By Sarah Klena
“Rape, Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment.” That was the promised discussion topic presented Wednesday by Nathalie Jacquet, director of Sciences Po’s Reims Campus; Rachel Skowronski, the campus’ Student Life Advisor; Marie Mercat-Bruns, professor of gender and queer law at Sciences Po’s Paris campus; and two members of a new Sciences Po “task force” hoping to address the issues. For many of the two dozen or so students in attendance, the meeting signaled yet another in a series of failures for the administration to adequately communicate its programs of protection, prevention, and prosecution in cases of sexual assault, rape, and sexual harassment. The speakers seemed ill-prepared to address specific questions brought by the student body; often arguing among each other on stage in hushed French. The hushed conversation extended frequently to the audience as well, as dissatisfied students expressed their frustration among themselves.
The evening began with a presentation by Professor Mercat-Bruns about the legal aspects of consent, sexuality, and sexual assault and rape. Her presentation included an extensive case study from California regarding a specific definition of consent – namely, whether consent can be withdrawn after penetration. The style of this presentation, completely legal in nature, was lacking in substance. Rather than understanding how the law will react; or what testimony is likely to convince a judge, students need to first understand the boundaries and definitions of consent. This is a normative lesson requiring the most simplistic of explanations – something typically expressed by administrations on college campuses worldwide. Rather than considering “the legal fiction of personal autonomy,” something Mercat-Bruns attempted to communicate, the basics of consent are more along the lines of “but what if they are drunk?” or “what if they didn’t exactly say no?” Survivors would find little solace in investigating whether what happened to them would be reasonably prosecutable in a court of law – they should first and foremost be assured that what happened to them was wrong.
The second set of remarks were based on specifics of Sciences Po’s capacity to address allegations brought forth by their student body, and to support survivors. The presenters came from the Paris campus as well, and were part of a new “task force” created by Sciences Po to handle issues of sexual harassment and assault. They explained three ways that Sciences Po addresses these concerns: first, with their leaflet of guidelines surrounding the subject (distributed by email to all members of campus, and available by the Péniche here in Reims); second, with their newly formed “task force” in Paris; and third, through trusted administrators or vaguely, “exterior organisms.” The task force was the most promoted of these options; although it is newly formed and has never been used. It will consist of 8-12 members, including a social worker, the director of academic programs, a general practitioner, and a psychiatrist. It promises confidentiality, and two possible courses of prosecution: disciplinary and legal / penal. Although there was initial confusion and indecision among presenters, it was finally determined that the two methods can be pursued either separately or simultaneously. Vaguely, it was explained that the task force can “decide measures” of punishment and protection if they so choose. When pressed during the question and answer session, the task force members acknowledged that expulsion could be one of these measures. The president of Sciences Po, Frédéric Mion, would have the power to make the final decision.
An extended question and answer session pressed the four onstage about the specifics of all these measures. When asked when this task force first became available, the group answer began with “it was in the process of being created from September / October” but shifted to “from today, anyone can access it.” It was not long before a student voiced the very reason for the conference in the first place: in Reims, there was an actual case; an emotional moment for our campus when a young woman left our school. The administration declined to go into details, citing a need to respect confidentiality and privacy; however, they defended their actions in saying they could only prosecute the accused to the extent that the accuser wished. As the administration has only recently been made aware of the identity of the alleged perpetrator, they are now in the process of “formulating their own opinion.” They also clarified that they offered counseling and psychological support to the accuser. However, echoing the frustration and sense of loss on campus, Jacquet acknowledged that for the student in question, “it is too late, for sure.”
This sense of defeat, frustration, and inadequacy was the underlying tone of the entire evening. Students in attendance were passionate about the issue; but unimpressed with the lack of solidarity displayed. Many questioned why the meeting was not mandatory – in fact, it was barely advertised, included only in an email entitled “Message from the campus administration” sent on January 18 by campus director, Nathalie Jacquet. By contrast, a debate the day before concerning Obama’s Presidency was advertised by Deputy Director Olivier Ruchet in an email about winter school, again by Professor del Pero in an email to his former students, and lastly in a reminder issued by Rachel Skowronski, Student Life Advisor, the day of the lecture. The visibility of these issues on campus is still lacking; and the administration seemed unwilling to fully promote its reforms.
Sciences Po took unprecedented strides in approaching rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment in addressing the student body. Clearly, as they themselves acknowledge, the administration is still evolving and adapting to its new commitment. The establishment of a task force and the position of Rachel Skowronski as Student Life Advisor are monumental steps forward, and should not be discounted. It is the hope that these new resources will never need to be tested, but the student body is depending heavily on the expectation that if there is a next time, there will be no excuses, only action.
A full summary of the conference was published by Student Representative Zak Vescera, and can be found online.