November 06, 2016
Two months after a group of students at the University of Pennsylvania gained national attention for protesting the school's perceived indifference to "rape culture," the university announced Friday that it will create a new task force to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault.
In an email to Penn faculty, students, parents and staff, university president Amy Gutmann outlined a plan to improve a campus climate denounced by protesters as permissive of sexual degradation.
"Penn has made widespread, concerted efforts to prevent sexual assault and sexual violence on our campus and to create a healthier and safer environment for all members of our community," Gutmann said. "There is always more work to be done."
In early September, members of the unaffiliated Oz fraternity sent a crass email to an undisclosed list of freshman women inviting them to attend a party on condition that they dress in tight clothing and refrain from "teasing" their male counterparts. Days later, a group of female students posted hundreds of fliers on campus that reprinted the email's lewd poetry and proclaimed, "This is what rape culture looks like..."
"An unrecognized, unsupervised underground student group known as OZ, has again highlighted these unaffiliated off-campus groups," Gutmann's email continued. "Groups such as OZ operate outside the University and engage in high-risk behaviors that may be injurious to their members or others, and undermine our collective efforts to create a respectful and healthy environment for all of our students."
More than 900 women on Penn's campus, most of them members of sororities, responded to the September incident by signing a petition condemning those who idly condone the status quo.
Their statement highlighted several studies detailing the risks faced by young women on American college campuses and further suggested the Oz email is indicative of a broader social disconnect over the harmful effects of casual sexism.
To address the "negative influence" of specifically "unaffiliated and unsupervised groups," Gutmann has called on Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum, Vice Provost for Education Beth Winkelstein, and Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush to lead a joint administrative, faculty and student Task Force that will be charged with the following objectives:
• Recommending ways to further strengthen the University’s efforts to foster a campus climate and culture that is free of sexual harassment and sexual violence, alcohol and other substance abuse, and other forms of behavior that may violate Penn’s Code of Student Conduct.
"No matter where you’re affiliated, people should know what types of behaviors are dangerous and unacceptable to their peers." — Amanda Silberling, junior at Penn
• Reviewing Penn policies and protocols to ensure that we are doing all we can to make students aware of their responsibilities under Penn’s Code of Student Conduct
• Ensuring that we are holding students in unaffiliated and unsupervised groups accountable for violations of University policy to the maximum degree permitted
Two of the young women who spearheaded the "We Are Watching" protest told PhillyVoice that while they feel the university has taken the right step, they're concerned about the narrow scope of the task force.
"It’s important to understand that rape culture doesn’t begin and end off campus. It also doesn’t stop with the creation of a task force," said junior Amanda Silberling, one of the campus' most outspoken undergraduates advocating for women's rights. "I’m glad the purpose of it is to acquaint students, faculty and administration to work together, but I’m a little bit wary of the fact that the email was focused mainly on off-campus groups. This can happen to anyone and be perpetrated by anyone. It’s not just off-campus groups and Greek organizations."
Syra Ortiz-Blanes, a senior who also organized the flier activity, shared Silberling's cautious optimism and urged a nuanced approach by the administration.
"I can’t tell how effective it will be until it makes recommendations for new policies," Ortiz-Blanes said. "This is a complex issue in which many things have to be taken into account. Because there is no way to hold people accountable in many situations, this could create a way to do so on and off campus."
Oz never faced any formal repercussions for the email it sent out in September. As an unaffiliated campus group, Penn's Intrafraternity Council lacked the standing to punish them for their behavior, a problem Gutmann acknowledged in her email.
"Our goal in launching this Task Force ... is to ensure that students and their parents and guardians are aware of the high-risk behaviors – many of which violate University policy and would result in sanctions for a recognized student organization – engaged in by these groups," Gutmann said. "Students need to know that those who violate our clearly stated behavior standards will be held accountable for their participation, whether direct or indirect, in actions that harm other members of our community."
But if the university wants to see real change, Silberling said the administration has to take student feedback seriously.
"The more they listen to students, the better the results of the task force will be," Silberling said. "I also think it should treat everyone as members of one Penn community, not members of various peripheral communities."
Crime statistics released last month by Penn's Division of Public Safety prove that the issue of rape isn't limited to off campus groups. The Annual Security and Fire Safety Report, a requirement of the Clery Act since 1990, compiles available data into tables that display recent university trends.
"Many students feel very unheard and helpless and their voices need to be more involved. Students are constantly making their voices heard. The university just needs to listen." — Syra Ortiz-Blanes, senior at Penn
Of the 17 known offenses of forcible rape logged in 2015, 10 were classified as on-campus. Last year's numbers were also an increase over known offenses of forcible rape in 2014 (7) and 2013 (11).
"No matter where you’re affiliated, people should know what types of behaviors are dangerous and unacceptable to their peers," Silberling said.
The task force comes as Penn faces new scrutiny for issues that extend beyond sexual assault. Last week, the tragic death of 22-year-old engineering student Alfredo Abravanel marked the 12th suicide at Penn in less than four years.
Some students have taken this alarming rate into their own hands by forming peer groups — and the university has provided funding — but Silberling said this task force could serve as a model for greater administrative participation in reducing personal risks faced by the undergraduate population.
"I’m hoping this particular task force goes well so that the university sees collaborating with students on policies is the right way to do things," Silberling said. "Penn students are the only ones who know what it’s like to be a Penn student at that moment in time."
A previous university task force to address psychological health and welfare at Penn, reconvened in April after junior Ao "Olivia" Kong took her own life, has yet to publicly present any new findings.
"I think the university has to expand and be a lot more aggressive in relation to its mental health policies," Blanes-Ortiz added. "Many students feel very unheard and helpless and their voices need to be more involved. Students are constantly making their voices heard. The university just needs to listen."