SAM COPELAND, NEWS EDITOR | NOVEMBER 1, 2016
All of the events in this article were described to me by first hand witnesses. The names of the students involved have been altered or left out at their request.
It was September 3rd–a Saturday night. Russell and his girlfriend, Mona, were walking through the Village to get the shuttle back home to Red Hook. They had just been at a party and were both drunk.
Russell and Mona were going through a rough patch. There had been some cheating in their relationship and they were both feeling the pressure. When Mona’s shoe fell off, causing her to lag behind, Russell yelled at her to hurry up and kept walking.
A group of sophomore women witnessed this and went over to Mona to talk to her. Although they thought they were being helpful, Mona thought the sophomores were “nosey” because they said things such as, “don’t fall in love with someone who hurts you.”
When Russell walked back towards Mona the sophomores berated him, calling him sexist and abusive. After a brief argument, Russell and Mona convinced the sophomores that everything was alright and that they should leave. As the sophomores were walking away Russell shouted caustically at them, “Yeah I’m gonna rape her!”
Russell is not currently enrolled at Bard. Having been forced to withdraw from classes, he is on medical leave and may or may not return in the spring. He lost ten thousand dollars of tuition money.
The administration was quick to react to his words and enact its punishment. The question being raised here is whether this decision reached by the administration was just and what implications it holds for Bard’s culture. The manner in which the administration conducted Russell’s case was incompetent at best. The question of the outcome and the principles underlying it are more complicated. According to Bethany Nohlgren, the Dean of Students, Russell was punished for “threatening speech” as opposed to “hurtful speech,” which is supposed to be protected at Bard. However, there is considerable, though not conclusive, evidence for thinking that Russell was punished for hurtful speech.
A further question then is whether Russell’s punishment was just, even if it was for hurtful speech. Should students be forcefully removed from our community for making offensive comments? Have we become too sensitive and are our attitudes starting to reap serious consequences? These questions should be raised because they are implicitly present in our daily lives whether we acknowledge them or not.
After Russel made his rape comment the sophomores left and called security. Russell and Mona continued walking. When they reached the Kline shuttle stop, security guards were waiting for them. Russell and Mona were separated immediately. Mona was taken inside a security car by a female guard and questioned. Russell was taken aside by a male security guard.
This male guard had encountered Russell and Mona before. During the previous semester, Russell and Mona were arguing outside of New Robbins and this guard had come over to intervene. Russell was angry at the guard, and angry at Mona, because he believed she had been the one to call security. He began yelling and cursing at them both. A mutual friend of Russell and Mona happened to arrive at the shuttle stop at this point and managed to calm Russell down. After more questioning, Russell and Mona were allowed to go.
The following Monday, Russell claims he received an email from Timand Bates, the assistant Dean of Students, telling him to either come see him immediately or face expulsion. According to Russell, he was barely given the opportunity to speak during this meeting. He said that Bates said that he didn’t trust him, that he thought Russell “had problems with masculinity and women” and that he wouldn’t want Russell around his daughters. When asked about the content of the discussion between Russell and Bates, Nohlgren did not confirm or deny that what Russell claims is true.
Bates then contacted Bethany Nohlgren, and Russell was scheduled to meet with her the following Wednesday. Starting then, Russell was not allowed to be on campus except for scheduled meetings with the administration.
Director of Security Ken Cooper was present at Russell’s meeting with Nohlgren because she felt threatened by him. She presented Russell with two choices, either take medical leave, or have a hearing with the Student Judiciary Board. Nohlgren told Russell that he would “probably be suspended” if he went ahead with the hearing. In the following days Russell contacted his parents and a lawyer. Mona also met with Nohlgren that Friday and convinced her that, because Russell was Indian and Mona was French, it was important to consider cultural factors in the deliberation of the case. Russell decided to go ahead with the hearing and it was agreed that at least one Indian and one French student or faculty member would be present. On September 15th Russell received an email from the Student Judiciary Board telling him that his hearing would be the next day at 9:30 in the morning.
Russell and Mona scrambled to prepare statements. When they showed up to the hearing they were shocked by a number of things. Firstly, there was a French language professor on the board, but no Indian student or faculty member. According to Mona, “to put it in plain words, everyone was white.”
Bethany Nohlgren later claimed that the administration had reached out to Indian students to serve on the board but that they had recused themselves because they felt they could not be impartial. However, I have spoken to several Indian students who deny ever having been contacted by the administration in regards to Russell’s hearing. There was also no silent witness on the board when one is supposed to be present at all SJB hearings. Additionally, there were more faculty members than students on the board, so any decision reached by the students could be overturned by a faculty majority. Perhaps most troubling was that Timand Bates, who had already acknowledged his lack of trust in Russell, served on the board – when I asked Nohlgren about this obvious conflict of interest, she replied, “I’m not going to speak to that.”
