Senate to Vote Friday on Sexual Misconduct Policy

By on February 23, 2006

The rallies and petitions from six years ago have long been forgotten. The widespread anger seems to be gone.

The University-wide sexual misconduct policy was due for review in the spring of 2002—a semester before current Columbia seniors set foot on campus. Tomorrow, after four years of delays, postponements, and extensive debate by a task force, it is scheduled to come to a vote by the University Senate.

But on the eve of what could be the most significant senate meeting in recent memory, the tone of the discussion surrounding one of Columbia’s most controversial policies is notably more subdued than it was the last time the senate took up the issue. A series of student town halls have drawn dozens of students to discuss the policy, but an atmosphere of discussion seems to have replaced the protests that characterized the same process in 2000.

When the current policy was proposed in November 1999, student advocates for sexual abuse victims called it “a complete travesty.” The proposal did not allow for student involvement in the disciplinary process and did not establish specific time frames for carrying out each stage of that process, omissions that upset members of several campus groups.

“It was mind-blowing. I just really, profoundly felt that the system had failed us,” said Ashley Burczak, BC ’00 and the co-coordinator of a group called Students Active for Ending Rape, or SAFER.

After several town hall meetings, protests, and debates within student councils, a modified version of the policy passed through the senate in February 2000. A number of key amendments made it into the final version, leading Burczak to call it “the best policy in America.”

Among other changes, the senate approved a clause stipulating that the policy would be reviewed within two years.

But as soon as the policy gained the support of Burczak and other activists, it began to draw fire from another group of people: those who thought it did not provide for due process for the accused. The disciplinary procedures do not permit an accused student to have a lawyer present at his hearing, face his accuser, or cross-examine witnesses.

Objections that started with two senators quickly reached the national media. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a watchdog group for issues of academic freedom, called for the University to revoke the policy, and the Wall Street Journal lambasted it in a widely publicized editorial.

“It is a policy that mirrors an ominously increasing tendency to devalue due process in the interest of a select category of entitled victims,” the paper wrote.

Within a few months, the controversy had died down, but it never disappeared. The Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Education, which was created by the 2000 policy, went through four directors in a little over three years. The last of those directors, Misumbo Byrd, resigned three weeks after calling on the senate to “rescue the office that you created from a slow and steady death.”

Instead, the University eliminated the office altogether, replacing it with the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Program. That office, headed by Maura Bairley, remains in existence today.

A senate task force began studying the policy in the fall of 2003, and dozens of students have commented on it through town hall and student council meetings in the last several months. Many of those students will be at tomorrow’s meeting to ensure their varied interests are represented.

Whether rekindling the discussion will rekindle the anger remains to be seen.

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Schools: Columbia University