Last year, when Emma Sulkowicz launched her Mattress Performance, we saw just how far one student was willing to go in her attempts to get her alleged rapist expelled. Nationally, she became the figurehead of the anti-rape movement. On campus, many students were wondering why the Columbia administration wouldn’t just expel Sulkowicz’s rapist.
In retrospect, I feel embarrassed by how eager I was to help get Sulkowicz’s alleged rapist expelled. I attended every rally I could last semester, and genuinely thought I was doing the right thing by rallying alongside her and other rape survivors. But after a while, I started to wonder about whether expulsion should be the punishment students aim for. Ultimately, I worry that trying to have colleges investigate reported attacks and have offending students expelled isn’t the answer.
As many people have argued that conducting a fair investigation of rape allegations seems to be impossible for universities, I believe that we cannot in good faith advocate for expulsion as recourse. Additionally, even if a person has committed rape, I personally believe that expulsion is not the best solution.
First, we often forget that unlike the officials who preside over criminal investigations, our administrators are not trained investigators. While even trained law enforcement officers can make mistakes, there is no doubt that administrators are much more ill-equipped to adjudicate claims of violence. I learned this two years ago as a student at Cleveland State, when I was involved in two rape investigations on campus.
During investigations, at least in my experience, he-said, she-said accounts often serve as “evidence.” I’ve also seen Facebook messages used as evidence, too. Asking administrators to adjudicate cases using evidence like this is dangerous; in the absence of physical evidence like rape kits, texts and testimony alone should not suffice as evidence.
Second, we forget that it is not in the best interest of the Columbia administration to even acknowledge that rape happens here. Investigating is not in the best interest of the school, either. If admins fail to find a student accused of rape guilty, the accuser may eviscerate the school in the media. On the other hand, a premature expulsion may result in a lawsuit. For example, in Michigan, a college student was recently expelled for rape without a trial. He is now suing. Thus, given these pressures, we can’t expect college administrators to judge rape cases impartially.
In short, for college administrations, adjudicating rape allegations would simply result in a lose-lose situation. And even though Title IX has been used to try and hold administrations accountable, we must note that there is a troubling level of collusion between the Title IX offices and the schools they investigate.
In focusing the discourse on removing rapists from campus, we risk failing to talk about what can truly be done to create a safer campus. When it comes to campus rape, I believe that we would be best served by focusing the discourse on finding a more ethical solution that takes the needs and best interests of both parties into consideration. I hesitate to propose what this solution would look like. Still, I don’t believe expulsion should ever be the solution. How can we ask our administration to expel someone when we can’t trust the investigative process itself?
More so, even if we could trust the investigative process, I still don’t believe expulsion should be the answer. In expelling someone we deem “dangerous,” we use a reductive conceptualization of justice: If you hurt me, I will make you pay.
In attempting to expel a person whom some deem “dangerous,” all we effectively do is geographically redistribute the threat. We simply force accused rapists to leave campus and strip them of their relationships on campus. And arguably, in expelling them, if we can manage to get them in the media, we also handicap their ability to make a living in the future.
All of this as a reprimand for what could have been a mistake seems misguided.
As Dean Kromm has recently said, “Say someone enters Columbia at age 17 or 18, and in their first weeks of their first year acts in a way that isn’t in accordance with our policy. How do we want to treat each other in this community? To say that person can never serve in any leadership role, there is no chance for learning, growth, or change over time? That’s a pretty significant write-off."
Now, looking retrospectively at the prior investigations I’ve been involved with, I would never support an attempt to get another student expelled. I grew up in an inner-city community, and the adults I grew up with almost always framed “crime” as an honest mistake. While they never excused the actions of someone who, say, stole a car or robbed someone, I was taught that most people who have committed crimes did so because they made a mistake, not because they were malicious criminals from the get-go. This is the same framework I use to view alleged rapists. I feel the same way about students on campus who have been accused of rape. Growing up and having lived with formerly incarcerated people, I was taught to view them with compassion, not to reduce them to the sum of their crimes.
For the hypothetical campus rapist, I would want them to get the help they need, which may be long-term rehabilitation therapy or just be a reminder that heavy intoxication can negate consent. Generally, I personally don’t want my own sense of “justice” or “closure” to come at the expense of another person’s well-being.
In jumping to expel, we forget that people make mistakes, we lose sight of compassion, and we never stop to think about what is best for society as a whole.
Toni Airaksinen is a Barnard College sophomore majoring in urban studies. She is a first-generation college student. She tweets @Toni_Airaksinen. The Ivory Tower: Deconstructed runs alternate Wednesdays.
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