Russell and Mona gave their statements separately. Russell read aloud a 3-page statement that he had prepared the night before and was interrupted in the middle of it. When Mona went to speak she told the board that she did not feel threatened by Russell’s words and that she didn’t see herself as a victim. According to Mona, she was interrupted and her statements were not taken seriously. She felt “humiliated” when the people on the board told her that her “credibility was under question” because of her relationship to Russell. As she put it, “they liked seeing me as a victim.” She felt that because her statements did not match the board’s preconceived notions they were simply disregarded. Russell and Mona had also brought a witness: the friend who had shown up at the shuttle stop, but who was not allowed to speak. Mona had also collected a statement from one of the sophomores in which the student said that she had not felt threatened by Russell; Mona was not allowed to present this either.
Russell was found guilty of using threats of violence. The board recommended Russell’s suspension and made to do counseling and community service. After the hearing a professor who had served on the board told Russell that due to the recent Title IX cases being made against Bard “you have to behave in a certain way.” According to Mona, the French Professor told her after the hearing that “Bard is a certain place with a certain environment that needs to be preserved.” It was unclear to her how these comments were related to Russell’s punishments.
In the following days Russell contacted the lawyer again who suggested they look through the Bard constitution. They discovered 12 violations of the Bard constitution. Russell put together an appeal containing his complaints. By chance, Director of the Center for Civic Engagement Erin Canaan saw the appeal, and was shocked by the mishandling of Russell’s case. With Canaan’s help, Russell renegotiated with the administration and managed to avoid having the charges appear on his record. However, because he had missed weeks of classes, it was not feasible for him to continue studying this semester. He went on “medical leave.” He was unable to get all of his tuition money refunded and ended up losing ten thousand dollars, not counting the rent money for his house in Red Hook.
There is no sense in defending what Russell said in itself. It was obviously an idiotic statement at best. Russell himself expressed regret over what he had said while maintaining that he was being sarcastic and that the administration had overreacted. Mona told me that she thought his statement was bad, but that she did not feel threatened because she understood what Russell meant by it. The question then returns to the administration’s reaction to Russell’s statement. It is hard to blame them for their initial suspension of Russell – for all they knew he was an actual rapist. The fact that there was a history of security intervening in their relationship also merits consideration. However, the way they handled the hearing is clearly unacceptable. It is especially disturbing that Mona’s testimony was disregarded, considering that the hearing was supposedly concerned with her safety.
It is tempting to say that the administration was trying to compensate for their history of mishandling of rape cases. Bard is currently facing three Title IX cases and is under federal investigation. It makes sense that they would want to make an example of someone like Russell. Nohlgren said that the college takes sexual assault very seriously, and that the administration has been prompted to make hiring changes, alter the L&T curriculum to include education on sexual assault and to “change the way we do training.” Nohlgren said her goal is for “sexual assault to be eradicated.”
There is another factor which may have influenced the way the administration handled Russell’s case. It is possible that Russell’s words were viewed as in agreement with a kind of language, a kind of humor, or a kind of culture that is seen as antithetical to the Bard community standards. When I met with Nohlgren she spoke at length about hurtful speech. “We have said this from day one: that language matters,” she said, pointing to L&T as evidence of this. She said that “we have a responsibility to educate people” on the power of their words and pointed out that “we remember people on their worst days.” When I asked how these statements were related to Russell’s case, she said they were “totally separate.” However, based on the fact that Russell was punished for making a threat while the supposed victim denied feeling threatened at the hearing, and considering the comments made by the board members after the hearing, this seems unlikely. It is, of course, open to interpretation.
It is important to consider cases like this because they speak to the social climate of the student body. Some students likely believe that people should be punished for making rape jokes. We all know that people are often socially punished for making comments about rape, race, and gender. As fun as it is to judge and punish others, it is also necessary to consider all of the times you or one of your friends made a remark that would have sounded awful out of context, or maybe was just plain awful. It is unfair to blame the administration for overreacting in a case like this if we are unwilling to be accountable for the ways in which we contribute to the attitudes around us. Unless of course you don’t think this case was an overreaction. Either way, we need to seriously consider what kind of culture we want for our college. Obviously we want Bard to be a safe space, but do we want Bard to be a safe space to listen or a safe space to speak? Nohlgren’s words provide a good model for how to proceed: “It’s hard to make these decisions, but nobody takes them lightly.”
To respond to this article, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org