It was a crisp Tuesday evening, and the Trumbull dining hall was filled nearly to capacity, a steady line of students flooding in and out of the faded mahogany doorframe. Amidst the noisy banter on extracurriculars, midterms and weekend recaps, however, were Andrea Villena ’15 and Ari Zimmet ’16, who chose to converse on a topic of slightly different gravity: sexual misconduct at Yale, and the most effective means of combatting it.
For Villena, such conversations had quickly become routine. After penning an opinion piece in the News — a critical take on Yale’s Communication and Consent Educators (CCE) program — she had spent much of her weekend fielding requests from CCEs like Zimmet to meet and discuss her skepticism. Melanie Boyd ’90, assistant dean of student affairs, emailed Villena mere hours after the article’s publishing to request a meeting regarding the “various details [she] seemed to have missed” about the role of CCEs on campus.
The CCEs’ immediate outreach, far from assuaging Villena’s concerns, unnerved her all the more. Her piece, “Rethinking CCEs,” was sharply critical of the program’s administrative ties, sketching these student employees as a part of a university public relations strategy. Given these insinuations, a CCE reaction was largely predictable. For Villena, however, the nearly “frantic” and concentrated outreach efforts served merely to affirm her article’s larger sentiment.
“It’s pretty troubling that CCEs just seem completely incapable of taking criticism,” she said. “So many groups at Yale are criticized on a daily basis, but you don’t see them having a breakdown about it.”
The idea of feedback would become a central factor behind Villena’s concerns — not only for the CCEs’ “inability to handle” criticism, but also for the student body’s general leeriness to offer it. It’s a trend, she says, that proved most troubling when she watched it plague the discourse within her own group of friends, many of whom are CCEs themselves.
“I’ll be having normal conversations with my good friends who are CCEs, and if I casually ask how things are going with the program, they become completely different people, as if they have some kind of script they’ve rehearsed beforehand,” she said. “I think when students see their CCE friends take on this robotic nature, it makes them afraid to offer up their actual feelings on the workshops or anything else.”
But for all of her apprehension, Villena readily admits that her first dinner with Zimmet struck an encouraging note. She deems him an “unconventional” CCE, rooted in his willingness to acknowledge the “artificialness” the program may reflect. Armed with this shared line of reasoning, Villena left Trumbull that evening with a heightened sense of optimism. She’s quick to interject, however, that her original unease remains more palpable than ever.
“I think it’s a natural concern when students are paid by the administration to promote its policies,” she said. “You can’t help but feel like a lot is going on there that we don’t know about.”
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The vision for the CCE program began to grow as early as 2008, when Boyd introduced a class assignment in her Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies seminar “Theorizing Sexual Violence.” The exercise — an intervention project — asked students to work in groups and closely observe the dynamics of sexual misconduct surrounding them on campus.
The project gave Boyd a new perspective on how sexual violence prevention could be achieved through more creative and collaborative means. After beginning discussion of the CCE idea with Yale College Dean Mary Miller in 2009, Boyd saw the program’s official formation take place in the wake of a Title IX complaint filed in 2011 by 16 students and alumni to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The undergraduates who make up the CCE team are screened by Boyd herself through a written application and interviews. Their responsibilities involve leading workshops for freshmen and sophomores and education sessions for registered student organizations, all aimed at teaching students how to identify and prevent sexual misconduct.
While Boyd encourages CCEs to stay true to themselves when carrying out the program’s aims, there remains “a handful of core precepts of CCE-dom,” she said, including: respecting individuals’ decisions, grounding opinions and programs in data, and strengthening positive ideals whenever possible.
“In interviews, I look for students who value the ideas of their peers, students whose instincts are collaborative rather than denunciatory, students who come up with creative, often oblique approaches to the hypothetical problems I pose,” Boyd said. “While the patterns of sexual violence can appear to demand ferocious opposition, that’s not a good strategy for true community change.”
Of the several reforms that occurred in the aftermath of the Title IX complaint, the CCE program is the one most directly linked to the student body, focusing on how peers can help each other promote a healthier campus culture. For Matt Breuer ’14, a communication and consent educator, the CCE’s role is to step in and direct the conversation on Yale’s sexual climate, a position most appropriate for “trained educators.” As students who commit their energy to understanding the nuances of University policy, Breuer says CCEs have a “duty” to respond swiftly to misguided criticisms of the administration’s sexual violence prevention efforts.
Such is why, when Facebook newsfeeds exploded on July 31 with aggressive condemnations of Yale’s semi-annual sexual misconduct report — and, more specifically, the seemingly lenient punishments given to assailants — Breuer and other CCEs were quick to post their own statuses defending and clarifying the report. Similarly, Breuer promptly responded to Villena’s op-ed, both commenting on the article itself on the News’ website and addressing its shortcomings to his Facebook audience. (Boyd asks, but does not require, CCEs to “check with [her]” before making any formal public statements, in order to minimize “unintended consequences,” such as a quote being taken out of context.)
“As students who have gone through training on these issues, and those with a deeper understanding of university policy, I think it’s important that we step in whenever we can to point out when people might be misinformed,” Breuer said.
It’s a privileged knowledge for which Breuer, and other CCEs interviewed, have Boyd to thank. Given her initiatives that prioritize preventative over reactionary measures, Breuer counts Boyd’s leadership as a definitive marker of progress in Yale’s fight against sexual misconduct.
“So far, I really do think [Boyd] has done things perfectly for the program,” Breuer said. “There are very few people who could do her job as well as she does.”
