Carnegie Mellon Dropped the Ball

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Carnegie Mellon Dropped the Ball

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Hi there.

I know this is going to start to sound like a lot of the negativity that you've come to associate with social justice blog posts, but bear with me for a moment. You've been sent this because you can (probably) do something about what you're about to hear. What you are about to read might upset you, but I promise I'll only try to upset you once, and I also promise I won't try to guilt trip you about who you are. So stick with me? I'll try to make it worth your time.


Nicole's story

A few weeks ago, Carnegie Mellon student Nicole Ickes (@insertsymbols) posted on her blog something that shocked and upset me. She told the story of her personal experience of being sexually assaulted, and how CMU – our university – not only ignored her, but dehumanized her by insisting that she was a liar. Some time later, she was repeatedly harassed by her then-roommate; again, CMU ignored her and accused her of lying. Despite being torn apart by what happened to her, she still somehow had the strength to intervene in the case of a friend about to commit suicide, and bring it to the attention of people who should be responsible. The University ignored her. As a result, the stress of all of this ended in Nicole failing all her classes; the University let her slip through the cracks.

That's the gist of it, anyway. Obviously, I can't do justice to her story in just one paragraph; a summary in six sentences, by its nature, will elide many of the important details. If you have time, I encourage you to read Nicole's story to get a clearer picture of what happened. She talks more about, for instance, the systematic violation of her Title IX rights, and a handful of the specific circumstances that made things worse than I could describe above.

The fact that these three things happened to Nicole are unfortunate, and didn't need to happen to her. But that's not what I'm primarily upset by. I'm upset that Carnegie Mellon tried to sweep it under the rug. I'm upset that the University, and its administration, failed her on all levels. I'm upset that the University's police department turned a bad situation into a worse one by failing to take an assaulted student seriously. And, most of all, I'm upset that they don't even know they screwed up.

I'm angry about this, and I hope that you are too. But here's the part where it's different from all of these stories that you read across the web: you can do something about it. A week ago, I sent President Jared Cohon a letter expressing my concerns; I need you to take action, too, to tell Carnegie Mellon that you know what's happening, and that you want answers, too.

We need your help

On May 28, 2012, a FedEx-ed letter to Jared Cohon, from me, arrived at his office. Inside, I detailed my concerns; I also included a printed copy of Nicole's original post. If you want to read it, I've attached it here:

Now I'm counting on you. I need you to tell three people:

  • Tell Jared Cohon. Tell Jared Cohon that you know about Nicole's story, and that you want answers too.
  • Tell your friends. If you were a Carnegie Mellon alum, you probably know more alumni who haven't seen this yet.
  • Tell me. If you have a moment left over, it'd be great if you could let me know that you've seen this, so that I can count how many people are aware of what's going on.

That's the overview; now here's how.

Tell Jared Cohon.

It's important that the Carnegie Mellon administration knows that a network of alumni are informed and involved. The best way for them to know that, then, is for you to write them a letter! Obviously, your letter doesn't have to be as detailed as mine; the important thing is that the administration reads many letters of support from many people. In your letter, you should mention:

  • who you are (i.e., an alum, or a student);
  • if you're an alum, what year you've graduated;
  • if you've donated recently, that fact;
  • that you know about Nicole's story, and about the letter that I sent;
  • that you support Nicole;
  • and that you hope the University can come to a resolution on this soon.

If you have other contacts at the university, feel free to cc: them.

If you need help getting started, here's a sample letter:

Dr. Cohon,

I'm writing with regards to Joshua Wise's recent communication with you about the concerning events that happened to Nicole Ickes over the past few semesters. I'm a donating alum ([college, year of graduation]); I, too, am very concerned about Nicole's story.

I'd like to make it known that I support and stand behind Nicole Ickes; I think that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, especially the victims of violent crimes. [Feel free to add your own reasons here in the stead of or in addition to what I wrote!]

I hope that my alma mater can come to a rapid resolution on this issue. From my time at Carnegie Mellon, I know that our University always tries to do the right thing, in the end; I hope that we can make this case right as well.

Thank you,
[your name]

Of course, I hope you will rewrite it in your own personal style, and personalize it with your own message. Please be firm, but also be polite and respectful when communicating your message to the University; this incident is an opportunity for them to make widespread changes that can make the University a better place for everyone! Remember, we're here to solve problems, not to make enemies.

When you're ready to send your message, you have two options:

  1. You can mail your letter. If you want to do that, send it to:

    Jared L. Cohon
    Office of the President
    Carnegie Mellon University
    5000 Forbes Avenue
    Pittsburgh, PA, 15213

    I FedEx-ed mine, but you don't need to do that; normal USPS mail will be just fine. Make sure to include a return address, and enough postage!

  2. You can send it electronically. The Office of the President has a form with which to submit your letter.

Tell your friends.

