Anita Hill speaks on solutions, rhetoric at closing of UC Berkeley sexual assault conference

Anita Hill delivers the closing keynote address of the National Conference on Campus Sexual Assault and Violence in Wheeler Auditorium on Wednesday.
Survivors of sexual harassment and assault placed colored sheets of paper with quotes on the steps outside and criticized the lack of inclusion at the conference.
Jihoon Park/Staff
Anita Hill delivers the closing keynote address of the National Conference on Campus Sexual Assault and Violence in Wheeler Auditorium on Wednesday. Survivors of sexual harassment and assault placed colored sheets of paper with quotes on the steps outside and criticized the lack of inclusion at the conference.

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Professor and activist Anita Hill addressed the need for transparency on the part of college campuses Wednesday night, amid student criticism surrounding the UC Berkeley-hosted National Conference on Campus Sexual Assault and Violence.

Hill — known for accusing then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991 — sat down with UC President Janet Napolitano and UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks at Wheeler Auditorium to discuss various issues related to sexual violence. The event marked the closing keynote of the conference, which some students criticized for failing to fully involve sexual assault survivors.

“(Compared to 1991) now there’s a greater likelihood of sexual harassment of being reported,” Hill said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “But one of the things that I have learned is we’re not talking about one behavior — it’s a whole spectrum of behaviors that ranges from verbal harassment to physical and sexual assault.”

Those entering the event were met with colored papers blanketing the steps in front of Wheeler. They displayed quotations provided by survivors demonstrating how friends, family and school administrators had allegedly invalidated their assaults.

One quotation on the steps, allegedly said to a student by an administrator, read “How many times did you say no?”

“By putting the testimonies of survivors on the steps, (administrators) can choose to walk alongside us or walk over them, as they have done in the past,” said UC Berkeley sophomore Thanh Bercher.

Advocates and survivors denounced the limited space for students at the conference, which had 100 seats reserved for students, 50 of which were saved for UC Berkeley students specifically. They also criticized the conference’s distance from campus — most of it was hosted by the DoubleTree Hotel near the Berkeley Marina.

ASUC Student Advocate Rishi Ahuja agreed that the conference could have been more accessible to students. Yet he said he, along with several students, spoke on panels and was consulted in the planning of the event.

Other students referenced what they consider the small number of sexual assault survivors involved in planning the event as troubling.

“I’m so upset and heartbroken that we’re trying so hard and we’re not being listened to,” said Meghan Warner, director of the ASUC Sexual Assault Commission. “There were good aspects of the conference, I’m not saying it was horrible, but they keep saying ‘work with us.’  But then they don’t invite us to work with them.”

The visual demonstration was intended to bring the dialogue back to the campus, Warner said, and refocus attention to survivors’ experiences.

Although she spoke at a panel at the conference, Warner said she chose not to attend certain events at the conference Wednesday that she described as problematic. Warner and other students also described a panelist alluding to the concept of lynch mobs when speaking about the reporting of sexual assault.

After a UC Berkeley graduate student brought up these concerns during the question and answer portion of the keynote speech, Hill said the kind of language described echoed that used against Southern schools during desegregation.

“I’m concerned with the rhetoric,” she said at the event. “We have to be very aware of it and realize that it’s consistent with our history. There’s always this counter, this resistance … but the right to a safe educational environment is so fundamental that we shouldn’t get sidetracked by this type of rhetoric that is used just to keep people in that status quo.”

UC Berkeley has been under federal investigation for its response to sexual assault and harassment cases since last year, when 31 current and former UC Berkeley students filed a complaint alleging that the campus violated  Title IX, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination that interferes with educational opportunities.

The campus’s recent efforts to combat sexual violence include educational programs, which students must complete in order to register for classes the following semester, and the hiring of a confidential survivor advocate.

“(Students on our campuses) are entitled to feel safe,” Napolitano said at the event. “We have a lot to do in that regard.”

Staff writer Ivana Saric contributed to this report.

Contact Arielle Swedback at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @aswedback.