I think what was very surprising to many of us was not so much the institutional failing because lots of institutions were failing along those lines, but that there was no real connection between the students who were engaging in this activism and faculty on campus. That separation between students and faculty—Alondra [Nelson] and I both, and lots of us agreed—was a problem. I think it was seen as the continual separation of faculty and students. If there should be an institutional home at Columbia where students should feel like they could come and talk to faculty about this issue, IRWGS should be that place. This was before we were IRWGS. It was when we were IRWAG.
This was just a kind of meet-and-greet meeting. Not anything extensive, but more of a how can we work together to do some things with you? What are your aims, and are there ways in which we can provide support, advising, or even programming? This was in the fall and we were thinking about programming for the next year. During that meeting, the students stopped and left the room. They stopped the meeting and left the room to talk to one another. Then they came back and revealed to us that they were going to be filing Title IX and Clery Act complaints against the university. They were working with some activists outside of the institution, people from Know Your IX, and I think perhaps people from Legal Momentum—although I’m not sure—which is the legal group that used to be the legal wing of NOW, the National Organization of Women. They had yet to file the Title IX complaint, but they were planning on doing it at some point soon and that was going to be the big thing that they did in that spring. We also thought it would be useful to do some programming. Alondra really stepped into gear and organized a Know Your IX workshop where activists, a women from CUNY, someone from Legal Momentum, some of the women from Know Your IX, Annie Clark and another woman, came along with Marybeth. They did a sort of teach-in. This was the first thing that we did together with some of the activists on campus around Title IX.
There was a lot of mixed feelings on the part of the faculty about the filing of the Title IX complaint, but it was seen as something that, given our failure to support students in so many instances before, and our failure to hold the institution more accountable for its dealing with things like gender-based misconduct, a lot of those things were not expressed to students. We sort of tabled them all. I think most of us just felt really bad that we had no idea what was going on and hadn’t been there to support students. The students’ main complaint seemed justified, which was that the general apparatus of the university, the people like faculty, administrative staff, administrative offices, and then the higher administration, were either ignorant or dismissive of what was going on.
I absolutely think that the filing of a complaint has meant that the structure of response to gender-based misconduct and sexual assault on campus, overall, has been one of legal compliance to the law rather than systems of justice. Broader systems of justice. So, conceptualizing victim’s justice, for example, which may be less punitive to people who’ve been accused. It may have a very different form. I don’t know that the students were wrong to file the complaint because I don’t know that they would’ve gotten as much attention or institutional response had they not filed the complaint. I also think that it’s important to recall that we’re being led by the president of this university, who is a lawyer. I think in many ways, his response may have been this anyway because a legal framework is the framework that he’s most likely to fall back upon.
My assessment, in thinking that it’s correct that we’re pretty bound, now, to a legal interpretation of Title IX and gender-based misconduct, is that it’s not necessarily the case that the reason for that is the filing of the complaint, although I certainly think it contributed to it. I think alternate things that could have happened would be, for example, imagine if instead of now being run by lawyers—I think the university hired nine lawyers to be investigative and response units to these things—they hired a team of community organizers, psychologists, social workers to respond. I think that then, the logic of response would have been very different. It would have been less about adherence to the law and making sure that our response is consistent with both the requirements of Title IX and the vision articulated within the “Dear Colleague” letter of the Department of Education, the Office of Civil Rights. Instead, could have included all kinds of understandings tied to psychological services for victims and for perpetrators, tied to community-based models of justice.
When Alondra [Nelson] first asked me about joining IRWGS, she said to me, “Well, one big advantage of joining is that you will meet the power women of the university.” The Jean Howards and Alice Kessler-Harrises of the university, chairs of departments, things like that. This is one of the institutional homes of the power women. She said, “We’re a pretty male department. It’s important for you to do this anyway, I think. You should really think about it.”
There was also a sense, I think, when Alondra took over, of a little bit—it’s hard to me to say, but—unease because it seemed as if it was a little rearrangement of the institution. I don’t know if there hadn’t been a lot of new people joining in previous years, but it seems like there’s just a lot of new people there, drawing from a wide range of places, scientists. Not all of them clearly do research on gender, women, and sexuality. Some of us are peripherally—like, it’s a secondary research project, or it’s a different kind of research. There’s stuff on men and masculinity. It’s also from, like I’d said, biology, but also a broader range of disciplines, so not as humanistic in its approach.
It’s an interesting shift because I think that the primary teaching that goes on in that department, in the institute, happens through the history/humanistic people, but the people who are making up the—like, I’ve never taught a course that was cross-listed with IRWGS. I suspect I’m not totally unique in that way. It’s strange, on the one hand, for me to be on the Executive Committee because of my very—what is it that I do for the institute? It’s not totally clear.I think that the bringing in of these new people has brought in new people, but I don’t know how much restructuring there’s been of the overall curriculum and place of the institute. The role that we have to play, I think, is still to be determined in terms of driving the institute forward in the years to come.