Once you've told CMU's administration, the next important thing is that you tell your friends. We need lots of people to know what's happening here. Here are a handful of easy ways that you can get your friends informed and involved:

  • Post to Facebook. Post a link to this page; use some text that explains why this is important to you. End your post with a 'call to action' – ask your friends to also send letters to Carnegie Mellon.
  • Tweet a link to this page. Make sure to mention @CarnegieMellon in your tweet, so that they can see, too! I suggest a phrasing like: “My university, @CarnegieMellon, dropped the ball on a sexual assault case, but we can help make them make things right.
  • Talk to alumni networks. If you were a member of a sorority or fraternity, talk to people who you know there, and make sure that their members (and their alumni) know what's going on, and get involved. If you were involved in another social organization and it would be appropriate to do so, reach out to them, too.
  • Tell your friends in person. If you regularly hang out with other alumni, talk about what happened to Nicole! Tell them why you're upset, and what they can do to help.

This is a much more substantial opportunity than many other similar cases, because it directly touches those of us who were and are Carnegie Mellon students. As alumni, we can unite around this incident; this isn't a case of something bad happening in a far away land, but instead of a student that could well have been each of us. So, when you get involved, remember that your voice isn't meaningless; and when you tell your friends, remind them of that, too.

Tell me.

Once you've sent your letters of support, I'd appreciate it if you'd take a moment to let me know that you're involved. It helps a lot to be able to track how many people are getting involved, so I can understand how effectively all of us are reaching other alumni, and how effectively we're reaching the University. Providing any information at all is totally optional. The most important thing is that you've told the University that you're involved – anything else is secondary.

I've created a form that you can submit your response into; it'll take no more than a minute, I promise, and you don't have to provide any information about who you are.

Latest updates

My letter arrived at Dr. Jared Cohon's office on May 28th. You can read what I sent here:

On June 5th, I received an e-mail back from Gina Casalegno, the Dean of Student Affairs inviting me to a meeting by phone to “discuss [my] concerns”. I accepted, and we're working on picking a time. I reiterated that direct answers to the questions in my letter are also necessary.

On June 6th, I spoke by phone with Gina Casalegno. She informed me that there is now a Title IX coordinator (Amy Burkert) at Carnegie Mellon, as a result of the 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter. In the event that complaints come forward about the school's handling of any given case come forward, Amy is responsible for handling them. My read is that the process is somewhat transparent, and somewhat opaque; occasionally there will be interactions with the student, as needed to gather more detail, but primarily the investigation is handled internally. Hearteningly, in at least one case, Amy has discovered that the University had not handled a case appropriately, and initiated an internal investigation, even without a direct external complaint. In any event, Amy is involved in all formal complaints; it would be safe to assume that she is involved in this as well. During that conversation, I was assured that Jared Cohen is also tracking the progress of this as well, and that he was briefed before my conversation with Gina.

I requested a short written statement from Gina; she provided me with one on June 7th, as promised. Obviously, she cannot discuss much detail of this specific case, since even though Nicole has published directly, the University still has confidentiality requirements that they must uphold. I'm not sure if Nicole can waive those at her option; even if she can, I suspect that the University would not like to be in a position of having to publicly contradict Nicole, even on small matters.

The following is an excerpt from Gina's response to me.

Following the issuance in April, 2011, of the “Dear Colleague Letter” (DCL) by the Office of Civil Rights, Carnegie Mellon reviewed our existing policies relating to sexual assault and sexual harassment to confirm that they are consistent with the spirit and intent of the DCL. We made a few procedural changes as a result, and in the coming year will consider additional changes as part of a broader, previously scheduled, review of all University policies.

Last summer we formally named and publicized a newly-appointed Title IX coordinator who is responsible for overseeing all Title IX complaints and identifying and addressing any patterns or systemic problems that arise during the review of such complaints. Our Title IX coordinator is Dr. Amy Burkert, Vice Provost for Education.

Were we to receive a complaint or report from a member of our community, whether relating to Title IX or other matter, our standard response is to reach out immediately to the affected individual, first to support them, and then to better understand the situation so that it may be remedied. The handling of all Title IX matters by those charged to do so under applicable University policies is reviewed by the Title IX Coordinator to assure that our process was sound, that it met our standard of care and concern for our community members, and to be sure that there were no systemic issues evidenced by the cases under review.

Her response is in line with the discussion that I had on the phone with her. She seemed genuine in her response; it seems like the University is at least on a pathway to make some improvements. In the coming weeks and months, I suspect that a more thorough review will determine really what went wrong here; I look forward to engaging with the University to get closer to resolution on this.

I will continue to provide updates here (from either Carnegie Mellon or from Nicole) as I receive them.

Thank you!

By way of closing, I want to thank you for your support. I know that it's difficult to face that these sorts of bad things happen to people in 2012, and I know that it's angering to know that they happen at our university. So, I want to thank you for sticking with me, and if you sent a letter to the University, I want to thank you for that; it means a lot to me.

If you wish to get in touch with me, don't hesitate; my contact information is on this website. I'll try to get back to you as soon as I can.

Thanks again.