A recent University task force on campus culture and sexual assault finally released a list of recommendations on Wednesday, but with one important issue seemingly excluded: sexual assault. Given that it was originally formed in response to the OZ email — that was accused of propagating rape culture on campus — one might have guessed that the task force would have addressed, or at the very least mentioned, the pervasive problem of sexual violence. Instead the primary focus was on creating a system to register off-campus groups with the University and thereby ensure that they follow Penn’s anti‐hazing and alcohol policies.
Ultimately the recommendations seem indicative of a university that is more concerned with regulating off-campus groups than combatting the sexism that has become associated with these groups. This lack of focus on the issue of misogyny is likely disappointing to many, especially since the task force was charged with “Fostering a campus climate free of sexual harassment, sexual violence, alcohol and other substance abuse ... ”
But perhaps the lesson here is not that the administration isn’t doing enough to change campus culture but rather that it shouldn’t be relied on to do so in the first place. It was only because of the initiative of a few students that the OZ email became a campus-wide issue. And I’d argue that for any attempt at reforming campus culture to be successful it has to be similarly student-driven.
There is, of course, nothing misguided about calling on the administration to hold those who commit sexual assault accountable and support survivors — history has shown the tragedy that ensues if it fails to do so. But when it comes to combatting the underlying culture of misogyny that generates assaults, there’s only so much that a top-down approach can accomplish.
When the administration gets involved in tackling a campus issue, its presence can often be seen as overbearing. Administrators view problems as stemming from a lack of oversight and therefore believe that the solution is to expand University purview. But just as the strict drinking policies in campus dorms motivate freshmen to seek out off-campus parties, so too will increased regulations only enhance the incentive to skirt University supervision.
Many of the recommendations put forth by the task force seem designed to breach the divide between what constitutes on- and off-campus and thereby extend the University’s influence. They include creating an “Identified Off-Campus Group” category for organizations like OZ and coordinating with landlords to better regulate their behavior. It’s hard to imagine why any off-campus group would voluntarily subject their conduct to outside supervision, but we can easily envision the backlash that would ensue if they were made to do so.
Not only would these recommendations, if implemented, be widely unpopular it’s also unclear how effective they would be in deterring sexual assault. Holding off-campus fraternities to on-campus standards would only alleviate the issue if they were the sole perpetrator. The underlying issue is not simply the copious amounts of drinking or the unsanctioned parties but rather a culture that made the OZ email seem acceptable.
Tackling this issue requires an approach grounded more in student action than paternalism. It demands a conscious effort by every individual to own up to the ways in which they contribute to the overall culture.
I’m sure there are many students, even those involved in Greek life, who would admit that there are sexist aspects to the average frat party. But for those enveloped in these institutions, it’s easy to envision oneself as a passive actor, riding the tide but not starting the wave.
In order for fraternities to stay competitive and provide an attractive atmosphere for recruits — the thinking goes — they need to enact a ratio at their parties. And in order for freshman boys to enter those parties they need to use their female friends like currency, a payment for the toll. We can tell ourselves that these behaviors don’t define us, that they’re just a product of the status quo. But the bottom line is that these actions, whether we intend them to or not, feed into the same culture that produced the OZ email. They should not be overlooked.
As far as the administration is concerned the most useful approach would be facilitating change rather than trying to force it. Two of the task force’s recommendations — the creation of Peer Mediation Programs and a Chief Diversity Officer — seem like prime examples of the role the administration can play in influencing campus culture.
It’s not wrong to expect the administration to assist in reforming our campus climate. But true change will require students to be at the helm.
CAMERON DICHTER is a College junior from Philadelphia, studying English. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Real Talk” usually appears every other Monday.
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