Editor’s Note: The following series Bold Females in the Big Easy is a week-long series curated by Piper Stevens as part of the Digital Research Internship Program in partnership with ViaNolaVie. The DRI Program is a Newcomb Institute technology initiative for undergraduate students combining technology skillsets, feminist leadership, and the digital humanities.
We are coming up on March 8th, a day in which the world takes a moment to appreciate the powerful contributions of the female population in celebration of International Woman’s Day. This curation takes a moment to reflect on the powerful women and women-centered movements strengthening our New Orleans community. In 2017, the Tulane campus faced shock and outrage when a study was released revealing that a large percentage of women on campus had experienced sexual assault. The university has taken steps since then to raise awareness and increase campus safety, however this article takes a look back at how the university handled the original release of the survey and the reaction of its constituents. This was originally published on June 26, 2018.
At 6:30 PM on the night of January 31st, 2017, the Kendall-Cram Lecture Hall in Tulane University’s Laver-Bernick Center was completely filled to its 380-person capacity. It was packed to the point where security was denying people entry to prevent the event from turning into a fire hazard. The release of the University’s Sexual Climate Survey was set to be released at 7:00, and it would be discussed town-hall style with a panel consisting of President Mike Fitts, Tania Tetlow, senior vice president and chief of staff to the president, and Meredith Smith, assistant provost for Title IX and Cleary compliance. There was time allocated for questions after the presentation concluded, and students wanted to take full advantage of that.
“I went to the town hall to see what the administration had to say for itself,” said Matt, a sophomore at Tulane. His voice got louder and his eyes widened as he spoke. It was no secret that many students were unhappy with the delay of the results of the survey. “I understand the need to carefully analyze the results, but this took a ludicrous amount of time,” he added. Several other students felt the same way, saying the delay of the results should have at least come with an explanation.
The presentation began with Moderator Smita Ruzicka and President Fitts both giving brief speeches. They both specifically highlighted how “wonderful” it was to see such a large crowd, and how “excited” they were to be there. The data was presented by Ms. Tetlow and Ms. Smith. They seemed to highlight the statistics that reflect well on the school: 47% response rate among the entire student body, 65% feel safe on campus, etc. The students attending were quiet as the big number was put on display.
41% of women reported some level of sexual assault during their time as an undergraduate at Tulane. The presentation lasted just under 50 minutes. The moderator opened the floor for questions when they finished.
The quiet chatter among people in the room had grown vociferous. “I definitely remember it being loud in the room,” said Jeanette, a junior who attended the town hall. She continued, “a lot of people were angry about the room being so small.” Tulane has a several other, much larger rooms on campus that can seat 1,880 people, and students seemed frustrated that they didn’t use them for the event. Arnold, a senior, and a member of the Tulane Peer Health Educator program, said there was a noted “negative tone in the room,” specifically regarding the venue choice.
The Q&A started off with four questions doused in vitriol. The first one was obvious. “Why are we in Kendall-Cram and not a bigger auditorium?” said a petite female student who had to reach just over her head to grab the microphone off the stand. She then addressed President Fitts. “Why are you nodding your head?” she asked, her voice growing louder. “This is insane!” she yelled, her speech slowing to add emphasis to every word. There was boisterous applause from the crowd. Once the room had settled down, Ms. Ruzicka, the moderator, asked that another question be asked before the panel responded.
A bearded older looking male student approached the mic next. “President Fitts, you said multiple times in your speech earlier that combating sexual assault is priority number one for Tulane’s campus,” he said in a collected manner, his voice confident and steady. He continued, “I’m curious, with the pushing back of the release of this data, and with the billion-dollar fundraising campaign that was just announced, should we really believe that this is, in fact priority number one?” The crowd hollered with approval.
The rest of the night continued in this fashion. The questions students asked were thoughtful and hard hitting, and Fitts could only stumble through his answers. Ms. Smith, the title IX coordinator, was his saving grace. She offered articulate and emotional responses to the questions she answered, and openly admitted that students were spot on about issues like the venue selection.
After the town hall ended, some students reported being more upset after leaving because of the way the night went. “To be honest, I think they botched it pretty hard,” said Jeanette, a junior, emphatically. “It seemed pretty tone-deaf to me. They were giving out free t-shirts at the door. Fitts and the moderator said so many times how wonderful it was that we were all there. They booked a pretty small room and when 600 people signed up to attend did nothing to address that.” Some were more sympathetic, but still critical. “I expected the panel to be exceptionally well prepared to offer feedback to students,” said Jack, a senior. “I don’t think they responded accordingly to most of the questions, no. They responded the best way they could, but I wasn’t impressed.”
According to the RAINN Research Group, one in five women will be a victim of sexual assault in college. In their time at Tulane, just over one in every four women said they had experienced some form of sexual assault while they were undergraduates. That number is on par with similar institutions like Duke, which had a rate of 40%. When discussing whether or not the results of the survey would tarnish the schools, there were mixed answers. Some thought it wouldn’t at all; four different students gave a firm “No.” Others thought differently. When asked about it, Jack emphatically exhaled, shook his head and lowered his gaze. “I mean yeah, this will definitely do damage to the school’s reputation,” he said. “It’s something we’re going to have to recover from.”
“Sexual assault is bigger than Tulane,” said Alex, a senior. “While Tulane is definitely higher than average, I think by putting themselves in the spotlight, they’re opening the doors for more schools to have the conversation and their day of reckoning.” Other students felt similarly. “While Tulane may be in the spotlight right now, in the big picture I admire the administration for tackling the issue head on. I think we will be remembered favorably in that sense,” said Sarah, a sophomore. Liz Schafer, the director of fraternity and sorority programs echoed this sentiment. “Frankly, I think what is clear is that this issue rises above reputational concerns here at Tulane,” she wrote in an email correspondence. “I believe Tulane is being recognized for its transparency and leadership and its commitment to take real and effective action to keep its student safe from sexual misconduct.”
Every student said that if they saw the results of the survey when they were applying, they still would have sent their applications in. “It would have startled eighteen-year-old me,” said Arnold. “But I’ve never regretted my time at Tulane. I think coming here may have been the best decision I’ve ever made.” To put it succinctly, Jack said, “I’d be damn proud to send my child to Tulane.”
Since the town hall, President Fitt’s words have seemingly been forgotten. There was another panel discussion on April 12th, with the organization that conducted the survey. There was an email blast sent out to the student body informing them about the event, but it wasn’t nearly as publicized as the release of the survey itself. Members of Greek life on campus were required to attend one of four workshops regarding sexual violence if they wanted to attend off campus beach formals. They would not be allowed to go if they did not check in to one of the talks. No other part of the student body has been required to attend any kind of talk or workshop at the time of this article being published.
(Names have been changed at the interviewees’ requests.)
Owen Hurley is a Junior studying English and Marketing.