Hundreds of Columbia grad students protest mandatory sex assault education program

Kaitlyn Schallhorn
Former Reporter

  • More than 450 graduate students signed a letter of noncompliance in protest of Columbia’s mandatory sexual respect education program.
  • The students have multiple complaints about the program, including the lack of a clear purpose, privacy concerns, and ignoring issues students have concerns about.
  • The program was to be completed by mid-March by all undergraduate and graduate students in order to register for classes or graduate.
  • More than 450 graduate students at Columbia University have signed a letter boycotting the school’s mandatory sexual respect education program.

    As previously reported by Campus Reform, the Ivy League school in New York City unveiled a new sexual respect education program mandatory for all students. Students were required to participate in one of five options—including creating a poem or dance—by March 13 in order to register for classes or graduate.

    "I was so moved and excited by what they had written that I ignored the fact that you had to be a grad student to sign."   

    But hundreds of Columbia graduate students, several of whom are also teaching assistants and required to formally report incidents of sexual assault or abuse they discover, decided to send a “ letter of noncompliance” to the school’s administration, claiming the policy failed to address students’ concerns and questions, according to the Columbia Daily Spectator, the school’s student newspaper.

    While some students claimed that the policy did not have a clear purpose, Andrea Crow, and English and comparative literature Ph.D. student, told the Spectator that the program’s language merely ignored the issue.


    “It [the requirement] didn’t seem to address any of the questions anyone had been asking them to address,” Crow told the Spectator. “The problem isn’t that people don’t know how to sexually assault each other. The problem is that people think they can get away with it, or are allowed to get away with it when they do.”

    The student newspaper reported that some of the students who signed onto the letter of noncompliance did in fact complete the program, but agreed with the signees’ sentiments.

    “The people who signed on are not lazy or evading the issue. It’s not that they’re not complying with the requirement because they just don’t want to do something,” Alix Rule, a sociology Ph.D. student told the Spectator. “[Administrators] should regard our nonparticipation as the conscientious expression of our position on the institutional handling of the issue of sexual assault. We’re disappointed.”

    Rule also helped to draft the open letter to Columbia’s administration.

    “The required Sexual Respect activities remove the burden and the responsibility for immediate reform from the administration and place it back onto the student body,” the open letter to Columbia’s administration said. “The administration has yet to frankly acknowledge or apologize for its failures toward victims of sexual violence on campus—failures for which the university is under federal investigation. The content of the mandated workshops, films, and “arts options” are sorely inadequate to address these failures.”

    “In brief, the institutional goals driving these activities have not been made clear, nor have the desired outcomes of our participation,” the letter continued. “We thus fear that in instituting these as mandatory activities, the real priority of the university administration is to protect its reputation and limit its exposure to legal liability, not to ensure the welfare of its students.”

    The Spectator also reported that two undergraduate students signed the letter.

    Cami Quarta and Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia senior who gained national attention as she carried her mattress around to protest the school’s handling of her alleged sexual assault, both signed the letter. According to the Spectator, Quarta and Sulkowicz both signed a federal Title IX complaint against Columbia and Barnard—the school’s all-women’s affiliate—last year.

    “I was so moved and excited by what they had written that I ignored the fact that you had to be a grad student to sign,” Sulkowicz told the Spectator. “I put my name down to show them that I'd read it and they had my support.”

    Although Barnard was instrumental in the developments and discussions leading up to the implementation of the sexual respect education program, Campus Reform previously reported that the women had already decided to decline participation in the program.

    According to the students’ Tumblr account on Friday, the graduate students have invited any of the Columbia community to sign onto the noncompliance letter and “to call on the university to make itself accountable for its systemic failures in responding to allegations of sexual violence”—not just graduate students.

    Executive Vice President for University Life Suzanne Goldberg responded in an email to the graduate students’ open letter which has been posted on the Tumblr account We Do Not Comply.

    “The content of every option was designed with all students, including graduate students, in mind,” Goldberg wrote in the email.

    “I have been impressed, as well, by the work of some graduate students who took their concerns about the existing offerings and acted to create something—either on their own or with faculty—that they thought would be a better fit for their own roles as teaching assistants and lecturers,” Goldberg continued. “At a minimum, every graduate student who teaches should certainly want to fulfill the Initiative’s requirement of visiting the Sexual Respect website and learning about resources to share with students who identify themselves as needing assistance.”

    Goldberg stressed that she would meet personally with concerned students and that she noted that future workshops should include more education for graduate students on the reporting sexual assault process.

    Meanwhile, a group of Columbia graduate students are also seeking union recognition and claim that the university does not “provide adequate teaching training,” according to the Spectator.

    Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @K_Schallhorn





    Kaitlyn Schallhorn

    Kaitlyn Schallhorn

    Former Reporter

    Kaitlyn Schallhorn is a reporter with Campus Reform. Prior to joining Campus Reform, Kaitlyn was a reporter at Red Alert Politics and covered business and restaurants for the Alexandria Times.  

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