Scarlett Hudson went to the University of Pittsburgh’s town hall meeting on Wednesday expecting to hear solutions and next steps from administrators. But the junior left feeling dissatisfied with much of the university’s response.
“I didn’t feel any more satisfaction than I did before I went into the town hall meeting,” she said.
The meeting, organized with the Student Government Board, was held in response to student outcry over a reported sexual assault at the Cathedral of Learning about two weeks ago. The attack is the third sexual assault report the university has issued a crime alert for this academic year. Members of non-student media were not allowed to attend the event.
Dean of Students Carla Panzella contacted several leaders of student organizations on Wednesday for further discussion about the recent assaults and campus safety concerns, according to an email from an involved student. Students are continuing to call on Pitt to take action, with one student reading an open letter at the town hall with demands for improved survivor supports and sexual violence prevention education, according to The Pitt News.
While students came with questions, concerns and suggestions for paths forward, several who spoke with PublicSource after the event felt that administrators did not sufficiently answer questions or provide tangible solutions for tackling sexual violence on campus. Students during and after the town hall criticized the panelists’ responses for focusing on existing campus resources, which they said are not always a helpful or comfortable option.
“They’re just throwing us resources and expecting us to use them, and a lot of the resources they are saying, and they are providing to us, a lot of students don’t feel comfortable about,” Hudson said, referencing the Title IX office and the campus police.
The event’s panelists included Pitt Chief of Police James Loftus; Sexual Assault Facilitation and Education [SAFE] Peer Leader Meenu Ramasamy; Gender Discrimination and Title IX Response Manager Zachary Davis;Assistant Vice Chancellor for Compliance, Investigations, and Ethics Laurel Gift; and Director of Student Conduct Matthew Landy.
Davis discussed the work of Pitt’s Sexual Violence Prevention and Education Office and SAFE peer educators when a student asked how the university is preventing sexual violence and using experts in response and prevention, The Pitt News reported.
Seniors Eva Steele and Gayatri Gupta-Casale of Project Healing Sideways, an independent survivor-led organization focused on intimate partner violence, felt the university shifted the burden onto student organizations to create change.
“One of the main points of frustration for us was asking how the university was going to better elevate survivor voices and being told that is our responsibility,” Steele said.
“It’s difficult to be expected to take on that guilt. We’re students. We’re also trying to get through school. It should not be our jobs,” Gupta-Casale added. “We’re doing it because we need to and because we care, but it should not be our responsibility.”
Sophomore Katie Emmert, who read the open letter during the town hall, described the event as “frustrating” and felt that the administrators’ responses were inadequate and lacked compassion for the student speakers.
“It’s frustrating that a group of students can find so many gaps with the university and what they’re not doing,” Emmert said. “This was just from talking for a week, two weeks, and we came together and we had this whole list. What are they doing?”
Hudson noted that the university quickly took action in 2020 to implement a required course on anti-Black racism in response to protests over George Floyd’s murder. Ahead of the town hall, she wanted to know how Pitt would be addressing male chauvinism, bigotry and violence against women and queer people.
During the town hall, Ramasamy said a SAFE peer educator and an official in Pitt’s Title IX office are working to develop a one-credit course related to sexual violence prevention, later clarifying to The Pitt News that the idea is recent and still in a research stage.
“As of now, there is little information, little solid plan, about any other institutional ideas about how to address that,” Hudson said.
Junior Audrika Khondaker said she wanted the panelists to state that Pitt will push for mandatory sexual violence education for sororities and fraternities. Zachary Davis, gender discrimination and Title IX response manager, said during the town hall that Greek organizations do not receive mandatory education, though Pitt conducts a dialogue series.
“They kept deflecting the question at first, until it was being pushed upon,” Khondaker said of the mandatory education. “I’m just very dissatisfied about everything that was stated.”
Sharon Bennett, a junior, also wants the university to do more to hold fraternities accountable. Last week, Interfraternity Council President Michael Liu posted a statement calling the Cathedral attack “sickening” but also stating that the recent assaults show that “anyone, including you or me, has the capacity to conduct harmful behaviors whether that be under the influence of a substance or out of desperation,” according to The Pitt News.
When a student at the town hall asked if Liu will face consequences for his statement, a panelist declined to comment on his conduct record due to confidentiality. Another told the student that they are able to file conduct referrals against other Pitt students.
“I think it’s important to address that post because that came from the president of that association,” Bennett said. “If we’re talking about what we want to see the university do, it’s hold fraternities accountable. It’s shut down fraternities with instances of sexual assault and rape and holding them accountable for education.”
Panzella said the university heard students’ concerns, even if the panelists could not provide answers to all of their questions. “In your questions, in your frustration with not getting the answers, we understand where the gaps are,” she said, according to The Pitt News.
Hudson would like the university to understand that taking a stand is important to cultivate trust among the campus community.
“If I am fully going to immerse myself in university life and university culture, I have to make sure I can do so while feeling safe and feeling like I am not constantly prioritizing my fight-or-flight response at the same level that I’m prioritizing my academics.”
Emma Folts covers higher education for PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus.