UCSB student activists tell university: “It’s not on us. It’s on you.”

Joining efforts of student activists at the University of Chicago and elsewhere, students at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) are turning their university’s watered-down “It’s On Us” PR campaign on its head with a radical new statement: “It’s not on us. It’s on you, UCSB.”

Led by survivors Melissa Vasquez, Lexi Weyrick, and Alejandra Melgoza, the student activists staged an eight-hour sit-in yesterday that led to negotiations lasting well into the night. They demanded that UCSB fulfill its basic legal obligations: provide mandatory consent education, separate perpetrators from victims in university housing and work spaces, and offer free services and accommodations, like medical care and academic tutoring, to help survivors stay in school.

It’s nothing short of absurd to me that UCSB is listed as a partner university on the White House’s “It’s On Us” campaign while simultaneously mistreating survivors and supporting perpetrators. And UCSB isn’t alone in that: of the college and university “It’s On Us” partners, many are currently under federal investigation for Title IX violations.

“It’s On Us” isn’t a campaign for institutional accountability or administrative reform; it squarely places the burden of stopping violence on students, not on university administrators. “It’s On Us” partner institutions enjoy the benefits that come from being seen to partner with the White House to stop rape, while erasing their institutional responsibility — and culpability — to do so. That’s why I’m so glad to see UCSB survivor activists calling the institution’s BS.

I worry that the “It’s On Us” campaign, in the hands of university officials, echoes the empty rhetoric of “community” that college administrators so regularly invoke. It’s on us! (but not all of us.) We’re all in it together! (but we won’t take any number of steps to actually make some of you feel safe and belong on this campus.) Appeal to “community” mutes, co-opts, or coerces into silence particular experiences, desires, and voices, obscuring whose bodies and realities matter, are present, are valued, and are supported within the campus “community.” And often administrators’ invocations of “community” or “togetherness” implicitly devalue difference, critique, and resistance, and delegitimize feelings of isolation, anger, and discontentment.

That’s not to say that “community” as a concept is inherently flawed or meaningless. Back at a UCSB protest, survivor and student activist Alejandra Melgoza chanted, “Whose university? Our university. It’s not on us, it’s on you.” That’s an interesting statement. I think it reflects the tension of being a student activist, or of suffering institutional mistreatment as a survivor — that feeling of being both tenuously within the institution and painfully outside of it. It raises questions of who or what is “the university,” of who gets to speak on its behalf, to claim it as their own, to envision themselves as alternately inside of or external to it. Is the university “the administration”? Is it students? Do the two belong to a community with shared values and aims? Are they fundamentally in conflict? When the activist conjures “our university,” is it strategic or aspirational or reflective of some particular reality? Does it matter?

But the university’s branded institutional appeal to “community” — one that treats community as a natural (rather than political) project and assumes that we are all striving for unity, collectivity, and togetherness — is an administrative tactic, one that serves the privileged and powerful.

Yes, it should be on everyone to stop violence. Maybe it should be on some more than others. And perhaps, as the UCSB survivors point out, it should start with university officials.

New Haven, CT

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and the co-founder of Know Your IX, the national youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools. She's testified before Congress on Title IX policy and legislative reform, and her writing has appeared in a number of outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. She's also a student at Yale Law School, and you can find her on Twitter at @danabolger.

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and a student at Yale Law School.

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