On Thursday, September 27, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the Palo Alto University professor who has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a high school party in 1982, answered questions in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about the alleged incident. A handful of days ago, the case was complicated further when another woman, Deborah Ramirez, came forward with claims that Kavanaugh had exposed himself to her during a party when they were both freshmen at Yale, and a third woman, Julie Swetnick, accused Kavanaugh of being present at a high school party where she was drugged and raped by multiple boys (though she didn’t claim Kavanaugh was a participant in the alleged rape). Additionally, two new allegations surfaced, both of which Kavanaugh denied.
The morning’s hearing, which began at 10am, turned into an all-day affair, first focusing on the testimony of Dr. Ford, who told the panel of senators that it was her “civic duty” to speak before them and that she was “100 percent” sure that it was Kavanaugh who’d assaulted her, noting that the most painful memory was of him laughing at her during the alleged assault. Dr. Ford also answered a number of questions posed by senators and Rachel Mitchell, an Arizona prosecutor who specializes in sex crimes, who was brought in to question Ford. She largely kept her composure throughout her testimony, her voice only breaking during the most personal answers. Kavanaugh, on the other hand, provided a searing opening statement, giving, at times, tearful testimony, vehemently denying the allegations levied by Dr. Ford and the other two women. He was grilled by Senate Democrats, who pressed the judge on a range of topics, including his alcohol consumption, handwritten calendar from the era and high school yearbook. Each senator also emphasized the need for further investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Kavanaugh called the confirmation process “a national disgrace.”
Certainly, yesterday’s hearing was a defining moment for the #MeToo movement, which for nearly a year, has surged in influence, internationally, and led to the public downfall of (and in some cases, jail time for) men in the entertainment industry, such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and most recently, Bill Cosby; the media, such as Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose; and politics, such as Al Franken and Eric Schneiderman. Women have also come out in droves, recounting stories of unreported sexual assault, harassment and rape. Kavanaugh, who is set for a lifetime appointment to the high court if his nomination goes through—which could be as early as Friday or Saturday—has so far vehemently denied all allegations of sexual violence (an umbrella term for any forced sexual act or attempt of it). It’s unclear whether Ford’s testimony today will change that or if Ramirez and Swetnick will be given a chance to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But the pervasive issue of sexual violence doesn’t just affect those in the public eye; do a quick Google search of “sexual assault” and “college,” and you get some 35 million hits, with a page after page on non-household names. Cases are getting national attention at big schools such as Ohio University and notably, Michigan State University, which paid out a $500 million settlement to more than 300 women and girls who reported being sexually assaulted by former sports physician Larry Nassar. Just because a number of these assaults are being reported now versus decades ago when they happened doesn’t make them any less egregious or serious. In short, it’s not a new issue. And college and university administrations—including those at the University at Albany, Siena College and Skidmore College—have been dealing with the epidemic head on for years, long before the #MeToo movement got underway.
“I’ve been at University at Albany for 30 years, and we’ve always gone for strong advocacy services to students,” says Carol Stenger, Director of the University’s Advocacy Center for Sexual Violence. “The reporting [of sexual violence] is increasing, which is a good thing, but it’s something that colleges have dealt with, to some extent or another, for many, many decades.” A separate department for advocacy and sexual violence may seem unusual for a university, but Stenger believes that it’s a strong statement that the university acknowledges the very real threat of sexual violence on and of campus. “I’d be more worried about a campus that says they’ve never had any reports,” she says. “To me, that’s a red flag that doesn’t mean that it’s not happening, but rather, that no one feels comfortable telling anybody about it.”
University at Albany’s Advocacy Center for Sexual Violence opened its doors in January 2014, with the goal of increasing reports of sexual violence on campus. (According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), only about 20 percent of female student victims of sexual violence report the incidents to law enforcement.) University at Albany’s Advocacy Center also offers programming centering on topics of sexual violence, as well as advocacy services to students and their families. The Center has even provided students with transportation to the hospital, police station or district attorney’s office. “We’re not here just nine to five; let’s put it that way,” says Stenger. “Should a student call us on the weekends, we’re going to respond and help them.” Stenger and the Advocacy Center have even assisted some students for several years, seeing their cases through.
The rise of the #MeToo movement has helped embolden and encourage students to more actively report on instances of sexual violence, even though University at Albany’s Advocacy Center was open long before the movement rose to prominence. Stenger points to campus organizations, such as the Sexual Violence Prevention Ambassadors (SVPA), a student-led group that was founded last year and is headquartered in the Advocacy Center. The SVPA promotes sexual violence prevention initiatives and is planning a number of special events for Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October. “We did a lot of programming around the #MeToo movement last spring,” says Stenger. “We even had one of our students speak out to the local news media about her experience. So that’s very much at the forefront as well.”
Similar to Albany’s SVPA, Siena College’s The Anti-Violence Task Force is a coalition of faculty, staff and students founded more than a decade ago as a kind of clearinghouse for sexual violence prevention and awareness programs on campus. The Anti-Violence Task Force has been very busy, especially of late, bringing together students, teachers, faculty and staff to offer more special programs, events and talks about sexual violence both on and off campus. “Many of our students are paying attention to what’s going on and are certainly aware of what’s happening in the news,” says Jay Bebb, Associate Dean of Students at Siena. “Even yesterday evening [September 26], we had a woman’s leadership group on campus that had a conversation about the Kavanaugh appointment and the importance surrounding it.”
In 2014, President Obama shone a national spotlight on the issue by updating guidelines on how to deal with sexual assaults on campus while also holding colleges accountable and mandating more requirements such as bystander intervention training. New York State followed suit and took it even further when, in the same year, Governor Andrew Cuomo formed a committee to draft a Students’ Bill of Rights, and change the policies of all 64 State University of New York (SUNY) campuses so that they were consistent with how they dealt with sexual violence. But perhaps the most important thing to emerge from this 2014 committee was the “Enough is Enough” legislation (signed into law by Cuomo in July 2015), which requires all colleges to adopt a set of comprehensive procedures and guidelines, including a uniform definition of consent, and to be held liable should they not comply.
Speaking of 2014, campus sexual violence became a major news story in Saratoga Springs, when a male student from Skidmore College (my alma mater) was found guilty of violating the school’s sexual misconduct code. Skidmore suspended the student for a year and ultimately denied him readmission in 2015, extending the suspension another two years. Skidmore has even gone so far as to require that professors now include Title IX in their syllabi. “Skidmore’s prevention efforts include steps to expand bystander intervention training, increased education for students about affirmative consent, alcohol, reporting, protective measures and resources available, and more honed efforts in fulfilling New York’s ‘Enough is Enough’ law,” says Cerri A. Banks, Dean of Students and Vice President for Student Affairs at Skidmore.
The #MeToo movement may have initially gone viral last October when actress Alyssa Milano used the hashtag in support of Rose McGowan’s rape allegations against Harvey Weinstein (Milano was present at yesterday’s hearing), but the movement was actually launched more than a decade prior to that by Tarana Burke, an African-American civil rights activist originally from the Bronx. Burke, who currently serves as the Senior Director of the Girls for Gender Equity in Brooklyn, founded the movement in 2006 to raise awareness of sexual violence and give women a space to share their stories and traumatic experiences. Ford and Kavanaugh’s hearing, and the possibility of Kavanaugh’s appointment being derailed due to the allegations against him, is the most important test yet to the lasting power and impact of the #MeToo movement. Again, regardless of the hearing’s outcome, one thing is clear: The #MeToo movement isn’t going away anytime soon—and it’s getting a lot of valuable support on local campuses.
—additional reporting by Will Levith