Institutional inertia: (n) an institution at rest remains at rest, until acted upon by the student body
Amanda Odasz remembers the night of Feb. 6, 2017 in near-perfect detail. At 8:31 p.m. that Monday, an unexpected email from Northwestern Chief of Police Bruce Lewis landed in her inbox with a startling subject line: “Security Alert: Sexual Assault and Date Rape Drugs.” Two students said they were drugged and sexually assaulted at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon House; the email noted another student at an unnamed fraternity house had been assaulted and possibly drugged.
“I remember my first thought was basically, ‘Okay, how do I jump into action?’” says Odasz (WCAS ‘17), the former outreach chair of Northwestern’s Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators (SHAPE).
“‘How is SHAPE going to respond to this? And how am I as an individual going to respond to this?’”
She got an answer that night. Weinberg junior and now-SHAPE president Asha Sawhney posted a Facebook status asking if anyone wanted to protest outside of the SAE national headquarters at Levere Memorial Temple, the Gothic stone building that has loomed across the street from South Campus since 1930. Over 200 likes and 90 comments later, she created a Facebook group called “Expel SAE” where people posted ideas and questions for action. Soon after, a group of around 15 people crowded into the Center for Awareness, Response, and Education (CARE) office on the third floor of Searle to start planning the protest.
They came from all parts of campus – Panhellenic Association and Multicultural Greek Council-affiliated people, non-affiliated people, people of color, queer people. They wanted to make the event as inclusive as possible, says Weinberg junior and SHAPE training chair Sophie Spears. The question was how to do it. They didn’t want to protest in the fraternity quad, because survivors might be disturbed by being in that space. They didn’t want to protest in front of the Rock, because they wanted survivors to be able to avoid the protest if they needed to. They talked about including campus police at the risk of alienating groups wary of the police. They talked about what would happen if protestors went into the street, how they would they make sure people could hear the speakers and even who would get the permit from Evanston for amplified sound.
The march came on Friday, four days after Lewis’s email. What began as a handful of students in front of the SAE house swelled to a crowd of hundreds of protesters marching down Sheridan Road brandishing posters and bullhorns. But Odasz, who helped lead the march, realized they’d forgotten to plan what to chant through the megaphone. Then, it came to her: consent. SHAPE training had drilled the definition into her.
“Repeat after me: consent is knowing, active, voluntary, present and ongoing,” Odasz yelled into her bullhorn. Her words echoed back from 300 voices. After a while, she switched to the three things to say to support a survivor: “I believe you! It’s not your fault! You have options!”
“I remember feeling that it was so incredibly powerful to have this huge group of people all affirming these things that are really so important for all of us,” she says.
From there, the chants alternated back and forth – “How I dress does not mean yes!” “Education is a right, fraternities are a privilege!” An occasional “Fuck SAE!” or “Fuck frats!” rose out of part of the crowd, met by nervous laughter. Small clusters of people along Sheridan stopped in their tracks to watch – some fraternity members, some faculty, some whispering nervously. After 20 minutes or so, the throng arrived at its destination: the meadow between East and West Fairchild, across the street from SAE’s national headquarters, where camera crews from local news stations were waiting.
For the next hour, person after person stood up and talked. The same themes echoed: the hollowness of SAE’s “True Gentleman” code of conduct, toxic masculinity and the lack of accountability for perpetrators. Survivors talked about their stories of assault – some for the first time ever – while the audience listened in silence. Speakers urged those who were there to not become apathetic, to keep fighting for change and accountability even if things got difficult.
“College administrators often do a really good job of saying the right thing, but it’s hard to know what they’re actually thinking, if they always believe what they’re saying.”
- Amanda Odasz
But the months that have followed have mostly been a blur of emails, official statements and ultimately, unanswered questions. On March 30, Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin announced in an email to students that the university had closed its investigation into the sexual assault allegations without finding any evidence of wrongdoing. Three weeks later, the university suspended SAE for 17 months for violating its disciplinary probation by throwing parties and serving alcohol to minors. But the student body, apparently, will get no more answers about what happened inside the soon-to-be-vacant fraternity house at 2325 Sheridan Road.
