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Students protest at women leaders panel

Students question U.’s motives in handling Phi Psi member’s case, panel proceeds as planned

Students protesting the University’s handling of cases surrounding the alleged drugging of two female students and sexual assault of one attended “Cracking the Glass Ceiling: Women Presidents and the Changing University” Thursday evening. The event’s roundtable discussion featured President Christina Paxson P’19, Harvard President Drew Faust, former Wellesley College and Duke University President Nannerl Keohane and former Princeton President Shirley Tilghman.

At 5:25 p.m., five minutes before the event’s scheduled start time, about 30 students in Salomon 101 stood silently in unison for less than a minute, then sat down together.

Most of the students wore red and had dollar bills emblazoned with a red duct tape “IX” taped across their mouths. Each choice was symbolic, protestors said: red for the stigma often associated with sexual assault survivors, dollar bills for the role they believed money played in the case and “IX” for solidarity with national Title IX movements.

The protesters held slips of paper reading, “We are protesting the mishandling of cases of sexual violence on college campuses. We especially hope to draw attention to the way influence and money obstructed justice for the two women who were given date rape drugs at Brown. #MoneyTalksAtBrown.”

Following the panel discussion, a question-and-answer session was held. Katie Byron ’15, a protest leader and a member of the Task Force on Sexual Assault, asked the first question, reading off of a piece of paper: “I’m here voicing concerns raised by students regarding the administrative response to an incident of sexual violence at Brown. We are concerned for the way money, power and privilege seem to influence the adjudication and sanctioning processes when those accused are connected to large donors. It appears as though the University is more concerned with its image and with keeping its donors happy than with protecting its students. As university presidents, you clearly have to balance a lot of different interests. How do you think about balancing the University’s fiscal interests with the safety and well-being of the student body?”

Paxson responded that “the safety and welfare of our students comes before anything else,” adding that the cases related to the student Byron referenced were “very difficult and complex.”

The group began organizing about a week and a half ago, said Lauren Stewart ’15, another protest leader, adding that the panel was “the perfect opportunity” for staging a protest.

“I think that there is an important symbolic element … especially for the survivors involved, to know that there are all these people who are very symbolically sitting with them in their silence and highlighting the way in which they’ve been silenced both by the legal implications of the case and also by the University and … the statements that Phi (Kappa) Psi has been releasing,” Byron said.

“Our purpose was to highlight inconsistencies that we’re observing with Brown’s implementation of its policies regarding sexual assault on campus,” she added. Protestors said they are specifically concerned about the role of family connections to the Corporation in decisions made on the case in question. The father of the Phi Psi student accused of administering GHB, against whom charges have been dropped due to a lack of physical evidence, is a member of the Corporation and has donated large amounts of money to the school.

Byron said the usual standard for determining whether to move forward with a hearing is whether or not an assault could have plausibly occurred, and cases generally do not require forensic evidence to proceed.

Though the protestors remained present during the whole event, the discussion proceeded as planned.

To start the panel discussion prior to the Q&A, Jean Howard ’70, chair of the Pembroke Center Associates Council, welcomed the audience.

Paxson then took to the podium to introduce the three panelists, noting that each was the first female president at her respective institution. She also welcomed audience members Rosanne Somerson, who was recently appointed president of the Rhode Island School of Design, and Louise Lamphere, who brought and won a class-action case against Brown in 1975 accusing the University of sex discrimination.

Many of the questions focused on women’s leadership styles and obstacles to their leadership. All participants acknowledged that female leaders often act differently than men, though they stressed that these differences are socialized rather than innate gender differences and that women are not a homogeneous group.

“There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to admit that women lead any differently than men,” Tilghman said, though she added that in her experience “women are more likely to lead by consensus-building rather than command and control,” largely due to “the way we were raised.”

Women also tend to listen more than men do, due to their socialization, Faust said, adding that this can be “an invaluable trait for leadership.”

“To say that all women lead the same is obviously untrue,” Keohane said, citing Margaret Thatcher and Mother Theresa as examples of women who led with very different styles.      

The choice of the verb “cracking,” rather than “breaking,” in the event’s title was deliberate and intended to signal that women still have not achieved parity in many areas, Paxson said.

Paxson asked the panelists to name “next steps” for women leaders.

“I think it’s childcare, okay?” Tilghman said to enthusiastic applause. Solutions must be devised to “make it possible for women to think about both work and family as complementary and mutually beneficial activities that are completely natural; likewise, that men can be able to think about them in exactly the same way,” she said.

The panelists also discussed the prejudice that women still face. “Early on I realized that women are allowed a narrower personality range than men. It’s just fact, and you can rail against it, but you would be wise to try and walk between the boundaries,” Tilghman said.

Structural issues such as the difficulty of starting a family while in tenure-track positions are now greater obstacles than prejudice, Keohane said.

One audience member asked a question about childcare and work-family balance, to which Tilghman said it is “scandalous” that the United States does not have paid maternity leave.

“And paternity leave!” shouted an audience member.

One audience member asked Lamphere about her experience with the class-action suit against Brown.

“You didn’t know you were going to be on the panel!” Paxson remarked.

Students also raised concerns about issues regarding gender and sexuality.

“As a nonbinary-identified student, I’d like to problematize the gender binary in this discussion. I feel like I and other trans students often feel like we’re falling through the cracks,” said Brian Levy ’17, who asked panelists how they see trans issues fitting into the discussion.

“When I was in college we were just starting to talk about people being gay,” Paxson said. “This is the next wave, and it’s a welcome wave. It takes a while for people of the next generation to figure out the language that you’re using and why this is important,” she said, adding, “you can make progress, it sinks in.”

“I wanted to see if (trans issues are) something they thought about,” Levy told The Herald after the event. “To me, that’s something that I would hope the president of my university would have taken into account, and based on her response I’m not convinced that has been the case.”

Another student asked the panel about women of color.

“We’ve heard a lot about childcare, and I think that’s extremely important, but women of color have been taking care of their own children and white women’s children for centuries,” said Justice Gaines ’16, adding that trans women also face unique obstacles. Amid loud snapping from audience members, Gaines asked the panelists to speak about “queer women, trans women, women of color, combinations of those different identities and … what are their glass ceilings and how can we help them as well.”

“You reminded us, we use the term women as though everybody was all the same, and we know that’s not true,” Keohane said in response.

Since childcare is an issue for women professors, “can you only imagine the challenge for someone who is in a low-income job,” Tilghman said.

It “felt like a ghost from the past” that the discussion was “so exclusively focused on white straight women,” said audience member Miriam Langmoen ’17 after the event. “I thought it was strange that no one really mentioned Ruth Simmons, who was not just the first female president of Brown, but was also black,” she added.

Masha Traber ’75, Rachel Wyon ’73 and Mimi Pichey ’72, who had been involved in feminist activism as Brown undergrads, attended the event to support Lamphere and celebrate the progress Brown has made on gender equality since their graduation.

But they also said that there is still progress to be made on sexual assault and that they support continued student activism.


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