OPINION: Survivors deserve a place at the Athenaeum

A group of students dressed formally sit in an Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, listening to a talk.
Community members attend a talk at the Marian Miner Cook Athanaeum in October. (Nanako Noda • The Student Life)

Editor’s note: TSL’s editorial policy generally prohibits the publication of anonymous opinions content, except in extraordinary circumstances. It’s our judgment that the inability of a survivor to attend programming at Claremont McKenna College’s flagship educational venue is pertinent enough to merit publication. Publicly disclosing a personal history of sexual violence is a personal decision that can incite harrassment, and we have determined that this author should have the ability to make her experience known without facing such hazards. TSL accepts community op-eds and letters at tsl.news/submit.

CW: Sexual assault

“Anita Hill is coming to the Ath.” My hands begin to shake as I confirm the news on the Athenaeum website. Shaking hands evolve into tears as I see Anita Hill, a pillar of strength and survivorship, pictured on the Athenaeum website titled under “Believing.” My tears do not fall until I read the fine print: “Professor Hill’s Athenaeum presentation is co-sponsored by the Open Academy at CMC.”

Although Anita Hill has attended the Athenaeum before, her talk is now wrapped in added layers left behind by Laura Kipnis. I want to be very clear: Anita Hill’s upcoming April 12 talk marks an incredible step forward within the CMC community. Her courage and advocacy work has paved the way forward for survivors, especially survivors of color, to be heard, to be seen and to be believed.

Anita Hill symbolizes so many positive steps forward, and yet I remember what happened last fall in the very same space that will host her this Tuesday. And then I remember all the reasons I will be unable to attend. 

While I have no intention of recapping Laura Kipnis’ October talk, I can still hear every word she spoke, remember every time she invalidated my experience and others’ and feel every emotion I had in that room. As I stood at the door, listening to her empower perpetrators and dehumanize survivors, I said goodbye to my favorite place on campus. My avoidance of the Athenaeum does not embody a symbolic middle finger to the administration or a self-righteous protest. Rather, it is due to my inability to handle being in that space without being consumed by overwhelming panic and fear.

And this is what the CMC administration fails to recognize and address: the invisible weight that survivors carry with them each day. For me, I have (with much therapy, a strong support system and time) gotten far enough in my healing process that I mostly carry reminders of my own strength instead of reminders of the pain inflicted upon me.

But healing isn’t a linear process. When triggered, I can feel physical freezing sensations, numbness, panic and cannot talk.

The intensity of feeling triggered changed many students’ relationship to and comfort attending events at the Athenaeum. Only Dean of Students Dianna “DT” Graves CM ’98, CMC Advocates and ASCMC addressed the pain Laura caused, denounced her beliefs and reaffirmed their support for survivors. The Athenaeum, Open Academy and president’s office remained completely silent. Their silence represents a fundamental disconnect between the CMC administration and understanding how trauma manifests, its nuances and the CMC students’ needs and experiences. Silence emboldens those that share Laura’s dangerous beliefs. 

Students, especially survivors, needed a space to process the talk and immediate validation of their experiences. We needed written affirmation from those in power that CMC does not support Laura’s views and that CMC is a place that believes survivors and only accepts affirmative consent. 

My mind has since filled their silence with questions rooted in deep sadness, anger and genuine betrayal. Do they even care about us? Are they even listening to their students? Do they not believe survivors? Would they believe me?

Open Academy’s sponsoring of Anita Hill was not only a slap in the face but also has dangerous implications. I appreciate the newly found transparency but I am angered at the lack of accountability from the Ath, the administration and the Open Academy for the harm they sponsored on October 6, 2021. 

By co-sponsoring both Laura Kipnis and Anita Hill’s talk, it is implied that Anita Hill is meant to counter Laura Kipnis, following the Open Academy’s “diversity of thought” framework on campus. Sexual assault and consent, however, should never have been on the table to debate, especially at an institution with immense power and respect on CMC’s campus. Expecting and hoping the institution would take accountability does not mean that I believe the Athenaeum or co-sponsor has control over a speaker’s content. However, the foresight they had about the content, should have led to greater anticipation of the damage possible to occur.  

All I want is to learn from Professor Hill, show my solidarity as a survivor and reclaim the space I used to attend weekly. But I can longer enter that room without beginning to disassociate and become extremely anxious. For some survivors, however, Professor Hill’s presentation will offer an opportunity to reclaim the space and heal, for which I am immensely grateful. My aim is not to detract from Anita Hill’s visit, cast judgment on those that attend the Ath or discredit the countless hours that student organizations, like CMC Advocates, have done to support survivors and repair the community. I hope to instead give room for the complex emotions associated with Anita Hill’s talk at the Ath and inspire much needed change to administration’s treatment of students impacted by trauma.

And who knows, I could be alone in this. But if you are also a survivor, or have ever felt angry, powerless and unheard by the administration, then this is for you. 

You are not alone.

The author is a student at Claremont McKenna College.

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