Town Hall Meeting to Discuss Sexual Assault

Lee Pelton, President, Emerson College
Culter Majestic Theater
October 21, 2013

As prepared for delivery.

As we gather here today, October 21, I ask the Emerson community to honor the memory of former student Victoria Snelgrove with a brief moment of silence. Tori, a native of East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, was a junior majoring in journalism here at Emerson when on this date nine years ago, she was tragically taken from us during a celebration of the 2004 Red Sox winning the ALCS gone terribly wrong. Please join me in a moment of silence in remembrance of Tori.

Thank you for gathering with me today in this setting and at this hour. It is a visible demonstration of your commitment to the College that we love, to seek to work together with honesty and candor, to reaffirm and renew the precious values that undergird our commonwealth of learning.

I am not here to talk to you about specific allegations of sexual assault on our campus, allegations that are best resolved in other settings where facts may be properly discovered and ascertained.

But rather I am here to tell you why this issue is so important to who we are and what we stand for as an institution of higher learning.

Emerson is foremost an academic institution with a distinctive educational mission. And while Emerson will prepare our students for lives of meaningful work, it should also prepare them to be good citizens – so that in their life after Emerson, to the paraphrase an Ancient philosopher, they become not only fit company for others, but for themselves as well.

Sexual assault and sexual misconduct subvert and weaken our educational mission, both in and outside the classroom. They disrupt our academic purposes by undermining the ability of students to perform and achieve at the highest level. And they are destructive, damaging the lives of young people who work, live and study at our College.

This is why the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said "when students suffer sexual assault and harassment, they are deprived of equal and free access to an education."

This is why the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, in an April 2011 letter to colleges and universities, said that "the sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination…” and therefore, such behavior falls within the purview of Title IX provisions, which, in turn, states that any college or university receiving federal funding shall not discriminate on the basis of sex.

Sexual assault occurs too often on American college and university campuses and as a result, it has done immeasurable harm to students here and elsewhere, while eroding our capacity to function as a learning community devoted to academic excellence.  Engaged student learning as well as high-level intellectual and creative achievement are measurably diminished when sexual assault and other forms of hurtful behavior persist.

As you probably know, Emerson is only one of several colleges and universities—including Yale, Swarthmore, University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), Dartmouth, UC Berkeley, and the University of Southern California—whose responses to sexual assault have been challenged as not meeting certain provisions of Title IX. I am certain that we are likely to see more of these complaints filed across the country as one way to raise awareness and deepen concern about this very important issue.

I met with a group of students in the spring to discuss ways that Emerson might improve and strengthen the College’s response to allegations of sexual assault.  These conversations were useful and led to constructive progress, which built on a number of education and awareness programs already in place at Emerson.

I listed these programs in my recent letter to community, though I wish to highlight a few of them today:

The new Creating a Culture of Consent program will provide valuable information related to the prevention of sexual assault as well as options and resources for survivors of sexual assault.

The Sexual Assault Survivor Advocate (SASA) program will create a campus-based advocacy group to provide more effective response, support and guidance for students who report a sexual assault.

I also announced last week that the College would begin immediately to recruit and hire a Sexual Assault Advocate, who will provide advocacy and support for students who have experienced sexual assault as well as oversee the College's programs to respond to and prevent sexual assault. The job description for this position is nearly completed and will be posted soon.

The College has not been given a copy of the OCR Title IX complaint mentioned in media reports; and it is not clear if and when we will receive a copy.

Nevertheless, the allegations reported in the media are serious and deserve a serious response. Therefore, pending approval by the Board of Trustees, I plan to authorize a comprehensive review of the College’s policies, procedures, and practices related to Title IX and related laws by a team of experienced independent and external reviewers. The purpose of the external review will be to see if we are in fact in compliance or whether changes must be made.  The independent reviewers will also work with the internal team co-chair by Dr. Sylvia Spears and Professor Lori Beth Way that I announced last week. Its focus will be on reviewing the College’s current prevention, education, and training programs, as well as the advocacy and support services for students who report they have been subjected to sexual misconduct for consistency with best practices.

I am both pleased and confident of the very positive and promising work that we have done already. Despite the effectiveness of our efforts in this area, I have pledged to do more.

And we will.

Show me an organization that says it does not need to improve and I will show you an organization that will never improve.

Recently, I’ve been asked, why, in the wake of new educational and awareness programs put into place this last year, have we seen an increase in reports of sexual assault at Emerson. The answer is easy: we have begun the process of creating a safer environment for students to report allegations of sexual assaults, incidents that we know from credible data are grossly underreported. 

Light, not darkness, will always show us the way.

As the tides of change in these important matters roll on shore and across the nation, Emerson will do what it does best: we will be a agent of change, we will be a leader, we will be part of the solution.  We will provide a way forward for improving safety and giving voice to an issue that remains—even after years of discussion and good will here and elsewhere – a serious problem at the country’s colleges and universities and while learning from others, we will have the courage to make an honest appraisal of our own weaknesses and strengths so as to improve and grow in goodness and truth.

I stand with Robert Kennedy, who said famously:

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a [person] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

I am idealist. I believe in the power of individual acts of courage, beginning with honest self-reflection, to bring about real and lasting change. 

No doubt, the issue that brings us here today—in hope and expectation for a new way of being—is enormously complex.  It involves deep, archetypal human emotions in league - in many instances -with assertions of unacknowledged power and privilege.  For those of us, who have borne witness to the hurt it has caused and the decades-old efforts to curb its influence on our college and university’s campuses, we continue to work for resolution. 

I know this: all of us—faculty, students and staff—are implicated in this issue. All of us have an opportunity—perhaps, even a duty—to become, as I said earlier, a part of the solution.

So, let us—all of us—on this day and in this setting pledge to become a part of the solution, to make a new beginning, a new beginning that is within our reach, if only we have the courage to accept it with purpose and determination.

So much is at stake.

Thank you and good cheer.

Lee Pelton

See Town Hall Remarks from Lori Beth Way, Senior Advisor, Academic Affairs »