Cathy Young’s must-read piece on the Columbia case made famous by accuser Emma Sulkowicz triggered a furious backlash, including a twitter hashtag campaign and a Mic article that cast aspersions without challenging a single fact that Young presented.
Three elements of the reaction to the article deserve further comment. First, victims’ rights advocates have dismissed Young’s findings (that Sulkowicz made written, flirtatious remarks for months with the student she accused, Paul Nungesser; and that Sulkowicz was involved in persuading another student to file sexual misconduct charges against Nungesser, charges that subsequently were dropped) on the grounds that this behavior is common among actual victims.
This line of criticism misses the point. The Sulkowicz case is one entirely of credibility: there were no witnesses to the alleged assault, and there’s no physical evidence. No one could credibly assert that Sulkowicz writing flirtatious messages to Nungesser after the alleged assault (messages that until Young’s reporting Sulkowicz had never acknowledged sending) makes it more likely that we should believe Sulkowicz was assaulted. And the fact that she sought out another accuser (something she hadn’t previously admitted) raises the possibility that something other than a pursuit of justice motivated Sulkowicz. At the very least, the idea that her allegation should be uncritically accepted—as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has done—seems improper.
Second, Young’s article triggered a fascinating reaction column from Daniel Garisto, formerly opinion editor of the Columbia Spectator. A few weeks ago, Stuart Taylor and I noted a critical difference between how student journalists responded to the lacrosse case and how they responded to the UVA Rolling Stone debacle. In the first instance, the student journalists responded as journalists—they sought to discover the truth, and performed brilliantly. In the UVA affair, student journalists functioned as advocates, and at least two appeared indifferent or even hostile to the truth on questions related to campus sexual assault. We observed that it seems as if the current generation of college journalists, who have come to campus amidst the moral panic of campuses as hotbeds of sexual assault at rates equivalent to the war-torn Congo, have abandoned any pretense of approaching the sexual assault issue dispassionately.
The Columbia affair does nothing to undermine our thesis. Garisto admits that in the Sulkowicz case, the “campus media’s goal to promote discussion about sexual assault and to support survivors became conflated with a fear of rigorous reporting.” And yet despite the evidence uncovered by Young (and despite Nungesser being found not culpable by a Columbia procedure that’s wildly tilted in favor of the accuser) Garisto still describes “Sulkowicz as a survivor” and labels Nungesser “probably guilty.” He doesn’t reveal what evidence led him to these conclusions; indeed, it’s not clear how Sulkowicz could be a rape “survivor” unless Nungesser is definitely, rather than probably, guilty.
Finally, Sulkowicz’s case is important as a public policy matter not because of her performance art with a mattress but rather because of her claim that Columbia’s procedures failed her, and failed her to such an extent as to constitute a Title IX violation. Sulkowicz, however, has been remarkably vague regarding precisely howthese procedures treated her unfairly. The only specific claim she’s made involved what she considered an improper question asked by the panelists. (Her parents issued a longer list of alleged violations, but without identifying their basis for any of their claims, since the parents do not appear to have been witnesses to the panel’s adjudication process.) To date, no transcript of the disciplinary hearing has been released.
Young managed to speak to a witness to the hearing—the graduate student who functioned as Nungesser’s supporter. (The fact that, at the time, a student accused of rape couldn’t use a lawyer, and had at his sole advocate a graduate student, gives a sense of just how minimal the school’s due process protections were.) The supporter said that he had an open mind at the start of the hearing, but concluded by its end that Sulkowicz’s charges were “completely false.” More important, here’s how he described the questioning: “The panel were asking sensible questions; they were equally asked of Paul, and had been asked of Paul through the entire process. I’d been sitting in on the initial meetings where his statements were noted down. The questions were extremely personal because they had to be. That was much more graphic than anything that happened in the hearing, and the questions were asked with the utmost sensitivity.”
Maybe the supporter (for unknown reasons) is lying about the tenor of the hearing, and Sulkowicz is telling the truth. But if, in fact, Sulkowicz was treated fairly according to Columbia procedures, then her case is of little public policy relevance. Will the campus media be shamed by Young’s article into investigating the question?