• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


Sex, Class and Race

Factors that matter.

November 30, 2014

There. I have distilled the analytic framework of my doctoral education. Just about anything from social to cultural historiography could theoretically be understood if broken down by those factors. Too simplistic? Of course, just as it is to parrot back blithely the four (Lessig) factors used to analyze the Internet (market, technology, social norms and the law).  But does it work as a starting point to gather one’s thoughts in an organized manner such that the enormity of a historical moment can be better understood by adding complexity of human nature and experience along the way?  It sure helps, whatever its limitations.

I mention it because it is precisely the framework to which I returned while reading about the recent University of Virginia Board meeting wherein they discussed the recent revelations about rape and sexual abuse on campus.  Let it be said: UVA is not the first, or only, and, sadly, not probabilistically, the last institution of higher education that will publicly struggle with this issue.  Several years ago while Director of IT Policy at Cornell University, student life organizers of a workshop on campus violence invited me to speak on electronic communications – chain mails – that played a marginal but contributing role in an episode on campus.  At one point some women students were talking about frats and drinking and a “train.” Listening literally, I turned to a colleague and asked him to what they were referring.  He turned and looked at me and said, “I would rather not say.”  The figurative part of my brain kicked in and then it hit me. I did not go through college a prude or a tea-toddler, but something out of the scope of my experience was happening at some of the most elite institutions in the country.   Caring about students in general, and preparing my two boys who were in middle and high school at that time, I have been keeping my eye on this issue ever since. 

It therefore did not surprise me too much more – but continued to sadden me – when such references came up in social media.  Gossip sites exposed and exacerbated the issue.  The negativity that Juicycampus, CollegeACB and now Yik Yak generated circled around issues of sex and sexuality, ethnicity or race, and class, although the latter a little more murkily so built into, for example, comments about the character of different fraternities or sororities, or how people dressed, spoke or about from whence they came (trailer park jokes appear to be in vogue), etc.   I abhor categorical prejudice of all kinds as fundamentally dehumanizing, but I further noticed that at the end of one day, derogatory comments about women and sexuality persisted the longest.  Judging by the women crying in my office, they seemed also to inflict the most lasting harm.  

The volume of student disciplinary actions on this issue, Office of Civil Rights “Dear Colleague” letters, individual cases that made headlines all suggested that the rest of higher education was paying increased attention too.  When this summer the New York Times put Hobart and William Smith Colleges on the front of its Sunday edition, the issue became front and center.  California passed a controversial policy on sexual relations between students.  Yik Yak comments resulted in protests at Colgate and Syracuse.  Presidents spoke out, for better or worse; some blocked content on networks.  Administrators and faculty members who sit on judicial hearing boards began attending full day training workshops rather than simply “volunteering” to be a panel because they had an “interest” in the issue. West Virginia shut down its Greek life until further notice.  New cases, including at Ivy League institutions, hit the headlines, stressing one point or another: student judicial process verses law enforcement, due process or policies, but always coming back to sexual assault and rape.  

UVA, which has become a lightening rod in the last few years for a variety of high profile issues, punctuates this story for colleges and universities nation-wide.  Well that it should, given its fascinating history.  What other institution better illustrates the nexus of class, race and sex?  Founded by Thomas Jefferson, it embodies the contradictions with which the United States have been wrestling with since its inception: equality, its glittering promise and profound disappointments.   Higher education both shapes and is shaped by influences; it reflects them, and yet it can also be the site of searing critical thinking and social commentary.  In short, it can be a beacon of important social change.

It would be wrong to hang too much attention on UVA.  U.S. higher education if anything is diverse. As much as the institution represents, it does not speak for all institutions and people who inhabit that landscape. But that said, to become the site for sustained, meaningful change on this issue would truly make UVA the leader that it believes itself, and aspires, to be, self-stated in its own current Cornerstone Strategic Plan.  To do so, however, it must go deep.  And it is not clear whether countervailing influences, often assuming the mask of alumni relations and keeping up appearances, won’t having it soon tacking back to the status quo.   For example, last week’s headline was about the connection between drinking and sexual assault and rape.  Drinking, no doubt, plays a role, but as amplification, not cause.  The more essential matter revolves around relations of power, how and in what ways U.S. higher education in general and UVA in particular contributes to or challenges those increasingly exploitative dynamics.  In some ways, this issue is as simple to identify as it is complex to address: sex, race and class for starters. 



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