Why Harvard Should #JustSaySorry For How It Handled My Sexual Assault
By Kamilah Willingham
Yesterday, I watched my friend and colleague Wagatwe Wanjuki burn a sweatshirt from Tufts University, demanding that her alma mater apologize for mishandling her report of sexual assault when she was a student there.
It made me wish I’d kept more things from Harvard Law School just so I could burn them now.
While she burned her once-beloved sweatshirt, Wagatwe talked about feeling invalidated and ignored by a school she was once so proud of. This resonated pretty hard with me, as I’m sure it does with other survivors of campus sexual assault whose trauma has been compounded by institutional betrayal. I know that we’re not alone in this — and I know that we’re not alone in being outraged and baffled that more schools have not simply acknowledged and apologized to survivors.
Wagatwe and I met at the 2016 Oscars (NBD!) while rehearsing to go onstage with Lady Gaga during her powerful performance of ’Til it Happens to You.’ As two Black women who are prominent survivor-activists in the still very white space of campus sexual assault activism, we found that we had a lot in common. Our work and activism has brought us together many times since.
This includes earlier in the summer when we were both at UVA facilitating a three-day training for administrators from several schools in the region. While we were debriefing after the last day of training together, Wagatwe mentioned how dehumanizing it’s been for Tufts to refuse to even acknowledge her after what they put her through.
Her words resonated with me then as they do now.
We talked about how our schools’ respective silences in the wake of their blatant errors reek of cowardice and hypocrisy — how could they possibly promote honor codes and academic integrity when they hold themselves to such low standards of accountability? We also talked about how our ongoing sense of abandonment and betrayal by our schools has been a significant factor in how we’ve been able to heal.
That’s when we came up with the idea for the #JustSaySorry campaign, which seeks to highlight the inadequacy of schools’ silence and to demand apologies for their widely recognized and almost universal failures to prevent and meaningfully respond to sexual violence. A couple months later we met up at the Netroots Nation Women’s Pre-Conference. Instead of bar-hopping with other badass activists as we’d planned, we stayed up all night talking about #JustSaySorry and all the things we’d like to see happen in the anti-violence movement. We also talked about how Black women had started anti-rape activism in the U.S. — yet we still felt like we’re very much on the margins of these now-mainstream movements fighting gender-based violence.
We want to change that.
We don’t want to live in a world where people whose very identities are politicized and marginalized have to continually appeal for inclusion in conversations in which intersectional approaches are considered “extra credit” — we want those identities to be centered and validated in the fight to change cultural narratives around gender violence. And thus, our nonprofit, Survivors Eradicating Rape Culture, was conceived.
Every week we’ll be burning items that represent institutional betrayal and demanding apologies for us — and all survivors — who’ve been let down by their schools. As a part of our launch, Wagatwe burned her Tufts sweatshirt. Today, I burn my Harvard sweatpants. If or when we run out of things of our own to burn while we await apologies, we’ll burn items that other survivors have sent to us. We also invite other survivors and allies to conduct and share their own burnings or other actions in line with the #JustSaySorry campaign. We want institutional accountability to be the norm, not an exception.
I hadn’t held onto much from Harvard Law School, but I have kept a pair of Harvard-emblazoned sweatpants tucked away in the back of my closet where I store things that I don’t want to deal with.
I remember buying these sweatpants during my first winter in Cambridge — they were the first item of Harvard swag I owned. I had this idea that displaying the Harvard name on my body would shield me from racial and sexual harassment while I schlepped around Cambridge, letting people know that I did in fact belong there. I felt self-conscious wearing them outside of Cambridge because I didn’t want to come off as pretentious, but at the same time I was really proud to be a Harvard Law student and part of the Harvard community. My whole family, in fact, was proud. My grandparents, who fought in the Civil Rights Movement, were especially proud. I’d planned to follow in their footsteps and become a Civil Rights hero, a Black woman whose work and existence were empowered and legitimized by, of all things, the distinguished Harvard name.
Sadly, those sentiments did not last.
Nowadays, as an alum, I rarely drop “the H-Bomb.” When asked, I tell people I went to law school “in the Boston area” and will go out of my way to avoid having to mention Harvard Law. I’m no longer flattered by how impressed people are by the Harvard name because I think their reverence is undeserved. I came to this conclusion painfully — after it had become clear to me how little that revered institution values some of its students.
I thought I’d done everything right after my friend and I were sexually assaulted by my classmate, a guy whom I trusted and considered a friend. I reported the attack almost immediately to the police and to my school, trusting that I could count on something resembling justice — especially given my assailant’s multiple partial confessions in writing. Although the school’s investigation felt like it was designed to “prove” me a liar and that they’d held me to a “clear and convincing” evidence standard of proof — in violation of federal civil rights law (due to the popular mythology that women lie about being raped, a rape victim’s word is rarely deemed “convincing” so the proper standard is preponderance of the evidence) — somehow my pro-bono attorney and I were able to prove to the independent investigator and to the administrative board that my assailant had, in fact, committed sexual assault. The board recommended the sanction of permanent expulsion and he was not allowed to return to campus the next year, temporarily confirming what I hoped was true: that I was valued and deemed worthy of protection by a school that had a zero-tolerance policy for sexual predators.
