The most concerning part about President Jonathan Veitch’s six-year contract extension last month was not the extension itself, but rather the tone of its announcement—the jubilance and the jadedness of the board’s email and the president’s subsequent gleeful acceptance. Instead of acknowledging specific areas of improvement, the emails danced around a consequential issue that has led students to worry whether they are safe at their own institution.
Yes, that issue is sexual assault—the one that lingers like a parasite with one in five college women and one in seven college men after graduation; the one that has led to waves of protests and vigils on campus and pushed what seems like more survivors than offenders to leave Occidental without shaking the president’s hand at the end.
As evidenced by May’s board dinner, when long-standing member Steven Hinchliffe ’55 verbally attacked students demonstrating for survivors’ rights, the administration has clearly not conveyed the gravity of the problem to the board.
Students barely understand Veitch and the merits of his contract extension only because Veitch barely understands his own students. Several of his public dialogues have been under the guise of cocktail parties and donor congregations; posh occurrences and unexpected intrusions. And those with deep pockets have a shriveled and outdated understanding of today’s issues like sexual assault—issues that affect student safety; that downgrade the college’s value and performance; that painfully stick with people and violate the promised trust between themselves and their institution.
The question isn’t whether our president will uphold the duties expected of him by the board and the college, but instead whether our elders can truly have a pulse on the community’s needs.
As I wrote last May, college presidents are moneymakers, capitalists and budget-masters. They ensure that the college does not crumble and that the board and its members remain satisfied. The state of on-campus happiness, satisfaction, safety or security seldom reach the ears of these upper-caste community members.
But while Veitch dazzles the board members with fundraising successes, too many Occidental graduates depart from Occidental and must make a concerted effort to remember why they love their alma mater. Current students constantly worry about Emmons’ medical capacity, or having a forced triple, or bearing a bulging student loan bill. And far too many sexual assault survivors still feel uncomfortable seeking support from Occidental.
Neither the board nor Veitch have expressed a sense of sympathy for these on-campus wounds or been active in the process of healing them. If Veitch is looking to earn his contract extension, he needs to call not just for a healthy endowment from his big-pocketed advisors, but also for aggressive financing to implement truly supportive sexual assault policy reform.
Board members are valuable for their financial literacy and connections, equipped to drive change and allow the president to tap into their resources. Occidental’s administration, however, sits in the perfect position to implement something tangible, but they can’t address the right problems unless they make the effort to understand survivors’ pain. Forget the campus alert system and faulty judicial process for a second — in my time here, I have not heard one single heartfelt statement from Veitch or Dean Barbara Avery regarding a damaging issue as prevalent as sexual assault. Not one.
Even in Spring 2013, Veitch’s letters to the campus, which can be retrieved on the President’s Office page, contained language that fumed of tiredness about the issue when confidence was needed most. He explained administrative reactions most heartily as “an effort to address the serious concerns raised about sexual assault,” calling sexual assault an “issue that is incumbent on each of us.” Nothing captures the President’s understanding of heartbreak and overwhelming, devastating frustration like the words “response” and “incumbent,” right?
Survivors, meanwhile, continue to openly tell their stories faster than ever. OSAC’s “Survivor Stories” forum contains honest experiences about loss, hurt and administrative apathy, laced with details of the brutal process of reporting the crime and seeking support from Occidental. These tales have emerged left and right, and the scariest thing about them? According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, less than 5 percent of college sexual assaults are actually reported, meaning these horror stories represent only a small fraction of the overall trauma, disappointment and mistrust across college campuses—across Occidental.
The president cannot claim he wants widespread anti-sexual assault policy reform without first considering that the school severely lacks resources available to students who bear such a trauma. Until Occidental has a medical and mental health services structure as large and as updated as Hameetman or Johnson, Veitch cannot call Occidental a leading 21st-century educational institution.
Veitch could also take constitutional action by swiftly writing zero-tolerance policies for offenders or academic recovery programs for survivors whose grades have suffered following the crime. Just because students have not marched on campus in the name of policy reform in the past year does not mean the issue has been rectified or needs to be swept under the rug, or that Occidental cannot pave the way for colleges across the country.
If Veitch wants Occidental to innovate its way to a top-tier liberal arts status, he must lead by example. He must open his own floor to the type of democratic dialogue that is so rooted in our social and academic culture. He must get angry about issues that plague student experiences and not redress them through blame or shortsighted listlessness, restricting himself to reactionary measures. Without the president’s aggressiveness toward campus safety, it will be nearly impossible for the board to make any difference at all.
So President Veitch, I implore you to be as active as your students. Listen to their concerns. Watch and read the heartbreaking stories told by survivors. Pinpoint how your administration has broken survivors’ faith and hold your subordinates accountable. Then please—if it’s not too much trouble—lend them your outstretched hand.