Politicization Of Sexual Assault At Fordham University

[Note: This article discusses sexual assault and includes links to videos regarding campus sexual assault.]

Earlier this month, Fordham University was one of many colleges around the nation training its staff on how to respond to sexual assault.

At Fordham, however, the training went off the rails.

On August 18, the university’s Dean of Students Christopher Rodgers led a group of Resident Assistants (RAs) in a training on Campus Assault and Relationship Education (CARE) and Bias.

Fordham University’s Bronx, NY, campus.
Fordham University’s Bronx, NY, campus.

According to RAs present at the training, Rodgers showed a trailer for the documentary “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary examining the incidence of sexual assault on college campuses, with particular focus on what its creators say is a failure of college administrations to adequately deal with sexual assault.

According to a public statement from Rowan Hornbeck, an RA present at the training, Rodgers said “that the video exemplified the ‘agenda’ of the political left.”

Rodgers reportedly then went on to show a video from PragerU that argues that talk of a “campus rape epidemic” is essentially a hoax and that there is no evidence that sexual violence is a cultural norm.

This video, according to Hornbeck, was presented by Rodgers as exemplative of the agenda of the political right.

According to Fordham’s student newspaper, multiple RAs left the room in tears, and administrators cancelled training for the remainder of the day. The university announced last week that it has “begun an investigation into the training session and Dean Rodgers’ comments therein.”

Fordham University’s emailed statement to students.
Fordham University’s emailed statement to students.

Following announcement of the investigation, online debate flourished, with many commenters alleging that the upset RAs are “snowflakes.”

Predictably, a number of conservative outlets have published pieces (which I won’t dignify with a link) holding this up as yet another example of liberal fragility.

It is possible that there are legitimate criticisms of the data and arguments used by rape victim advocates (though it is disconcerting to suggest that wanting to support rape victims is a political “agenda”). Some advocates may have inadvertently cited faulty data or made some other error in their arguments. These advocates—rightly—see this as an important issue, and even the most well-meaning among us sometimes make mistakes.

But to respond to this incident by picking apart the weaknesses (real or not) of those trying to help sexual assault survivors completely misses what is so troubling about the training at Fordham.

For context, RAs are dorm-based student workers who are tasked with building community, enforcing policy, and helping students to access resources on campus.

The contentious training was, according to a University statement, “regarding sexual misconduct, Title IX, and the responsibilities that Residential Life staff have as Campus Security Authorities.”

That Rodgers chose to spend this training putting campus sexual assault into a “larger context” (i.e. a political one) shows a deep misunderstanding of the role RAs are supposed to fill in dorms.

Resident Assistants role is to help, not to question students who say they’ve been assaulted.
Resident Assistants role is to help, not to question students who say they’ve been assaulted.

Regarding sexual assault, an RA’s job is simply to point students toward resources that might be able to help them.

It is not the job of an RA to adjudicate—or even contemplate—whether or not a student was sexually assaulted. RA training should focus on practical, logistical concerns. Political “debates” and “larger context” are irrelevant to the job description.

When a student approaches an RA to say that they or a friend were sexually assaulted, an RA’s concern is to point them to resources that can help them, not to guide the student through an academic examination of the political context of the debate surrounding sexual assault.

There may be a place to discuss the political complexities surrounding sexual assault (because, unfortunately, we can’t all seem to agree that any number of sexual assault victims is too many—or that women who say they have been assaulted are almost always telling the truth), but RA training is not that place.

While it is concerning for any administrator to fail to understand this, it is particularly concerning on Rodgers’ part, since he is the university’s Deputy Title IX Coordinator.

Fordham’s website states that “[t]he Deputy Title IX Coordinators … are responsible for coordinating the student conduct process and ensuring that student complaints against other students are handled properly.”

Students are directed to Rodgers’ office if they have a complaint against another student. This includes sexual assault.

As an alumnus of Fordham University and as a former RA, I know Dean Rodgers personally. I truly believe that he cares about students and went into this training with the best of intentions.

Unfortunately, sometimes good intentions are beside the point.

Rodgers could have simply focused on the typical program of educating RAs on the resources available to those who say they’ve been sexually assaulted. That he instead chose to explore the political context surrounding sexual assault gives the impression that he holds sympathy with the idea that rape victim advocates are overreacting.

Conservatives often label liberals as “snowflakes” in order to shut down discussion.
Conservatives often label liberals as “snowflakes” in order to shut down discussion.

This is a troubling impression for a deputy Title IX coordinator to give—and one that probably makes it impossible for Rodgers to fulfill the duties of that position.

The problem isn’t simply that Rodgers brought up a conservative talking point (though there’s certainly plenty to criticize there as well), but that he chose to make the situation political at all.

RAs attended a training expecting to be given a non-political presentation on how to assist students who say they need help. Instead, they were met with political critique (though it was masked under the guise of “presenting both sides”).

Conservatives are constantly criticizing liberals for politicizing discussions. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and conservatives are changing the subject and calling us “snowflakes.”

Canton Winer is a freelance writer and a graduate of Fordham University. You can follow him on Twitter at @CantonWiner.

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