I have heard this phrase before. I’ve heard it from politicians championing a solution and parents reassuring me that all will be okay. But, the first time I truly heard this phrase was during the protest of Princeton’s Title IX procedures last spring. It’s been two months since I’ve graduated, and this phrase continues to haunt me.
On May 15, after 200 hours of occupying the lawn in front of Nassau Hall, the Princeton IX Now movement sent six delegates to a small meeting called by university president Christopher L. Eisgruber. After, one of the delegates came up to me and a few others and told us how it went:
“He didn’t listen to us at all. At the end of the meeting, he said he sympathized with our stories, but that he had complete confidence in the university’s processes.”
Later that day, the Office of Communications issued a statement expressing the same sentiment.
It is strange how university administrators can have complete confidence in a system that failed to listen to individuals who had raised these concerns in private meetings before—in a system that continues to ignore the combined voices of a shocking number of community members. It is strange because this university is the same institution that taught me to question what I know.
During the opening exercises for the class of 2019, president Eisgruber spoke to my class about learning from one another. He said,
There is no simple recipe, no standard set of instructions, for engaging with the diversity of opinions and backgrounds that you will encounter on this campus. You will have to make your own choices about how to interact with the community around you — about when to sympathize, when to argue, when to accommodate, when to confront and when to walk away. But I can confidently give you one piece of guidance: You should strive to understand and learn from the perspectives and experiences of others around you.
This address and multiple other freshman year experiences (talks with my advisee group, my writing seminar on the ethics of persuasion, discussions in the Humanistic Studies sequence) nurtured my appreciation for openness and curiosity. This passion eventually guided me towards Comparative Literature, where I read books to foster empathy and understanding. I wasn’t alone in this endeavor. The greatness of “the great class of 2019” (or any of the other classes I’ve lived with) has always lied in its commitment to thoughtful engagement with divergent views.
The stories that survivors publicly shared demonstrate that there is a problem with the Title IX process at Princeton. Administrators seemed to agree, but they only responded with efforts to fix the problem through the very same channels that the protestors claimed did not work.
The protest itself failed in this way too. Often, privileged voices discounted and drowned out the experiences of other survivors with marginalized experiences. Individuals had complete confidence that their stories and methods were valid for everyone.
And the protest was a physical mess—one that I admittedly found both frenzied and beautiful. I remember so many blurry snapshots from that time: people shivering under the awning of Nassau Hall, grass-stained blankets that never kept my feet warm in the rain, stomach aches from eating the free pizza that professors brought. Sitting on a tarp working frantically to finish a press release amidst a phalanx of committed individuals. 4 a.m. debates about the impact of a single word on the list of calls for reform. Chants and tape-covered mouths. Surges of pride and love as I watched my peers assume the strength and direction of lawyers, generals, leaders. Ready to be in service of the nation—in the service of everyone. Ready to strive to understand one another.
Raising these types of concerns with the Title IX system is not easy; it is an ugly topic, and the Title IX process itself is designed to be discreet. The fear of speaking out compounds the harm that survivors already carry. The protest was born of frustration at the unspeakable natures of both Title IX and the traumas of sexual assault. The protest was chaotic and it was hurt and it was loud.
But this is what happens when one looks at the mess under the veneer of complete confidence. Survivors face re-traumatization as they come forward. Meanwhile, members of our community shudder to see what has always been there and what many of us have always walked around knowing.
Some might say that the protest walked away with nothing. The administration hasn’t conceded anything. But the community is made up of more than an administration, and there are people now who are looking into how survivors can be better supported and how campus culture can change. I want to believe that we are actually striving to understand one another, as we have been encouraged to do at Princeton. I think the protest sparked discussions that will be more thoughtful going forward.
The displays of complete confidence this past spring obscured the truth of sexual assault on our campus. Your Princeton education has taught you to value and learn from one another’s experiences. In order to understand, you must challenge your own assumptions. Questioning your confidence in others is necessary at times. But true growth only happens when you question what you already claim to know.