UChicago Student Government Passes Resolution to Support Sexual Assault Survivors

Led by 4th-year College Council Representative Naa Ashitey, the Resolution for Expanding Protections for Sexual Assault Survivors once again brings to light the issue of sexual assault on UChicago’s campus, revealing the deeply rooted nature of the problem of sexual assault.

On February 15, 2021, Student Government at the University of Chicago passed a resolution listing protections to help support sexual assault survivors in the university community. The initiative, led by 4th-year undergraduate student and College Council Representative Naa Ashitey, sought to address a number of systemic problems that contribute to the mistreatment of survivors of sexual misconduct on campus.

Citing a 2019 Campus Climate survey which revealed that sexual misconduct had overall increased from 2015, the new resolution proposes several measures to help foster a campus environment more conducive to supporting and protecting sexual assault survivors. The resolution’s measures contain detailed proposals for institutional reform, including—but not limited to—reformed accountability procedures for University faculty and staff (e.g., suspension) in the case of sexual misconduct allegations, changes to the length of the time period in which protectionary adjustments are made, and an increase in the amount of individualized and group programming made available to sexual assault survivors.

Being productive adjustments to the current University system, the passing of Ashitey’s resolution marks a constructive shift toward helping survivors through their pain and trauma. Taking a step back from appreciating the resolution’s passage in Student Government, this resolution reveals the sheer extent to which the neglect of sexual assault survivors is a deeply institutional problem, leaving survivors of marginalized identities (e.g., racial minorities, LGBTQ+ communities, disabled students) to carry a disproportionately heavy mental and emotional burden.

In an interview with Exploring Race, Ashitey—the primary writer of the resolution—remained frank about the frequency of sexual misconduct on campus, offering a clear-eyed assessment of the issue. “UChicago is a really notorious place for sexual assault,” she said, citing Student Government’s internal issues with handling sexual assault allegations of executive slates, as well as the more recent Title IX lawsuit involving former PhD student Zain Jamshaid. “And it’s not just UChicago—all college campuses are bad places for sexual assault.”

But what exacerbates the consequences stemming from sexual misconduct—and what ultimately makes it more difficult to protect and support survivors—is the mistrust that festers between the University administration and the student body, which, according to Ashitey, is caused by the flippant manner used by administrators to handle the traumatic experiences of survivors.

“To be frank, UChicago students don’t really trust the administration, and marginalized students especially don’t trust the administration because when [they] [speak out on their experiences with sexual misconduct] either [the administration] asks, ‘Where’s the data?’ or they go through the entire process [of filing a report] only to be denied justice [in the end].”

What further intensifies that mistrust—especially for marginalized students—is the fear of retaliatory action. “Regardless of whether retaliation occurs through biased Title IX practices, conflicts of interest on the part of the Office of Disciplinary Action, or an incomplete fact-gathering procedure, [marginalized] students fear retaliation, especially when we think about financial implications,” Ashitey said. Drawing on her own experiences with filing a report of sexual misconduct, Ashitey recalled that she ultimately decided to drop her charges due to uncertainties about whether she could afford the financial burden of legal action.

Fear and mistrust among marginalized survivors of sexual assault often mean that resources designated for them, such as University Title IX Office services, often do not do enough to support or protect them. Alluding to the tendency in higher educational institutions to present a superficial image of safety for people of marginalized identities, Ashitey noted, “[Marginalized students] know that there are resources present, but when [there is] this environment in higher education—especially in [elite] institutions like UChicago—where we see marginalized identities on a brochure but [an actual environment that is not welcoming to them], marginalized students have to do more to maneuver around [those hostilities] in order to find resolve for their traumatic experiences.”

Referring to the resolution, she added, “[I wanted] to remind admin, ‘You have these resources and you think they’re enough, but you need to make sure that students can feel safe enough to come out to report their experiences and know that they will get justice.’”

Difficulties in addressing issues of sexual misconduct are not only limited to the University administration’s treatment of students. Ashitey repeatedly came across challenges during the resolution’s research process, which she thought would disadvantage survivors.

“One of the first things that was really hard about writing this resolution was the information that was available online versus what is actually current and relevant. There were a couple of discrepancies in my research for my resolution, and that [becomes] an issue. This is the same information that a sexual assault survivor would be getting at face-value. I have no idea what it must be like as a survivor going through this whole process—especially during [the pandemic], when the internet is all the information they have—and the information they’re getting might not even be up-to-date or correct.”

In addition to the problem of unreliable information, Ashitey noted that the resolution also faced challenges in the writing process, particularly with regard to hesitancy in using stronger affirmative language.

“There’s still an issue within Student Government around hesitancy for … the language that we’re using to approach issues [like sexual misconduct]. For example, changing words in the resolution from ‘must’ to ‘should’: I said, ‘We need to keep the ‘must’! This is 2021, how is this a ‘should’? How is this just a recommendation? There is historical documentation of years of sexual assault occurring [on this campus]. There’s no more time for ‘should’.’”

By Ashitey’s account, the hesitant language is reflective of the structures of Student Government. “Sexual assault—those are people’s experiences,” she said. “There are real people behind those survey statistics. And sometimes the bureaucratic-ness, the formalness, the parliamentary procedure that we use … can take that human element away.”

But despite all of these problems, Ashitey still expressed her hope for the future, speaking appreciatively of student advocacy groups and administrators with whom she collaborated to write and pass her resolution. Reflecting on her time at the University, she said, “I think we have gotten better as a campus [about acknowledging and addressing sexual assault]. And I hope there can be a greater sense of empathy [for survivors] in the future.”