LOS ANGELES — In the great hall of the central building at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) last Thursday, hundreds of students gathered to work through the aftermath of an alleged rape. The incident — “alleged” because the assailant was found guilty by the school but not criminally prosecuted — became part of the public record through an Al Jazeera America article earlier this month. That account details the travails of the victim, identified as Regina, as she took her sexual assault case to the administration and faced retribution from a small campus bitterly divided between the camps of accuser and accused. Seeking to rehabilitate a system that they say has failed them, the CalArts students congregated on Thursday afternoon after staging a walkout from their classes, followed by a peaceful occupation of the school’s administrative offices, the first such action in recent memory. Both the collective action and ensuing public meeting represented a rare instance of student-initiated congregation across métiers at CalArts. “What we’re seeing is a tremendous surge in activism,” professor Matias Viegener told Hyperallergic, “but it’s often cyclical.”
One by one, students took turns addressing their peers at the microphone, with occasional contributions from members of the faculty who’d joined the assembled in their desire to reform the institutional culture at CalArts. Surrounded by posters and artworks dealing with sexual assault and community empathy as well as broader institutional concerns, like the skyrocketing cost of tuition, the speakers addressed everything from the definition of rape — one young man referred to it as a “spectrum” that begins with an “objectifying look” — to very specific demands about the administrative system for adjudicating claims of sexual assault and school-wide training on consent. (At the request of student organizers who invited Hyperallergic to the meeting, we have omitted participants’ personally identifiable information.)
“From their initial response in the spring to their follow-up to the student’s response this fall, the administration appears not to have handled this issue well … they need to account for their actions, policies, and procedures to the CalArts community,” Viegener told Hyperallergic in an email. The writer, artist, and critic, who has been at the school for 27 years, noted that “a majority of the faculty is very troubled by this, and is in solidarity with the students calling for change.”
At the meeting, another professor described how the school’s Title IX coordinator, a federally mandated administrator whose sole duty is to hear allegations of sexual discrimination and misconduct, is part of the logistical side of the institution, not the academic side, thus ensuring his alienation from the student community. Other speakers echoed a desire to see CalArts adopt a more rigorous mechanism for responding to victims of sexual assault. There wasn’t always agreement, though rebukes remained respectful. For example, the aforementioned participant who insisted that rape was a “spectrum” was disagreed with by a number of others, who acknowledged that objectification was part of the problem but argued that rape must be sharply defined in order for meaningful punitive measures to be employed.
Towards the end of the hour-and-a-half long discussion, specific action plans were presented and assigned on a first-come basis to individual student volunteers, ranging from logistical matters like coordinating the faculty’s involvement and demands for transparency regarding adjudication procedures to the broader imperative of encouraging students to “address the culture of violence” with their art. Indeed, many already have, with roughly half of the second-year MFA students opting to display a related “community text” either in lieu of or adjacent to their artworks in a current exhibition. The text, consisting of a list printed on letter-size paper, contains such injunctions as “We want a school that cares about consent” and “We want a school that is radical.” Numerous printed sheets posted throughout the building’s corridors called for a return to “shared governance.” Signed “Mickey Leaks,” with reference to the school’s founder, Walt Disney, the flyers enjoin students to anonymously submit information about administrative malfeasance.
The peaceful occupation of the school’s administrative offices that took place between the walkout and the meeting included some faculty, among them the artist and professor Sam Durant. As the group sat on the floor and furniture, an assistant to CalArts president Steven Lavine reportedly fielded a call from the Los Angeles Times: “Yes, they’re on the floor in here … ” This was not the first direct action this semester that aimed at disrupting the school’s administrative proceedings. On October 15, students interrupted a meeting of the board of trustees — which includes the actor Don Cheadle and Austin M. Beutner, publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times — to share a document detailing the contents of the Al Jazeera article about Regina’s case. Cori Redstone, an MFA student who has played a key role in organizing these activities, further claims that the administration engaged in a concerted campaign to remove posters critical of its handling of the sexual assault issue ahead of a parents weekend earlier this month.
The CalArts press office has not responded to repeated requests for comment about the walkout, occupation, and community meeting. (A spokeswoman did tell the Los Angeles Times that the number of students involved in the walkout was “substantial.”) Reached by telephone, an official in the CalArts provost’s office declined to comment beyond disputing that the meeting on Thursday represented a rare instance of community-wide engagement, noting that while it might be the first such meeting this year, the school gathers as a community “a couple times a year” — though such meetings are planned by the university itself. The student activism comes as school sexual assault policies have fallen under scrutiny nationwide: CalArts is currently one of 85 colleges being federally investigated for their handling of such cases.
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