At sexual assault conference, Anita Hill’s voice still resonates

The list of marquee names featured Anita Hill, who was joined Wednesday night by UC President Janet Napolitano and Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks in Wheeler Auditorium to talk about how things have changed — and how they haven’t — since Hill’s explosive 1991 sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas, then seeking Senate confirmation for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Anita Hill

Anita Hill: How universities can help in “getting to the truth.” (UC Berkeley photo by Barry Bergman)

By design, the trio’s hourlong discussion served to bookend a conversation that had been going on for two days under the auspices of the National Conference on Campus Sexual Assault and Violence, hosted by UC Berkeley. Beginning Tuesday morning, hundreds of university practitioners, faculty members, staff, students, elected officials, criminal-justice professionals and more — from at least 70 higher-ed institutions nationwide, as well as public agencies and nonprofit advocacy groups — had gathered at the Berkeley Marina DoubleTree hotel for a marathon of workshops, lectures and networking. The groundbreaking conference included dozens of sessions on topics ranging from helping the healing process for victims of sexual violence to rethinking hip-hop’s representation of manhood.

“This conference is about taking an opportunity to learn,” said Associate Chancellor Linda Williams, cited by Dirks Wednesday as “the spark behind the conference,” and a member of Napolitano’s systemwide task force on sexual violence. “Berkeley is a place where we bring topics to the forefront, engage at the frontline, but not from a place of having all the answers. That is not what this is about.

“What this is about,” said Williams, “is that we have been totally immersed in knowing there are things we need to do better. This is one of many things we’ve already done, and one of more to come.”

“We are still in the learning process,” added Joseph Greenwell, Berkeley’s dean of students and Williams’ co-chair on the event’s planning committee. “We get some things right, and we find that we’re not getting everything right. And I think every institution of higher education is struggling with that to some extent right now. So how do we come together and allow ourselves the space to be vulnerable and to speak about what’s working and what’s not working, and to have open dialogue?

“The ultimate reason for this conference,” he explained, “is to help us, and help all institutions that attend, to enhance the student experience on our campuses, so that not only are we meeting compliance on sexual assault prevention and response, meeting expectations, but we’re moving it forward and changing culture.”

The campus’s response to sexual assault has come under fire from current and former students, 31 of whom filed federal complaints last year, alleging violations of Title IX and the Clery Act. For Berkeley — and, as evidenced by attendance over the past two days, for countless other colleges and universities — this week’s conference was born of the recognition that much work still needs to be done to combat sexual assault on campus.

“We’re here because students brought it to the forefront,” acknowledged Greenwell. “We are reacting, because students had the courage to hold institutions accountable across the nation. This is really an issue well beyond higher education, but in the context of where they are in their lives right now as students, it’s an issue that’s facing colleges and universities across the country that needs to be addressed.

“It’s an issue that’s often not talked about because of shame, or taboo — there are all these different layers to it,” he said. “And students had the courage to bring it forward. And because they showed that courage I know more students are coming forward and reporting and sharing their stories.”

Carol Folt

Carol Folt, UNC chancellor: Sexual assault “isn’t a women’s issue, it’s everyone’s issue.” (UC Berkeley photo by Peg Skorpinski)

That message was echoed during a panel discusion Wednesday with Dirks and the heads of four other universities, moderated by Claude Steele, Berkeley’s executive vice chancellor and provost.

“One thing that has really been changing is this realization that it isn’t a women’s issue, it’s everyone’s issue,” said Carol Folt, chancellor of the University of North Carolina. “This is a time for universities not to be defensive but to be open, to be leaders.”

Michael Drake, the former UC Irvine chancellor who now leads Ohio State University, pointed to “some rays of hope,” describing how students themselves are taking the lead in ensuring that his school’s approach to the problem of sexual assault is “not a crisis response, not an intervention, but a normal part of the conversation.”

Dirks, noting he’d been “moved deeply” by the stories of victims of sexual assault on or around the Berkeley campus, added that “some of those stories were deeply critical” of the administration, criticism he and other Berkeley officials have taken to heart. Acknowledging both the complexity and the urgency of the issue, he cited “that sense of having to act and study at the same time.”

‘Process matters’

On Wednesday, Hill recalled the difficulty of having her voice heard “in the middle of this very heated political argument” over the nomination of Thomas, her former boss, for the seat previously held by civil rights legend Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to serve as a Supreme Court justice.

With Napolitano, who was part of her legal team in 1991 and “lost some clients” as a result, Hill recounted the “racialized” nature of the hearings held by the all-white Judiciary Committee, and the Senate panel’s inability — or unwillingness — to deal with the issues raised by her testimony.

Now a professor of social policy, law and women’s gender and sexuality studies at Brandeis University, Hill returned again and again to her core message: “Process matters. The investigation matters, informed tribunals matter, the process for getting to the truth matters.”

“I had so much going for me,” she said. “I had tenure — it was threatened, but I did have it. I had a background in law. I had colleagues [at the University of Oklahoma] that were very supportive of me. I had a wonderful family,” many of whom, she noted, attended the hearings when she appeared as a witness.

“I think about so many women and girls who are going to be faced with these situations who don’t have all of those things,” added Hill. “You can’t replicate that situation for every person who will experience sexual misconduct, whether it’s in the workplace or in the school. But what you can assure them is a fair process. That’s what institutions can do.”

Over the two days of the conference, finding ways to improve the process — via better communications about where survivors can go for help, streamlining bureaucracy, and generally making it easier for victims of sexual harassment and assault to come forward — was the main order of business.

“Sexual assault has been happening on campuses for a very long time,” Williams observed. “It’s a traumatic event, not just for students but for staff, faculty, members of our community.If you go through a traumatic event, and then at the same time there are all these societal norms, pressures and challenges — and on a large campus that’s very bureaucratic, like ours, there are so many systems you have to navigate — it’s hard to come forward. Because you don’t understand what that means.”

The vast number of workshops and speakers, in fact, was “reflective of how many people on our campus, and on every campus, are engaged and involved in this work, through whatever their lens might be,” Greenwell said. “It’s hard to fathom how many people are involved in delivering services, and in trying to continue to partner to make change and to learn, just in the context of the university itself.”

A quarter-century after Hill’s testimony on Capitol Hill, though, allegations of sexual assault — both on campus and in U.S. society at large — continue, too often, to be met with indifference, hostility or worse.

“To change the culture is going to take years,” said Greenwell. “It’s going to take decades. This conference is a snapshot. It’s one tiny piece of a long list of things that have been happening, that need to continue happening, to bring people together, to have the conversation, acknowledge some of the issues that we’re grappling with, and hopefully come out of it with some other ideas, and maybe some tools and resources. And if nothing else then to network with each other. Because we’re all struggling with the same issue.”

Williams, too, stressed the ongoing nature of the campus’s approach to dealing with sexual assault and violence.

“We don’t want people to think that once we’ve done the conference, we’re going to step back and say, Oh, yeah, we’ve done that — like it’s a checked box, and therefore we don’t need to have any more conversations,” Williams said. “This is going to help shape where we go next on some things, how we mobilize our limited resources.

“This is not the end of anything,” Williams said. “It’s the beginning.”