women in the c-suite. Likewise, nothing will change in our universities until there are individuals on the boards of directors and in the presidents’ offices who are empathetic to the needs of the disenfranchised, including women, racial and ethnic minorities and the socio-economically disadvantaged.
I Was Worth . . . ‘Nailing’
I myself suffered at Harvard due to being a naive first-generation college student from a lower middle-class public high school–and a woman. As a perky, petite blonde, I was, my ethical male friends told me, in danger. Freshmen perused the hardcover book then known as “The Facebook” to seek out those first-year women worth “nailing.” I was on that list, and I was victimized twice–once by a classmate and once by a teaching assistant.
In the first case, when I sought help I could not even locate the overworked young administrator who was supposed to be supervising our freshman floor. In the latter case, I hold a written confession I obtained recently, in which my perpetrator admits to sexually harassing in total four undergraduate women that year. He was a graduate student assigned to tutor and grade the “section,” or sub-group, of an economics class I took. I reported it to the proper official and was told to let it go because my perpetrator could lower my grade.
When I read “Dear Harvard, You Win”–a young woman’s despairing account of how the school mishandled her problems with an assailant–I realized with horror that not much had changed since 1980. And this was the case even though offices had been established precisely to serve women and men who found themselves in the horrible position I found myself in more than 30 years ago.
I decided to speak out, to help other women gain the courage to do so as well, to begin to raise public awareness of how vast this problem truly is. Shortly after an article of my own appeared in the Harvard Crimson, I heard from dozens of college friends who had also experienced what I did and not spoken about it. In fact, two of us in my freshman rooming group were raped. That is just unacceptable, and it’s still happening today.
Shootings are crimes. Rape is also a crime.
Problematic at Harvard, in particular, is the relationship between the Harvard University police and the Cambridge police. I recently learned at a gathering of Alumnae Network for Harvard Women, of which I am a past president, that so-called violent crime is referred to the city police, but “less severe” (so identified by the university’s Title IX officer) crime is handled only on campus. While a rape at gun or knife point or involving battery would be called violent, rape without additional violence is regarded as “less severe.”
Harvard President Walks Out
Appalled, two leaders of the alumnae group and I went to a previously scheduled meeting with Harvard President Drew Faust and another administrator. We tried to address the issue of the police, but we were summarily dismissed. In a last-ditch effort, I told Faust and the group the gory details of my own and my roommates’ experiences. I said that my dearest wish was that alumni and parent involvement could make Harvard a more compassionate environment.
Faust abruptly turned to me at the table and said, “Harvard is a compassionate environment.” She then stood up and left the room.
The problem of sexual violence on college campuses will not be solved until our colleges and universities remember that they are there to teach and support their most vulnerable constituency: the students. As it is, they serve, primarily, the same powerful few who established them and continue to support them with large donations.
They have created a hierarchical structure that causes cognitive dissonance. “Insiders” believe they are in a great environment. Those who are not in the academic 1 percent, so to speak, realize that their environments are far from empathic.
We as alumni and parents must demand change through the only means we have available: our pocketbooks and political friends. We must also vote with our feet. We should not attend reunions that celebrate campuses such as Harvard, where 12 percent of the graduating women and 2 percent of the graduating men of the class of 2014 reported to the Harvard Crimson having been sexually assaulted.
We should not send our daughters and sons to these dangerous environments. We should not donate our hard-earned funds to them, or encourage our government to support them with grants.
Sexual violence on college campuses will not stop until the entire culture changes to become less hostile toward women and other vulnerable groups.
Lisa E. Paige, Ph.D., graduated from Harvard in 1980. She is president of Harvard Women and founder of Surviving Silence.
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