Davidson has been an incredible place for me to learn how to articulate and actualize my values. Across my four years I’ve had incredibly positive experiences, ones that I’ve reiterated to random strangers, family members, and prospective students alike. I think there’s a strong need, however, to criticize the places you love and fight to make them better. In my deep gratitude for my life here and the opportunities I’ve been given, I’ve sometimes erred on the side of silence instead of criticism. Now, as I look ahead to the next steps in my life and graduation, I realize I have something to say.
While working for Davidson, I was sexually harassed at work by a fellow student and coworker. I brought this to my boss’s attention. She referred to it as “middle school boy’s humor”. I brought it to her boss. This dean met with me one-on-one. He asked me to meet in Chambers, then left me waiting in the lobby standing while he looked for a room. He suggested we go into the Lilly Gallery instead. Set up for an event, the room dwarfed our bodies and the tension hung heavy in the air. Still, when he pulled two chairs out from the assembled rows and sat down to face me, I felt confident I would be heard and vindicated.
Instead, after he made me repeat details (including specific comments) that I had already reported to my boss (his employee), he frowned. “I’m so sorry this happened to you, Erin.” His eyes feigned understanding, but this sense was punctured when he followed that statement with a question: “What have you learned from this experience?”.
I laughed out loud, and waited for him to retract his statement. The air was pregnant with silence, and eventually had to give birth to my comment. “What did I learn? I guess……” I paused here, assessing the situation and how daring I wanted to be. “I guess I learned that the institution that I love so much, that I’ve given so much of myself to over the past three years ultimately doesn’t value me as much as a straight white boy who doesn’t really deserve to be here.”
The dean chuckled and looked uncomfortable. “I don’t know how….how you can say he doesn’t deserve to be here…we don’t know….we don’t know these things….” he trailed off. He reiterated statements about his intentions, made generous eye contact with the clock on the back wall of Lilly Gallery, and eventually ended the meeting. As we left the room and walked out of Chambers he made an uncomfortably forced attempt to ask me how I was doing otherwise. I lied a “fine” through my teeth and went back to my dorm in a rage.
Thus I was “heard” but institutionally not listened to. I understand that I am definitely not the first person who the institution has failed. Seeing friends report sexual assault had already hardened me to the cold realities of the ways that misogyny, selective ambivalence, and bureaucratic incompetence weave together into a thick braid of excuses and legalise. Yet I still sat shocked, wanting to pull all the comments I’d made to friends, family, and prospective students about the benefits of Davidson right back into my throat, and vomiting from the weight of anxiety in my body.
I called friends, some of whom recounted other situations with the same individual who harassed me, others of whom simply cried out in empathetic pain and frustration at the institution they, too, love(d). A friend who works for the college called HR to advocate on my behalf. She received a cold reception.
HR reached out to me about a week later “to get my side of the story” but also to tell me specifically that I should not exaggerate what happened to people outside of the situation. I heard: Be silent. My situation was catalogued, categorized, but largely dismissed. I felt judged, disbelieved, and ignored.
Even as I think about my situation, my immense privilege comes to mind. After I went to see my friend at the college at her office, we talked about liability and blame. We talked about proving what happened. We discussed college policy and after I left she looked up the name of a woman at HR to talk to. She was able to approach that woman with a Davidson diploma, white privilege, and a knowledge of institutional politics. None of this could fully rectify the situation, since the institution holds the keys to resolution.
Yet among the obscure administrative fog, bright lights shined through. My friends gave me incredible support. A supportive employee put her job and professional reputation on the line to support me. I leaned on community in wake of Community failure.
At points following my own situation and situations of friends I wondered if I would be able to fall in love with Davidson again before I graduate. That is still a process, in which the writing of this piece plays a big part. But this all brings me to a tweet I read from Cory Booker, senator from New Jersey. He writes “If this country hasn’t broken your heart, you probably don’t love Her enough.” While I circulated a screenshot of the tweet to fellow disgruntled citizens in a political context, his words can be applied here.
If Davidson hasn’t broken your heart, you probably don’t love Her enough. You might not have been ears open, eyes wide. You might not yet have been the one who a friend opened up to. To my fellow students: Invest deeply enough in this place to see its flaws during your four years. Support those around you. Speak truth to power, even if it doesn’t make any traction. Our voices, magnified by each other via the incredible mode of empathy, need to continue to keep the administration accountable.