Last Friday, President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price emailed Penn faculty, students and staff to announce the creation of a new task force charged with combating sexual harassment and sexual violence.
In the email sent out at 5:22 p.m. on Friday night, Gutmann and Price explained that the goal of the entity is to focus “collective attention and understanding on how best to promote a respectful and healthy campus environment and 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 [off campus] groups.”
While we commend University efforts, we believe that creating yet another task force, this time to target off-campus organizations, is not the sole answer. The email from Gutmann and Price fails to acknowledge the real problem, a problem far greater than the existence of off-campus groups: a toxic rape culture which permeates all of campus, both east and west of the 40th Street line.
We believe that all Penn students, regardless of their campus involvement, should be held accountable for violations of University policy to the maximum degree permitted. The problem does not stem from the existence of these off-campus groups. However, this is not to say that sexual violence and unaccountability are not problems within the off-campus scene.
The email makes it seem like groups which operate within University policy are always compliant with all of the University’s rules and regulations. Yet, time and time again we see that these “clearly stated [behavioral] standards” which “violate University policy and would result in sanctions for a recognized student organization” are being violated within the confines of recognized student organizations and Penn’s campus.
We feel that this email uses the issue of rape culture to problematize off-campus organizations — fraternities and female societies. This not only minimizes the reach of rape culture, but it also is a direct insult to the nearly one in three women on this campus who are survivors of sexual assault. We are concerned that the task force conflates sexual harassment and violence with alcohol and substance abuse. Alcohol and substance abuse do not cause rape, and as such, are separate issues that should be separately addressed.
In our time at Penn, the word “task force” has been used often. Recent task forces during our undergraduate careers have focused on fulfilling legal duties and bureaucratizing issues rather than taking into account student input on issues that truly affect our lives. Because of the performance of past task forces, we fear that this one will not prove effective in enacting comprehensive, concrete policies.
We ask for a description of student involvement, a fair selection process and that practical solutions be put into effect. We believe that the involvement of students is a vital element to ending campus rape culture, and thus, we hope that student input will be taken seriously.
As such, we would like to see task force meetings open to all students to ensure that this process is transparent and inclusive of all of our stories and experiences. We urge that students be selected equitably, fairly and without bias, so that all voices can be heard. We acknowledge that though words are important, actions facilitate change.
This cannot be another task force that merely writes a report or holds a series of meetings — it must develop concrete solutions to change our campus culture.
This task force must increase awareness of the rape culture that permeates our campus. It must partner with student groups to educate all of us not only on resources to use AFTER an assault takes place, but how to prevent assaults from happening; and it must take firm action to show that sexual assault and harassment are not just inconveniences, but that they are crimes.
We remain hopeful that this task force will work collaboratively with students, both on and off campus to address a culture of violence that affects so many Penn lives.
Written by Rhea Singh (SAS ‘17), Syra Ortiz-Blanes (SAS '17), Brianna Wronko (SEAS '17) for WE ARE WATCHING
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.