Students at Columbia University want high schoolers to ask some hard questions as they consider whether they want to enroll in the Ivy League school next fall.
An activist group called No Red Tape — named for a protest symbol that originated at Columbia in the late 1990s intended to criticize the bureaucracy standing in the way of sexual assault reform — showed up at a prospective student session on Tuesday morning to spark a conversation about the way their school handles rape cases.
At the event, No Red Tape distributed a letter to the prospective students in attendance, encouraging them to ask college officials specific questions about what the school is currently doing to combat rape culture.
“As prospective students, we know you care about attending a college which prioritizes your safety,” the letter states. “We need your help to hold all colleges accountable, and urge you to demand information from Columbia and other schools you visit about what they are doing to keep students safe and address gender-based violence on campus.”
Although Columbia University recently unveiled a new “sexual respect education program” that will be mandatory for students, the activists involved in No Red Tape don’t believe it goes far enough. They say that administrators neglected to consider student feedback when designing the new program, which gives students different options — like submitting reflection pieces about a TED talk or attending a one-hour workshop — to fulfill the education requirement.
Michela Weihl, a student at Columbia’s sister school Barnard and one of the No Red Tape organizers, told ThinkProgress via email that “it has become abundantly clear to us that the issue they truly care about is one of public relations, not student safety.”
No Red Tape suggests that parents and teens could ask for more information regarding the school’s current consent and rape prevention education programs by inquiring, “Columbia raises millions of dollars each year and currently has a $9 billion endowment. Why can’t Columbia afford to pay trained professionals to develop and lead ongoing, mandatory prevention education workshops?”
For prospective students who have concerns about the temporary suspensions handed out to students found guilty of rape, the letter suggests asking, “Why does Columbia want rapists to remain on campus?”
Another suggestion is simply to ask, “Will I be safe on this campus?”
Last year, a group of 23 Columbia students filed a federal complaint accusing their university of mishandling rape cases. Since then, the university has been at the forefront of student activism regarding sexual assault.
Frustrated by what they perceived as lack of action from university administrators, students have taken matters into their own hands. Over the past year, activists scrawled the names of accused rapists on bathroom walls and hung red tape around the campus. No Red Tape has repeatedly attempted to protest prospective student events. And senior Emma Sulkowicz has made national headlines for her thesis project in performing arts, which involves carrying her mattress — where she says she was raped — as long as her alleged assailant remains enrolled at Columbia.
Columbia University’s president, meanwhile, has resisted allegations that the school isn’t doing enough to improve its policies in this area. Last October, he penned an op-ed in the New Republic pledging to “sustain the effort to make our campuses safer over the long term and to encourage and train students to contribute thoughtfully to these changes in their own communities.”
Outside of Columbia, there’s been a lot of conversation about what role prospective students might play in the ongoing push back to the way colleges are approaching issues of sexual violence.
Last spring, the feminist group UltraViolet ran ads warning prospective students against enrolling in several prominent schools under federal investigation for allegedly mishandling rape cases. The idea is that, if more high schoolers grow concerned about these issues, schools may see their admissions numbers take a hit — something that could spur school administrators to improve their policies. Anecdotally, after Dartmouth College was plagued with sexual assault controversies over the past year, the applications to the prestigious New Hampshire school dropped 14 percent.
Along the same lines, advocates have also been pushing to update college ranking systems to include more information about sexual assault, arguing that every prospective college student deserves to know whether their future schools are safe. Some school officials actually share that position, too. One recent poll found that 61 percent of admissions officers believe that information about rape policies should be included in the influential U.S. News & World Report rankings.
“Finding out what colleges are proactively doing to end sexual and dating violence on their campuses is an important part of figuring out which college is the best choice for your future,” concludes No Red Tape’s letter to prospective Columbia students.