Sexual assault is disturbingly common on college campuses, but the response from Northwestern students and administrators has rarely been so strong. This year’s protests have come at a time when universities have improved education and resources for sexual assault, but students across the country demand more. At Northwestern, students and administrators have clashed over the best path forward: reforming the alcohol policy, improved sexual assault prevention education, additional resources for CARE, and even abolishing Greek life at Northwestern altogether.
The parallels between this year’s uproar and ones that came in the 1990s reveal how little has changed in the past quarter century.At the end of 1991, four months of anti-sexual assault protests and a string of allegations had rattled campus. With these protests came the growing recognition that sexual assaults didn’t just happen in dark alleyways; they could happen in well-lit apartments or dorm rooms with someone you knew.
For the student body, this was a relatively new way of talking about sexual assault and women’s rights. Until this point, publicized police reports of sexual assault painted a specific picture: late-night attacks carried out by strangers in dark alleyways. The reported attackers were frequently Black men from Chicago, sometimes repeat offenders; their race and mugshots were published in Daily Northwestern articles.
Calls for change focused, then, on this specific threat. For example, In the 1970s, the student-organized Women’s Coalition asked the university to install better street lighting, providing self-defense classes for women or providing an escort service for male students to walk female students home from the library late at night. One April 1973 Daily Northwestern article quoted the associate director of Evanston’s public safety department telling women what they should do to avoid being assaulted: stick to well-lit routes, walk in pairs or groups, drive with the doors locked and windows closed and carry things like hatpins or books that they could use as weapons. “No rapist is going to attack you at 1 p.m. on the plaza of the library,” he said. “Rape is a crime of opportunity, so don’t give him the opportunity.”
Today, most administrators and professors understand sexual assault as an expression of power of one over another, most often committed by someone the victim knows. But the debate about rape culture has persisted. Communication professor Laura Kipnis wrote several essays and a book about “sexual paranoia” on college campuses after two Northwestern students filed a Title IX complaint against former philosophy professor Peter Ludlow in 2014. This April she wrote an editorial, “Eyewitness to a Title IX Witch Trial,” which casts down on student’s account of waking up without underwear and later attempting suicide after the night she said Ludlow assaulted her. Following February’s sexual assault announcement, Kipnis also published a letter to the editor in the Daily, in which she argued that “leaping to action is at best a failure of due process, and at worst vigilantism,” suggesting that the allegations might turn out to be untrue.
The way we talk about sexual assault – framing it as a common, peer-to-peer crime, largely committed by acquaintances and friends – isn’t new. In October 1974, School of Education professor Ann Gordon wrote an editorial in the Daily entitled “A feminist look at rape.” When she was an undergraduate, she said, no one referred to sexual assaults that happened in fraternity houses as rapes. Instead, she said, they couched it in softer terms: a man “forced his attentions” on a woman, or “took advantage of the situation.” “Lots of women admit to having been unwilling participants in sexual acts,” she wrote. “Is it too rash then to conclude that lots of men must have forced themselves on women?”
In May 1990, a week after 50 protesters camped in front of the Rebecca Crown Center calling for NU to publicize statistics on sexual assault, the administration issued its first statement outlining its sexual assault policy. In the statement, the university said that that sexual assault was “not only repugnant” but a criminal offense with “no place in a civilized society, let alone in a university community.” The next day, an editorial in the Daily Northwestern called the policy a “weak medicine for a disease that is already rampant on our campus.”
Clearly, that condemnation didn’t end sexual assault on campus. In October 1991, someone scrawled “--- ------ is a rapist. He attends NU. Unite. Fight Back” on bathroom walls, naming a male student who had been criminally prosecuted for sexual assault but then returned to campus after the charges were dropped.
The themes of administrators condemning rape and students, in turn, condemning the university still echo today. In 2017, when the university and SHPO ended the investigation into assaults at SAE, Telles-Irvin wrote in an email to students “As a University we recommit ourselves to education and outreach to increase awareness of these issues, as well as confidence and participation in the reporting and investigation processes” and said the University “strives to create a campus that is safe and secure.”
Now-ASG president and vice president Nehaarika Mulukutla and Rosalie Gambrah criticised the statement in the Daily, saying “This letter exemplifies the continuous lack of meaningful, tangible actions through which the university plans to combat the pervasive culture of sexual assault at Northwestern.”
In November 1991, the Women’s Coalition sent a letter to the provost saying that fraternity brothers threw water balloons and poured cups of beer on Take Back the Night marchers as they went through the fraternity quad in their annual rally against sexual violence. Later that month, a crowd of 200 people gathered one night to protest a calendar circulated by Pi Kappa Alpha featuring sexualized pictures of women, as well as an unofficial newsletter saying that among the “Top 10 Reasons” to have attended the recent Take Back the Night March was “Bitches, man, tons of bitches!”
On Jan. 31, 1992, students marched from the Rock to President Arnold Weber’s office at the Rebecca Crown Center to protest an investigation into anonymous threats sent to the president’s office related to the administration’s handling of sexual assaults. The protesters said that investigators were unfairly targeting students who were vocal about feminist issues.
That might not happen now; feminism is more or less mainstream on college campuses. But the protests haven’t stopped. In March 2014, students planned a sit-in of Peter Ludlow’s “Philosophy of Psychology” class, some wearing tape over their mouths. One hundred of them marched to the Dean of Weinberg’s office, brandishing posters with familiar slogans: “Protect us, not our reputation,” “I believe her”, and “we will not be silenced.”
THE CLERY ACT EXPLAINED
You can thank the Clery Act of 1990 for the security alert email that ended up in your inbox on February 7. Signed by President George H.W. Bush after the rape and murder of college student Jeanne Clery at Lehigh University, the law mandates that universities give their students a timely report of on-campus crime, including sexual assualt. It’s been seven years since administrators last sent a Clery Act-mandated security alert email.
A group of senior administrators, including the Title IX office and the University Police, made the decision to send the most recent email. Telles-Irvin says that because the anonymous calls made to the university were consistent, they felt it was important to alert the community quickly in order to comply with the Act.
There has been change since the 1990s, though. In the 2011-12 school year, Patricia Telles-Irvin spearheaded the creation of the Center for Awareness, Response, and Education (CARE) with a grant from the Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women. When the grant ran out after three years, Northwestern started funding the office with its own budget. Programs like Wildcat Welcome’s True Northwestern Dialogues, formerly known as Essential NUs, educate incoming students about Title IX and Northwestern’s sexual assault policy. For some, it’s the first time they have heard the definition of consent or the how-tos of bystander intervention.
But after students’ first year at Northwestern, there’s no ongoing mandatory education for the entire student body. This can especially pose a problem when policies change, says Paul Ang, the men’s coordinator at CARE. For example, today’s Title IX policies are not the same ones the Classes of 2017 and 2018 learned about during their orientation weeks in 2013 and 2014. These students might not know, for example, that students no longer sit on the investigation panel hearing assault cases, and students who report no longer have to face their assaulters while testifying.
Improving education could be as simple as explaining basic facts about sexual assault resources, Spears says. For example, the Sexual Harassment Prevention Office (SHPO) and the “Title IX” office are one and the same, she says, but most students that she talks to don’t know that. And at a university with a lot of database resources, this frustrates her. “I can find out what classes are being offered next spring in each department if I wanted to, but I can’t figure out what the hell is the difference between the Sexual Harassment Prevention Office and Title IX,” she says.
“So if you think that Title IX is great and students disagree, why exactly do you think it’s appropriate for you to just ignore the opinions of the people you’re supposed to protect?”
- Macs Vinson
Spears says there are things she only learned because she was a member of SHAPE that every student on campus should know. “Before I joined SHAPE, I had absolutely no idea what to say if someone told me they were assaulted,” she says. “Which is a real shame, because I didn’t say the right things when people told me those things freshman year.”
Title IX coordinator Joan Slavin says the small Title IX office has expanded its offerings in response to the SAE allegations. She says that her office has presented to groups of PHA and IFC representatives this Spring Quarter on a slew of topics: information on different kinds of sexual misconduct, consent, options and resources available to survivors and an overview of the reporting process. In January, the office started searching for an outreach and education specialist to develop programming for Greek chapters and the broader Northwestern community. Slavin says she hopes that starting this Fall Quarter the new specialist will hold on-campus drop-in hours to give students better access to their office.
