Columbia Gets Citizenship Wrong

Ashley Thorne

Heather Mac Donald has a trenchant article in Commentary on Columbia University's new mandatory sexual assault prevention program called the "Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative." The "Community Citizenship" part of the title is mysterious but surely it corresponds to a certain type of citizenship Columbia wants its community to learn. One of the program's aims is to train students for "bystander intervention," when a student who is too drunk to consent to sex is in danger of being taken advantage of. So presumably being a good citizen at Columbia means intervening in such gray areas, where "bystander" interference is always unlikely. Mac Donald says that instead, "university administrations should perform an 'intervention' on the entire booze-fueled hook-up scene." 

Freedom of conscience and freedom to focus on academic work aren't factors in this version of citizenship. A Ph.D. candidate who chose to focus on his research rather than prioritze the program's requirements is now facing academic discipline. He told Mac Donald, “People like me might be losing the right simply to be silent, to be left alone. [...] For the first time I, along with anyone else remotely willing to dissent, am not even being allowed to stay quiet and keep my opinions to myself. The initiative implies that agreement with the ideology—indeed, with a university-mandated code of sexual ethics—is actually required for attendance at this institution.”

Citizenship has always been conditioned on virtue, but the version of civic virtue Columbia is forcing on students comes in the form of last-resort intervention rather than a substantial confrontation of a deeply troubled culture of casual sex harmful for women. The university coerces students to waste time that could have been productively spent in relevant academic work, and it requires students to agree with a pre-set ideological code in order to graduate. On the meaning of citizenship, Columbia has misfired.

Image: Alma Mater by Daniel Chester French / Creative Commons

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