Trust in Institutions: Pomona College and Title IX

In the last year, I have struggled to define my relationship with Pomona College as an institution. Some days, I have nothing but love for the school and the staff members who dedicate their existence to ensuring students have the tools they need to succeed. Others, I find myself floating alone, doubting the administration’s intentions.

As a senior, I am forced to ask myself if I trust the institution that I am a part of, that I spend hours each week contributing to, and that I have convinced others to dedicate themselves to as well. I am hesitant to come to a conclusion. Perhaps my reluctance results from the disillusionment intrinsic to being a politics major. Alternatively, I could just be in denial. Acknowledging the flaws of the institution that I am so intertwined with feels like an admission of defeat.

Three years ago, in my first year at Pomona, I did not read a single email from Dean Feldblum. As I struggled to get through my calc II problem sets, I sat back and observed more talented and driven students dip their toes, ligaments and occasionally vital organs into various organizations that contribute to Pomona College. 

Now, I am one of those students with what feels like the majority of my innards tied to groups and programs that work within this institution. My biggest commitment is the Title IX Coalition (TIXC), which works to provide safer, consent-minded spaces to students across campus.

At this point, I am so fully immersed in the Pomona bubble that I read every single one of Dean Feldblum’s emails. So, a few weeks ago, when a fellow student posted a witty Facebook status expressing frustration with her notices, I eagerly grabbed my phone to give the email a gander.

The status satirically identifies the uniformity of every notice to students. Paraphrased, it reads, “Dear students, There is a problem. We are working on the problem. We have actually been working on the problem for a long time.”

I chuckled at my classmate’s wit as the email loaded. By the time I finished reading her note informing students that Pomona had received a U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights Title IX complaint, I was far from laughing. Resignation and complete lack of surprise engulfed me as I scrolled through the email a second time.

The one positive aspect of this email was its transparency. The school let no grass grow under its feet before informing the entire Pomona community, including parents. For that, I am thankful. However, everything else about the email is discouraging.

Pomona College lauds its high levels of support for students, maintaining the veneer of support and provision of resources for all marginalized identities. However, too often the administration fails at this endeavor.

Every month it seems as if there is a new instance in which the school fails to provide the support it purports to offer, whether students are denied the right to protest, are left without the right to justice in their sexual assault cases, or are abandoned in times of mental health crises.

In the email, I searched for the section promised by my classmate’s post in which Dean Feldblum wrote something to the effect of “We are working on the problem. We have actually been working on the problem for a long time.”

Sure enough, it was there. The portion reads, “We are fully committed to working with the Office of Civil Rights as we share the same goal: preventing and eliminating sexual violence in all forms.  Our community has been working together for years to address this issue through ongoing education, prevention, support and enforcement programs, and identifying new ways to improve the College’s response to sexual violence…”

Hyperlinked to the words “working together for years” is the letter President Oxtoby sent out this June. The impetus for this letter was a series of steps taken by Yenli Wong PO ’15 to petition for reforms to the school’s sexual misconduct policies.

President Oxtoby’s responded to her efforts with an open letter carefully detailing every step the college has taken to both prevent sexual assault and support survivors. However, if this is the product of years of work, this list of eight steps is not enough. Our community needs more.

TIXC struggles to maintain itself with a minute budget within an institution that I worry would rather ban all parties than try to actually confront face on the relationship between alcohol consumption and sexual assault at Pomona. There are particular administrators and deans who go out of their way to support TIXC. These individuals keep us afloat and give me faith, but it still feels as if the tide is moving against us. 

I am eager to hear what the Title IX Working Group announced in September has to say at the end of this semester. Hopefully, it will inspire progress. However, considering the way things of this nature have been resolved in the past, I am hesitant to put too much faith in it, and I know others share my concerns.

My friends in student-run organizations work to make this campus safer, dedicating time, energy, sweat and tears to their missions. In an environment where students tirelessly try to make things better, how are they expected to continue when it seems the odds are stacked against them? Why is the gap between this institution and our student body widening? Can we find new means of communication? Does the administration care to try?

As these questions circle around my mind, I find myself doubting the future of Pomona College. If this trend continues, the student body’s disillusionment with this institution will increase and trust will erode. Hopefully, students will continue to fight for progress, but that is an increasingly tall order in our present environment.

Libbie Wilcox PO '16 is the president of the Title IX Coalition and dreams of one day living on a dairy farm.