For all of this expansion, Slavin says that her office is fortunate to be well-supported by the university, and that they’ve never had to curtail their efforts because of budget issues. And Telles-Irvin says that administrators from other schools actually call her for ideas for sexual assault-prevention programs. She says Northwestern is better staffed than most other universities.
“Is anything perfect? Absolutely not,” she says. “Are we trying to strive for excellence and make sure we have a healthy process, one we can stand by? I think that’s something we have.”
Mulukutla and Gambrah formally launched their ASG campaign on March 28, a month and a half after the security alert email. Gambrah says that she felt optimistic at first; after all, IFC chapters said they would take action to reform and would cancel all social events in the meantime. Then she heard from friends that fraternities were still throwing parties at off-campus houses. “It’s just like, this was literally thrown under the rug,” Gambrah says. “Nobody cares. It’s a slap on the wrist. It’s forgotten.”
IFC President Rodney Orr says the social pause was supposed to give Greek chapters a chance to step back and figure out how to change their toxic cultures, but “in a community of 1,500 people, not everyone is going to agree on how things should be done.”
“Any implication that ... because some members had social events the entire community therefore doesn’t care about making spaces safer, is a little too much of a generalization,” Orr says. “That potentially hinders the examination of the actual policies that were put in place during the pause, and the current policies – such as the dry house policy – that have created a culture where drinking is forced underground and can’t be talked about publicly until a tragedy happens.”
Mulukutla and Gambrah’s plan to combat sexual assault is two-fold: registering on-campus parties with alcohol with the university and working to make the reporting process “less hostile” to survivors. Mulukutla says she is most passionate about making sure students feel more comfortable reporting. “I do not know a single person who has reported their assault,” she says, “and I know a lot of people who have been assaulted, both male and female.”
But if Mulukutla and Gambrah’s proposals are going to change university policy, they’ll have to be implemented by administrators like Telles-Irvin and Dean of Students Todd Adams. Mulukutla says that the administration is looking to change the alcohol policy so it “promotes harm reduction and safety,” although details remain unclear.
As for the idea that people don’t report sexual assaults, Telles-Irvin points out that students who are assaulted don’t all want the same thing. Because experiencing violence is a loss of power, she says, people will often want to take it back by deciding for themselves how to respond.
Ang and Erin Clark, assistant director of CARE, say that because CARE’s focus is on respecting the wishes of survivors, not all students interact with their office in the same way. They see some students for weeks as they go through the reporting process; other students might come in once to tell them about an incident but not want to report. For administrators to remove perpetrators from campus, though, students must report. “That’s something that’s hard to understand sometimes,” Telles-Irvin says, “because if we don’t have witnesses and evidence in order to press charges, then we can’t do anything.”
But Odasz says there’s a slew of other reasons students might not come forward. For example, students of color might not report because they don’t feel comfortable with institutions that they feel haven’t served their needs. She says she tried to explain this to Telles-Irvin and Adams in a meeting after the SAE allegations, but says it can be hard to communicate to them how little they might know about the reality of party and relationship culture on campus.
“They’re not sitting down with students and having conversations about interpersonal relationships,” Odasz says. “It would be really weird for a Northwestern student to talk with Todd Adams about their sex life.”
Odasz says it was difficult to read Adams and Telles-Irvin in that meeting.
“College administrators often do a really good job of saying the right thing,” she says, “but it’s hard to know what they’re actually thinking, if they always believe what they’re saying.”
Telles-Irvin says she and Adams are sincere. She says she wants to make sure that students feel that their voices are heard, and that she knows a crucial part of that is acting on their concerns. She says she believes that the administration has responded, but knows that students feel frustrated at the slow pace of action. “We are listening,” she says. “It just might not always look that way.”
