Alumni Response to Campus Sexual Violence

Sarah Zimmer '17, Guest Columnist

My name is Sarah Zimmer. I attended Dickinson college from 2013 to 2017. I consider it a second home. In my current work I address issues of sexual violence in performing arts spaces in undergraduate programs. Today,  I should be writing a research paper based on a study by myself and a peer conducted at Emerson College during my graduate studies seeking to incorporate consent-based practices into classrooms of freshman acting students. However, there is something far more urgent to be completed. I believe I need to address a problem at home first – and – as I said, I consider Dickinson as a second home. So here we go.

The college recently responded to Rose McAvoy’s ‘20 story. Brenda Bretz, the Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness and Inclusivity, responded with a defensive “we do listen, we do care” and listed the institutional changes and educational program done to combat sexual violence on campus in recent years. On the website, Dickinson describes her role as “providing leadership on initiatives that will assure the institution’s viability and competitive advantage.” Now, we all understand job descriptions do not tell the whole story of someone’s position at a higher education institution. However, it’s certainly safe to say her position’s main focus is not addressing the issues of sexual assault at Dickinson. I say this because if it was, she would understand that we know Dickinson, broadly, cares for its students. That even alumni understand the historical and social contexts of what’s happening on campus now and what has been done to address it. She would understand that Rose’s experience cannot be stuffed into a box with ill-followed title IX protocols and preventative workshops and considered it wrapped and ready to go.

Why is it that the college publicizes the work they’ve been doing around this issue when someone demonstrates they have not been doing it the right way? Rose was not saying Dickinson does nothing, but that they did something wrong. They made a mistake. That even amongst the work the administration thinks they’ve done she is left to grapple with trauma, at a school that failed to make her feel safe, that she still has to be at to receive her degree. I think the only evidence we need of a total administrative, Title IX investigation, failure –  is Rose’s story.

I participated in the Mermaid Players (student theatre) (MP) heavily while I was at Dickinson. I remember Rose participating in several of our events and out of nowhere she was gone. I did not know why. I know why now.

I side-note here, importantly – her perpetrator participated in the MP too. I want to come out and say it. Performing Arts programs have issues inside and, especially, outside the classroom when concerning consensual touch. It’s an issue pervasive across the world’s most prestigious conservatory programs, and certainly did not pass over Dickinson. I recall an incident in spring 2016 when a student director was emotionally abusing his cast and had two females make out in his room to “rehearse.” I remember taking this to the department. I remember it being swept under the rug. I was young. I didn’t know how to press the issue. I do now. Current Mermaid Players and the Department of Theatre and Dance, whom I deeply respect, I call on you to look at your practices and policies when rehearsing intimate or violent material – or asking it of your students outside of class. [Editor’s Note: This incident was not reported to the Title IX office]

How many of us need to scream into an apparent void for college’s to recognize the impact this has on survivors? We know Rose’s story isn’t singular. Among undergraduate students, 23.1 percent of females and 5.4 percent of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation (RAINN).  In my own life, myself, my partner, my stepsister, my best friend, my housemate’s sister – have all been sexually assaulted while at an educational institution. [Editor’s Note: These assaults did not occur at Dickinson College] These institutions are microcosms of our society at large. If we run with this idea, we know that there has not yet been the shift in our society or justice systems to condemn sexual violence for the disgusting, impactful crime it is. Dickinson is supposed to be training the next generation of change makers, and the institution is barely meeting minimum requirements in its own locality for me to perceive it as a space that has done the intersectional, trauma-based, policy-changing, hiring-practice changing work that demands to be done for me to consider the college innovative. Let alone REVOLUTIONARY??????

Unsurprisingly the impetus for change falls on the survivors, the advocates, the ones who are actually committed to speaking out and refusing neutrality so desirable to institutions and their donors. Rose organized students, press, communities. That was her time. Her emotional energy. To fix a problem Dickinson is failing to.

I am hereby severing any alumni engagement with the college (money, Boston interviews, endorsement of Dickinson) until the college actively addresses their failure to serve justice to Rose McAvoy and the student body put in danger by passivity on the matter of sexual violence at Dickinson College. Change will only come when Dickinson realizes that individual impact must always come before institutional image. I want to remind everyone, Rose won the Weiss Prize for her work in ceramics. Go to her artist’s talk April 10th.