Following incidents of sexual assault, Northwestern University's student government called for the immediate suspension of multiple campus fraternities on Wednesday, February 8 through a Facebook post. We spoke with Northwestern student body president Christina Cilento about her leadership on this issue.
NCLC: Was the decision to put out a statement calling for fraternity suspensions a difficult one? What support did you receive from your student government in the process?
Christina Cilento: The decision was actually one that our entire Executive Board, including multiple members of fraternities and sororities, agreed on. What was difficult was agreeing on when the fraternities should be suspended— either immediately or after the investigation found them responsible.
Some members were concerned with respecting the process of the investigation, while others (including myself) wanted to call for immediate and indefinite suspension. In the end, we decided the fraternities should be temporarily suspended for the duration of the Title IX investigation and then removed from campus if they were found responsible.
But reaching that decision took two separate hour-and-a-half meetings, one at 8 a.m. the day following the announcement of the assaults, and again at 10 p.m. that night. So it was a process, for sure. But we’re all proud of the result, and we’ve received really positive feedback from the members of our student government.
NCLC: Have you faced any backlash from the student community for your stance? How are you handling it?
CC: If there’s been backlash from the student community because of our statement, no one has approached me about it. I’ve only gotten positive responses and people thanking us for taking a strong stance. Our Facebook post with our statement reached about 14,000 people, had 240 likes and was shared 50 times, which is pretty good by our measures.
One person commented on the statement concerned about “due process”, but that’s the only negative reaction I’ve heard. I’m sure there are those who disagree with us, but they’ve been pretty silent, at least to me. By and large, I think the majority of the student body – including Greek leaders – wants to see these fraternities held accountable and removed if they’re proven responsible.
NCLC: What do you believe student governments and student body presidents across the country can do in order to better support survivors of sexual assault?
CC: First, make sure you’re standing up when an assault occurs on your campus that the entire community is aware of (in our case, an email was sent to the student body, which brought it to campus’ attention) and letting the campus know that you believe the survivors involved and condemn assault or harassment in any form. Work with student groups that fight sexual assault to see if there are any causes they’re fighting for that your student government can partner on.
For instance, you can fight to improve your campus’ definition of consent, make sure all students are trained on consensual sex and bystander intervention, and review the Title IX reporting and investigation process so survivors are supported (make sure they can take a friend or advocate to any hearings or meetings, make sure there are no students on any panels or committees that would hear other students’ cases, etc.).
When you’re at a loss for what to work on, refer to student experts in other groups to inform your actions. And make sure your efforts aren’t only focused on supporting those who have been assaulted, but also on preventing future assaults from occurring.
NCLC: Northwestern Interfraternity Council said in a statement on the group's Facebook page on Wednesday that leaders plan to start a task force to address the problem of sexual assault. Do you believe this task force will be effective? What hopes do you have for IFC in their approach to solving this campus crisis?
CC: Task forces are a classic default response in the student government world. While I think forming a Task Force to look into the issue of sexual assault in fraternities is a great step, I don’t think it’s a radical enough action. Task forces are slow-acting and often come to conclusions that could’ve been reached before their formation. You don’t need a task force to prove that sexual assault in fraternities at Northwestern is a problem, and you don’t need a task force to come up with some simple solutions, like mandatory and frequent trainings on consent, greater oversight at parties, etc.
What I really want to see IFC do is advocate for the removal of the fraternities involved in this situation (SAE and another unnamed fraternity), and continue to hold their brothers accountable for their actions by suspending chapters that cannot provide a safe environment for the entire campus. I hope the Task Force proves fruitful, but I think that IFC can be taking bolder action.
NCLC: What advice would you give to other student body presidents navigating similar crises on their campus? What duty do you believe student body presidents have to their community in such challenging or controversial times?
CC: Do what you think is right, regardless of how it will be perceived by your campus. An SBP’s responsibility is to look out for the safety and wellbeing of other students, and if you’re appalled and enraged by a situation on your campus, let the student body (and the administration) know that. You can shape discourse and campus opinion with your words and actions, so use your power and access to do so.
For me, it was most important to stand with survivors of sexual assault and let them know that we believed them and would fight for them, so that’s what we communicated in our statement when we called for the removal of fraternities. Even if not all students agree with our statement, and even though the investigation into these reports is still ongoing, we did what we thought was right, and we feel really good about that at the end of their day.