The campus conversation about the Sigma Chi email and the work being done in response to it continued at William & Mary on Saturday with a “teach-in” attended by more than 120 faculty, staff, administrators and students.
The event, spurred by a sexist email recently penned by a student and sent to a fraternity listserv, was organized by faculty members Leisa Meyer and Jennifer Putzi. It followed a Feb. 4 town hall meeting and the distribution of an open letter to the campus community written by Putzi, assistant professor of English and gender, sexuality and women’s studies.
“The point of the teach-in was to continue the conversation about and attention to the current campus climate, and the ways in which the violently misogynist Sigma Chi email was in many ways an exemplar of this climate – not ‘atypical’ of it,” said Meyer, associate professor of American studies, history, and gender, sexuality and women’s studies and chair of the Lyon Gardiner Tyler Department of History. “With that premise, how do we work to move (as President Reveley argued) from a moment where we say this kind of misogynist statement is ‘unacceptable’ to a moment and a climate within which that statement is unimaginable – i.e., it would simply never be written? The teach-in was a first step in that move to change the climate on campus and challenge the rape culture in which the email participated.”
Students, faculty, staff and administrators participated in the event, which began with a gathering in the Sadler Center’s Tidewater Rooms before breaking into concurrent sessions in locations across campus. Those break-out sessions were taught by faculty, administrators and students and included topics ranging from hate speech, the university’s sexual assault response protocol and the International Violence Against Women Act to anti-LGBTQ violence and bystander intervention. The event culminated with a session titled, “The campus activist’s toolkit,” led by Margie Cook, assistant director of the Center for Student Diversity.
President Taylor Reveley spoke at the beginning of the teach-in, noting four goals. First, everyone at William & Mary should be safe and feel that they are safe, he said. Additionally, they should be respected and feel that they are respected. Third, the campus climate should be such that the idea of ever sending an email like that would not even come up.
“We need to be in a situation here where nobody would even think about sending a message of the sort that was sent, just not even think about it,” Reveley said. “No matter what the motivation of the message or how small the group to which the message was sent -- just because of the nature of our community, wouldn’t even think about it.”
Finally, the president said, if someone is sexually assaulted, they should be able to feel free to seek redress and know where to go for help.
“I think at William & Mary … we already do put and have put a great deal of emphasis on the four areas I just mentioned, but it’s clear that we have work to do -- a lot of work to do -- and if there was anything useful about this message, it was a catalyst for getting on with recognizing we have more to do and taking actual, practical steps to that end,” he said.
The institution is responding by making clear what is already in place and by taking additional steps, Reveley said. However, two types of responses are required, he noted: an institutional response and one by peers.
“I think unless we are all in this together, we won’t make a whole lot of progress,” he said. “I do think we’re all in this together, and I do think in these areas William & Mary can really be a model for U.S. colleges and universities because we are a relatively small, very smart, very close-knit and mutually supportive community, so we have the potential to do it, but obviously, we have a lot of work to do.”
Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler outlined the work that she and her staff members have been doing and would continue to do, including crafting and enforcing policy and allocating resources to such efforts as the peer educator program.
They have also been meeting with students individually and supporting events like the town hall meeting in order to identify concerns and discern ways that they might address them.
Student Affairs staff members – including Health Promotion Specialist Eric Garrison and Senior Assistant Dean of Students Donna Haygood-Jackson – also work with students on a regular basis, educating them about the complicated issues surrounding sexual misconduct. Additionally, the staff members continuously strive to further their own education. For example, 11 Student Affairs staff members from W&M attended last week’s national summit on sexual misconduct on college campuses, held at the University of Virginia.
Ambler also noted that some of the work they do goes unseen. For instance, they recently worked with the university’s government relations office to help fight proposed legislation that would create a poor climate for sexual assault survivors to make reports.
Learning about the Sigma Chi email, Ambler said, was “heartbreaking” for her, knowing the deep pain it would cause to the community. She also thought about her professional staff who work tirelessly to educate around these issues. However, now they are “moving through the heartbreak to see that this is a really important moment for renewed and expanded commitment.”
“We all have a role to play,” she said. “The administration clearly has a role to play.”
The teach-in came a little more than a week after the initial town hall meeting was held, which was attended by more than 700 people. However, both events weren’t really about the email itself, “but what’s behind it,” said Provost Michael R. Halleran.
“I think that’s the challenge,” Halleran said. “If it were simply an individual, a single incident of this message, again it would be ugly … but it does reflect larger issues on campus and, of course, in our society.”
Halleran attended the teach-in to “listen and learn,” he said.
“And I hope all of us – no matter our position at the institution – will come away not just with a sense of being emboldened to take action but also a sense of what are the things that we can do,” he said.
As the teach-in came to a close, Meyer reminded participants that it was really “just the beginning.” Another teach-in is being planned for late March or early April, and a Blackboard site has been set up so that the discussions begun at the event can be continued.
Meyer said that she was delighted that so many members of the university’s upper administration attended the educational forum.
“Even more vital in my view was the attendance of a significant number of students including those who have been working on these issues for a very long time as well as the Inter-Fraternity Council president, Alex Greenspan, and a number of fraternity and sorority members many of whom also stayed for the entire event,” she said.
Meyer was also “deeply heartened” by the faculty turnout for the event, with professors from departments including physics, history, modern languages and literatures, English, math, biology, psychology, American studies, Africana studies, linguistics, and gender, sexuality and women’s studies all in attendance.“The bottom line is that this is a wonderful start to the work that must continue if we are going to be successful in changing the climate of our campus and turning the College into a space where everyone is and feels welcome and, most importantly, where everyone feels and is safe,” she said.