On Tuesday Oct. 19, College President Donald P. Christian and Student Association President Jordan Hennix hosted Hot Chocolate with the Presidents: an open forum for them to share campus updates, answer questions from students and hear any concerns students may have had, according to an email and flyer shared with campus members.
But the event grew tense when President Christian refused to answer questions and concerns raised by members of New Paltz Accountability (NPA) about the state of sexual assault on campus. NPA is an off-campus student-led group advocating for increased safety for community members and survivors of sexual assault by advocating for specific policy changes on campus.
Two members of the organization asked the two presidents general questions about how they felt the school handles sexual assault before asking about about a specific policy.
“We do our research and find out more about how [the school] functions around sexual assault and we’ve come to the belief that the school fails survivors in various ways,” said Karl Velikonja, a fourth year visual arts student and member of NPA. “The school should be as transparent as possible. Every single resource and statistic.”
“We have a petition that is asking — really demanding — the school release the number of complaints received by the Title IX office, the type of complaint and the number of expulsions,” Velikonja said to the presidents, after describing these demands as “baseline” asks. “I would like to ask both of you if you support this and if you’ll sign this petition.”
The president responded that this was too complex of an issue to answer, before turning his body and attention away from the student.
“I’m not going to respond to these kinds of demands. They’re not in the spirit of the event,” Christian responded. “You’re trying to ask me to respond to something that is far more complex than you’re capturing. Please develop a respectful email, send it to me and we will be sure to give it the proper attention.”
After a brief back and forth about whether releasing these numbers would help survivors, Christian ended the exchange.
“This is not a place to have a discussion about a complex topic like this. We can turn to another question,” Pres. Christian said.
“Any time is the proper time to talk about an issue that affects so many women and men and students on campus,” the member of NPA replied at the event. “To silence us and to silence survivors by saying we cannot talk about these issues here is blatant suppression. This is a simple petition regarding statistics. They are not that complex. They are numbers.”
The hot chocolate forum continued to see students raise several questions about on-campus policies. One student expressed that she felt it unfair that students in renovated dorms and students in non-renovated dorms are paying the same cost of room and board in rent. Vice President of Student Affairs, Stephanie Blaisdell, answered that it’s something the administration converses on regularly, but has ultimately decided to keep in place in order to avoid creating a socioeconomic divide.
Another question regarded why students must pay over $20 to withdraw from a class, amidst already paying thousands of dollars in tuition. Student Association President Hennix validated the concern and invited her to meet with him to work on a proposal to eliminate or reduce the course withdrawal fee.
The state of how accessible the campus is and what leaders are doing to move towards increased accessibility also came up. The President said each time a building is renovated, wheelchair accessibility is considered in its renovations.
Pres. Christian also shared positive updates, such as how the school raised $24.7 million in fundraising and is also rising in the ranks in the U.S. News and World Report.
“We continue to work to educate the entire campus community about affirmative consent and we support reporting and supportive resources through a trauma-informed and survivor-centered approach,” Pres. Christian wrote in a statement he made to The Oracle. “This is an important conversation and not one that can be effectively discussed ad hoc, which is why I requested the student present his petition so that we can determine who are the best college administrators to respond to his questions.”
In a statement NPA made to The Oracle members said, “If that was not the time and place for that discussion to be held, as he said, we believe that he should allow us a specified time and place to have that discussion in public where all of our community can be present. That’s what we want at the end of the day: transparency.”
The organization continues to demand that the school release the number of reports of sexual assault the school receives, the type of report and how many expulsions it has resulted in. As of now, the college only includes the number of assault complaints of survivors who have pressed charges and who the school has deemed guilty.
The campus says there were four sexual assaults in 2020 and seven in 2019.
“It’s obvious that it’s more than that and if the school disagrees with that, they could just share those stats and show the student body that nobody else has reported being harmed,” says Amélie Fauquenot, a second-year Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies and sociology double major and member of New Paltz Accountability. “But they’re not doing that. They’re not trying to be transparent.”