The University should listen to survivors of sexual assault


COURTESY OF LILI BERNARD Over two years ago, Cosby survivor and actress Lili Bernard met with members of SARU.

The Board of Trustees defended their decision to wait until last Thursday to revoke Bill Cosby’s honorary degree by claiming to respect due process. 

But this was never a question of guilty or not guilty in a court of law. This was about listening to a survivor’s story, understanding the courage it took to tell it and acting on that understanding, swiftly and decisively. Their failure to recognize that shows that they are not listening to what survivors of sexual assault at Hopkins are telling them. 

In 2015, members of our organization, the Sexual Assault Resource Unit (SARU), sat in the room with Lili Bernard, a Hopkins parent and a Cosby survivor. 

She shared her personal account with administrators of being drugged, raped and threatened by Cosby. Then, for over two years, we waited. 

We organized campaigns, collected signatures and followed up often with the administrators. We waited while many of our peer institutions revoked Cosby’s honorary degrees. All the while, the University met us with silence, a blatant show of disregard for the courage it took for Lili to come forward.

We waited for our University to take a simple action which sends a strong message of support for survivors. Hopkins had little to lose, and the trust of Lili, ourselves and all survivors of sexual assault were at stake. 

While we celebrate that the University has finally revoked Cosby’s degree, we confront the reality that Lili’s testimony and our voices meant nothing to them.

The University claims to care about ending sexual violence while ignoring the voices of student survivors who are shouting solutions. We have watched as our previous co-directors and members of SARU created and staffed their own resources to prevent sexual violence and help survivors on our campus heal because the resources were not there. 

Our University has relied on student survivors and activists to continue to do the courageous and emotional labor of supporting other students on this campus. Why are those students, who perform such essential work for the Hopkins community, so often met with closed doors from upper levels of administration?

Last semester, SARU created an open letter with over 800 signatures, asking University President Ronald J. Daniels to publicly affirm the University’s commitment to upholding the protections listed in the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter. 

Not only did Daniels ignore our emails requesting to meet with him, but he also handed it off to the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE), even though we made it clear that the lack of a strong statement from him was a significant barrier to reporting. 

We met with several members of the administration, many of whom voiced personal support for our demands but expressed that their hands were tied by the institution. The conversation stopped there.

The public affirmation came late — from the Office of the Provost rather than Daniels — and only after months of meetings and dead ends. 

Like with the Cosby degree, our request was simple and easy to address. Yet survivors on campus were forced to wait for months to hear from their University, unsure of what protections they still had.

It is impossible to express how frustrating the refusal of the administration to engage with us is without expressing the effect this work has on us. Our institution’s refusal to be proactive in meeting the needs of survivors means that we have to take on more of their responsibilities. 

This means taking students to OIE, guiding them through the reporting process and also being there for the times the reporting process fails them. This means providing one of the only safe spaces and confidential audiences on campus for students to disclose. It means living and reliving trauma. 

We personally have suffered vicarious trauma from the work that we do. We have had strong psychological and physiological responses to it and have needed to seek therapy to heal from our own trauma while being constantly exposed to that of students around us. 

We feel privileged to have earned the trust of survivors to support and advocate for them. But in order for us to be effective in the work we are so passionate about, we need the University to actively respond to our concerns and support us.

All we ask is that our institution understands that we are the ones doing this work. We want the University to engage with us, listen to us and implement the solutions we are asking for. 

We are living the experiences of student survivors on this campus. We are using the available resources. We know what works and what doesn’t. And we are knocking on your doors.

Dani Pitkoff is a senior from Pound Ridge, N.Y. with a major in Writing Seminars. She is currently co-director of SARU.

Mayuri Viswanathan is a junior from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. and the other co-director of SARU. She is a double major in Neuroscience and Political Science.

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