Content Warning: This article discusses gender-based violence, which includes but is not limited to sexual violence.
Engaging in student activism was not part of my plan in 2019, but like many others, to stay calm was to ignore the horror and anger caused by the new interim sexual assault and misconduct policy. This policy, among other things, allowed direct cross-examination on survivors who came forward. Despite the outcry, the University of Michigan did not change its procedure, insisting to wait for former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ new regulations to come out. The University’s position drifted with the unstable political climate and in turn, allowed survivors of sexual violence to be re-traumatized through this interim policy.
Administrators claim that they “take allegations of sexual misconduct very seriously.” The words seem clear: “Sexual misconduct will not be tolerated in the University of Michigan community.” However, in the past two years, it is hard to count on one hand the times when high-profile cases on campus arose. The U-M administration has made its stance well known through words and statements, but how has institutional change truly been implemented so far?
To look at that, we need to understand that sexual assault is about power and control. The University, as an institution, exerts institutional power that ostracizes survivors through inadequate responses to sexual misconduct reports, resulting in institutional betrayal. This pattern has been exemplified through high-profile cases at the University such as those surrounding Robert Anderson, Martin Philbert and David Daniels, to name a few. Institutional betrayal created a mass of known perpetrators spreading across schools and departments, including the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Michigan Athletics, Michigan Medicine and the Office of Institutional Equality itself — a place to which everyone is told to go if an incident occurs. Meanwhile, campus organizers witnessed an apparent disconnect between the administrators and the people whom the policy directly impacted. Consistent among the headlines is that the University knows of perpetrators at the institution but continuously fails to act promptly and comprehensively, both in retrospect and in foresight.
To “act” would be a series of steps toward justice, which includes both individually and systemically addressing where the failure occurred, and rethinking and transforming the institutional structures and power relations that enabled harm. In the class-action lawsuit against Anderson, a former U-M athletic doctor, the fact that the abuse occurred years ago is not an excuse for “fractional justice (and) no change.”
Appropriate action extends beyond providing verbal support. It includes adopting institutional courage, which means cherishing the whistleblower, creating a culture of transparency and using institutional power to protect community members, not assaulters. Despite the long-standing myths of false reports ruining one’s life, “the alleged” seldom face expulsion from the University, as reflected by OIE’s Annual Report in 2016, 2017 and 2018. In the workplace, three out of four sexual misconduct cases go unreported, and over 60% of people who committed sexual assault are repeat offenders. This reality played out in Philbert’s rise in the ranks, despite years of rumors, and Anderson’s decades of abuse, which harmed hundreds of students.
Statistics and numbers numb me, as do all of the released “official statements.” Actions, not words, are the true criterion of our community values. While protecting survivors is solely treated as a checkbox to maintain federal funding and reputation, the campus climate will not improve. When the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals discouraged personal confrontation in 2018 — recommending agents, not students themselves, to conduct cross-examination — but the University’s interim policy still maintained that it would not provide representatives for students who need them, we ask, how could we count on the procedure to be trauma-informed? When a professor who had been accused of sexual misconduct was appointed to teach a large course in the upcoming semester without considering the community, we ask, what has the University learned from the WilmerHale report that was released not long ago?
Sexual violence is conceptualized as a mechanism of inequality that is made more effective by the act of silencing. Survivor advocates have long been speaking out for the need to listen to the survivors and center their voices in policies. Regardless of the political climate, it is the right thing for college administrators to move beyond what the Office of Civil Rights offers as guidance, provide legal and counseling support, continue conducting climate surveys and, most critically, read and process community responses with rigorous standards and care. Providing a website will make reporting more accessible, but every report should be treated with the weight a survivor carries when coming forward. To eradicate sexual assault on campus, the University needs to invest more in education — specifically, using the right intervention approach that is backed by research.
Furthermore, we cannot rely on institutions alone to resolve gender-based violence. I am weary of the lengthy process for both the Office of Civil Rights and the University to change their rulings and policies on gender-based violence, despite all good intentions. Institutions can make us feel demoralized with their alienating policies and political jargon. As community members, however, we hold power in ourselves. For instance, we can be proactive and responsible bystanders. Every one of us needs to come together and engage in authentic discussions on what fair accountability mechanisms look like, with survivors’ voices at the center. We must think critically about the future we want to build together, to transform the current system that enables injustice on our campus and beyond.
Building trust is a necessary step before restoring peace. The work does not stop until survivors’ needs are met and a truly inclusive community is created, and we will persist. To my dear friend and ally, Josie Graham: Thank you for signing onto the Anderson suit and moving this arduous process forward. For all survivors, including the survivors coming forward and pursuing justice: Thank you for your braveness. We are pushing beyond a paper statement and fighting with you.
Ceciel Zhong is a sophomore dual-degree student in the School of Information and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.