When you think of Columbia University, you think of New York City, diversity and the benefit of an Ivy League education. Unfortunately, the 28 students and alumni who filed complaints against Columbia’s faulty handling of sexual assault and harassment cases had different experiences. Columbia is now being officially investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights as it's being questioned about its compliance with Title IX sexual violence regulations. Title IX requires that schools provide support for survivors of sexual assault and respond to allegations of assault, which these 28 victims believe Columbia failed to do.
Columbia spokeswoman Victoria Benitez explained in an official statement that Columbia “will fully cooperate with OCR’s inquiry” and that Columbia has “no higher priority than protecting the safety and well-being of all who are part of [Columbia’s] community.” Benitez went on to acknowledge that Columbia has reevaluated and updated its policies regarding sexual assault cases, and has plans to launch a new sexual violence prevention initiative that will include all members of Columbia’s community as well as experts in the field of sexual and gender violence prevention.
While complaints about Columbia’s handling of sexual assault have been around since the spring of 2014, the movement to remodel Columbia’s approach gained national attention with a single student’s art thesis. Emma Sulkowicz, a survivor of sexual assault, began carrying her dorm mattress wherever she went as performance art at the beginning of the school year. She vowed to only stop carrying the mattress if and when Columbia expelled the accused attacker.
Her actions went viral and students Mount Holyoke College to Arizona State University, Yale to UPenn acted en masse and carried mattresses on October 29, 2014, to demonstrate solidarity with Sulkowicz and her mission to get justice for sexual assault survivors. Sulkowitz was profiled in New York Magazine, garnering her a national platform to advocate for survivors on college campuses.
While Sulkowicz’s attacker still has not been expelled from Columbia, her performance piece brought national attention to the epidemic of sexual assaults on campuses. One woman survives a sexual assault or assault attempt in college to every 4 who do not, so this is a serious problem on college campuses in the U.S. The Office of Civil Rights is now investigating 95 colleges’ and universities’ handling of sexual assault cases in an effort to empower survivors of sexual assault hopefully put an end to the epidemic.