About a year after I graduated, I found out that he’d been readmitted after an appeal hearing (of which I was not notified and to which I was obviously not invited) that confirmed my assailant’s guilt and a subsequent series of secretive faculty meetings; the administrative sanctions against the man who sexually assaulted me were entirely overturned and he was allowed to return to Harvard Law School. I had a very hard time accepting this outcome, so I spoke out about it in the documentary The Hunting Ground while continuing to cooperate with law enforcement in their felony criminal case against my assailant. I had also filed a successful Title IX complaint against my school with the Office of Civil Rights.
I didn’t really expect my school to apologize then — but I also didn’t expect my school to remain silent while 19 of the professors who presumably helped overturn my assailant’s sanction very publicly doubled down on his side, extending my rape trial into the court of public opinion and joining my assailant’s efforts to brand me as a vindictive, slutty liar. Nor did I expect these Harvard professors to paint my participation in The Hunting Ground as me enacting a public vendetta against my assailant — yet they did, while nonsensically claiming he was “innocent.” All this despite the fact that I never mentioned my assailant’s name in The Hunting Ground because, although I think he’s a piece of shit rapist, I’m not really concerned with him.
What concerns me is how institutions like Harvard betray and endanger students who trust them.
The morning after he sexually assaulted me and my friend, my assailant kneeled next to my bed and looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m sowwy.” It was a creepy and hollow apology — and it didn’t stop him from denying what he’d done later on. Still, he displayed more integrity in that moment than Harvard Law has in the more than five years since I reported the sexual assault. Isn’t that something? My rapist apologized to me. But my school, which investigated my claims during a painful and humiliating process, found my rapist responsible and kicked him out only to allow a group of faculty to let him back in without so much as a smudge on his transcript — my school has yet to utter a single word of apology or accountability.
I’d worked so hard to get to Harvard. And I worked even harder to get through it. It was very hard both academically and because it’s an abrasively elite, white, male-dominated space. It’s not easy being a Black woman in the Ivy. Still, I survived three years in that place, I survived being sexually assaulted by a classmate there and was still able to graduate with accolades from my professors — only to be dismissed, degraded, and treated as if it was my classmate’s right to finger me and my friend while we were unconscious. I was not valued, and, as a Black woman at Harvard Law, there was seemingly nothing I could do to prove that I deserved for my school to stand by me when I was so brazenly degraded.
So I’m burning my Harvard sweatpants. And until and unless they apologize, I’ll burn anything else that I have that suggests Harvard Law School is a school worthy of being celebrated — a school with integrity.
I don’t like carrying around this anger. I thought attending Harvard Law School would amount to the greatest achievement of my life; that decision now feels like the biggest mistake of my life. I have PTSD and a six-figure student loan debt to remind me of that every single day. It’s a lifelong debt, and it’s not fair. I would pay any amount of money to not have had the experience of sexual assault and prolonged institutional betrayal. The pain that Harvard Law has caused me far outweighs the value of my $200,000 legal education so, if anything, Harvard Law School owes me.
I would like Harvard Law to take a break from congratulating itself for finally acknowledging and disavowing its ties to slavery, from patting itself on the back for having enough students of color to provide for a diverse collection of photo ops; I want Harvard Law to stop bragging to its students and alumni about how much thought they’ve put into their new sexual assault policies for one moment, or as long as it would take to apologize for how they’ve failed students like me.
But Harvard Law’s Dean Martha Minow never apologized for what she allowed to happen when she thought no one was watching. Harvard University’s President Drew Faust has never apologized to students like me and Ariane Litalien and Alyssa Leader, whose lives have been derailed by Harvard’s failures, or to the students like the ones who met me with tears in their eyes when I visited campus last spring because they knew from experience what hell I went through.
An apology could never undo the institutional betrayal I’ve experienced. An apology could never make me feel pride again in the school that effectively endorsed and excused the actions of the man who sexually assaulted me and my friend while we were unconscious. An apology could never undo the deep sadness and humiliation I felt when 19 of my former professors joined forces with my rapist in an attempt to discredit and silence me.
But an apology would, maybe, help me heal that part of me that still questions my own value because my alma mater treated me as if I were worthless, undeserving of dignity and respect. An apology may help relieve me of some of my anger — not the productive kind that led me to write this, but the burdensome kind that weighs on me with recurring nightmares and seemingly unpredictable panic attacks, the kind that threatens to turn inward because I feel powerless to be seen and acknowledged by the school I may spend the next several decades of my life paying a senseless emotional and financial debt to.
I want Harvard Law School and Harvard University to humble themselves before their community and to apologize for the ways they’ve let down all survivors who look to Harvard and expect institutional courage and leadership. I want them to acknowledge the students who have felt less safe and less valued because of the school’s mistakes. Harvard University and Harvard Law School need to apologize to people like me who were driven to bear our trauma in public because it felt like the only way to ensure accountability and force Harvard to reexamine the way it treats survivors. They need to apologize to the students who privately reported their abuse to the school and were quietly let down, and to the students who didn’t and won’t report being sexually assaulted because it feels like an unsafe and futile option.
When the leaders of Harvard University and Harvard Law School apologize for the failures that necessitated the policy improvements they’re asking students to place their faith in, then they will be in a position to talk about how they’re going to do better. And then maybe I won’t be burdened by the urge to set fire to every reminder of my time at one of the “most prestigious” universities in the world. But until then, I will continue to challenge the hollow promises of Harvard and similar institutions that have not yet done the bare minimum to earn the trust of survivors who rely on them for safety and community.
If that means I’ll be setting things on fire every week for the foreseeable future, so be it.
Lead image: Survivors Eradicating Rape Culture