Former ASG President Christina Cilento remembers the night of February 6 as one of the most frustrating of her life. Following the NU police chief’s security email, Cilento, Vice President Macs Vinson and the ASG executive board debated how to publicly respond as a governing body over their listserv and Slack channel. The next morning, they met to hammer out a statement. Some, including Cilento and Vinson, wanted to take a strong stance against SAE and call for their removal from campus even before the investigation concluded. Others insisted on waiting. They released the final product that night, calling for SAE’s suspension if the investigation confirmed the allegations. Later, when they asked Telles-Irvin about the investigation, she said she couldn’t talk much about it because of confidentiality concerns. According to Cilento and Vinson, Telles-Irvin said the assaults remained unproven and might amount to nothing more than hearsay.
“Some cases are very difficult to determine,” Telles-Irvin says. “It’s one person’s word against the other person’s word.”
Telles-Irvin also told Cilento and Vinson that many parents of SAE members were calling and emailing her to say that their sons felt unsafe on campus. Parents didn’t like how SAE was singled out in the alert email, Telles-Irvin says, and told her that their sons didn’t want to go to class for fear of being harassed. SAE chapter president Manos Proussaloglou did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Cilento thinks administrators might have felt more heat from SAE members’ parents than from student activists protesting sexual assault. And when she and Vinson tried to talk to Telles-Irvin about sexual assault specifically in Greek Life, Cilento says Telles-Irvin would derail the conversation by talking about the larger culture of sexual assault. Cilento says Telles-Irvin presented them with a hypothetical. If someone in ASG, or any student organization, faced sexual assault allegations, would it be fair to kick the whole organization off campus?
“The difference is that it’s not a function of ASG to throw parties in basements,” Vinson says. “When that is literally the function of your organization, obviously you should be held responsible for what happens.”
Among the lessons Cilento and Vinson say they have learned during their time in ASG: the administration doesn’t respond well to petitions. “They hate the word ‘demand,’” Vinson says, then pauses to glance at Cilento. “What avenue of student-driven change do they like?”
“ASG,” Cilento replies. “When it’s convenient for them.”
Through their time on task forces and committees because of ASG, Vinson says, he has come to realize how much he knows about administrators, what they like and dislike, and the nuances of Northwestern’s institutions. Most students don’t know these things, and it can be a trap for activists trying change institutions, he says. When a student raises their frustration with a certain issue at an on-campus community dialogue, Vinson says, administrators often dismiss their concerns by pointing out existing efforts to address the issue.
Neither of them believes this is an adequate response. “It doesn’t matter whether you think this is effective, because the people who it’s for do not believe that,” Vinson says. “So if you think that Title IX is great and students disagree, why exactly do you think it’s appropriate for you to just ignore the opinions of the people you’re supposed to protect?”
If students become jaded about the reporting process, Cilento says she worries the Title IX office will go the way of CAPS. Regardless of CAPS’ actual quality of care, she explains, students lose faith in the institution when they hear about their peers having bad experiences there. “And that’s what’s increasingly happening with Title IX. These cases that people don’t see action on, and they don’t engage in it, and they don’t trust the university,” she says. “It’s really harmful.”
On a cloudy evening on April 27, a throng of students milled around the Rock for this year’s Take Back the Night march. It had been almost three months since the march to the SAE national headquarters, and it was hard to ignore that the crowd this night was much smaller – 100 people, compared to the more than 300 marchers in February.
From the Rock, the marchers walked down Sheridan Road to Kellogg to Norris, alternating between chants of “how I dress does not mean yes” and “hey hey, ho ho, sexual assault has got to go” and carrying banners with slogans like “SUPPORT LGBTQ SURVIVORS.” Some CARE staff trailed in the back, carrying signs saying they stood in solidarity with the students and support survivors.
Before the march, though, Weinberg freshman Adam Davies – an anti-sexual assault activist, a survivor and the keynote speaker for the march – addressed the crowd that had gathered by the Rock. He hadn’t prepared a speech, he says, but he had been readying himself to address fraternity men. But unlike past years, when chapters would show up with banners and signs in support of survivors, they weren’t there. This year, Take Back the Night reached out to IFC but received no response.
Davies said he had been ready to talk to them about toxic masculinity. This year, he wouldn’t have the chance. Only a handful of men had showed up.
Will Fischer contributed reporting.