Mitra Yazdi ’15, a CCE, echoed this sentiment wholeheartedly: “I trust her completely,” she said, noting that Boyd’s academic background on these subjects — including a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in women’s studies — gives her directives a necessary layer of thoughtfulness and foresightedness.
But it’s precisely this level of unbounded trust that causes some students to view the program with reservations.
A Yale College senior, who asked to remain anonymous given his close friendships with some CCEs, and not wanting “to be emailed by Dean Boyd like [Villena],” condemned the administration for co-opting Yale’s “brightest minds” to promote its policies. In essence, he said, the critics have devolved into the cheerleaders.
“It worries me that we’re taking some of the best minds and just pushing them toward defense of the university, instead of having them think creatively about the ways the university is both good and bad,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that [CCEs] are brainwashed, but I don’t know if they realize that this administration is the same one that covered things up just a few years ago.”
And while the Women’s Center’s Business Coordinator Elizabeth Villarreal ’16 doesn’t align herself with these sentiments, repeatedly voicing her support for the CCE mission, she acknowledges how the sincerity behind the program’s efforts could easily become lost in translation.
“I think there can be a disconnect between the calm, well-trained personas that Melanie [Boyd] and the CCEs give off,” she said. “There’s a disconnect between that and the actual level of anger surrounding issues of sexual climate… the fact that she seems so collected, not concerned and not angry — that worries people.”
Even so, Breuer displays a remarkable sense of pride in the direction the CCE program is going, highlighting the productive dialogue he believes it has spurred across campus. From this praise, however, a concern similar to that of Villarreal arises, that a perception gap between CCEs and the general student population is overshadowing the laudable work the program actually fosters. Unless CCEs commit to actively bridging this divide, he says, the program risks remaining cloaked by an ether of distrust.
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“Are those the people that gave the presentation — the froyo skit?”
“No, I haven’t heard of them.”
“I know there are CCEs and CHEs… I’m trying to think of which does which.”
“I have heard of CCE, but I don’t know anything else about them.”
For over 15 students interviewed, these musings represent the predominant perception of CCEs at Yale. Their responses lend credence to Breuer’s earlier contention, that a lack of concentrated communication between CCEs and the student body is perhaps diminishing the program’s overall contributions. According to Boyd, however, a quieter presence has become a central feature of the CCE program.
“Always, though, the bulk of the CCEs’ work has been low key, often behind the scenes,” she said, but then added that the CCEs are “thinking more about when and how it is helpful to make that work visible.” These “low-key” duties, Boyd noted, involve working with groups who want to revamp a problematic tradition; connecting people with the resources they need; and consulting with party throwers on how to create the safest and most positive environment for attendees.
Yazdi points to her own experiences, recalling times in which she met with leaders of Greek organizations such as Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Pi Beta Phi to offer advice on planning upcoming parties. For her, such collaborations represent one of the most exciting and progressive facets of the CCE program, but she admits that it’s one very few people know even exists.
“I don’t know, maybe that’s a bad thing,” she said. “We’re doing all these really great things for campus, but at the end of the day, it’s frustrating that nobody seems to know.”
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As CCEs attempted to allay objections to this summer’s sexual misconduct report, a separate group of students sought to mobilize. Instead of the quieter approach that the CCEs were endorsing, these Yalies wanted action.
Fifteen students, energized by a petition begun by Emma Goldberg ’16 on change.org, submitted an open letter to President Salovey, its contents including a comprehensive list of policy demands. The students detailed their vision for a disciplinary standard in which expulsion would be the primary sanction for perpetrators of sexual misconduct.
These students would ultimately organize under the umbrella of a brand new student group — Students Against Sexual Violence at Yale, better known as SASVY.
Since returning to campus, SASVY members have experienced an administrative readiness to discuss policy changes, and, at the very least, acknowledge the legitimacy of the group’s aims. As a purely student-led effort, SASVY lacks the institutional ties afforded to the CCE program, but SASVY member Hannah Slater ’13 MPH ’14 remains confident that her group’s collective voice will carve out a lasting space at Yale.
“At the end of the day, CCEs are employed by Yale and may not want to compromise that relationship by being too angry or pushing too far,” she said. “So we have an advantage now of being outside activists — we have distance, and that enables us to be a little bit more critical.”
Despite SASVY’s positioning as a more critical counter to CCEs, Slater acknowledges that the scenarios published in August represent a good starting point toward a more transparent student and administrative relationship. The scenarios, issued in response to the backlash against the semi-annual report and its lack of case specificity, serve to outline certain imaginary incidences of sexual assault and the form of punishment that would accompany them. But while Slater concedes that such a rapid administrative response was heartening, she’s careful to note that the scenarios would never have existed were it not for the palpable outrage coursing throughout campus.
Yet Breuer, along with Villarreal and Suzanna Fritzberg ’14, a former Women’s Center board member, remain unconvinced that SASVY’s “ill-channeled anger” is a positive step toward promoting productive conversations on campus.
“I don’t really know what [SASVY’s] goals are,” Villarreal said. “I do think that their grievances are legitimate, but I think people who direct anger in this way… you know, you forget that there’s only so much the administration can do. You can be angry, but at some point you should recognize that the administration can’t give you all the answers.”
The perceived divide between SASVY and CCE reflects a failed attempt at collaboration, Fritzberg said. Ultimately, she noted, the two groups both hope to curb the incidence of sexual assault at Yale, fostering a culture that is both preventative and appropriately reactive. Unless SASVY and CCE attempt to understand the other’s preferred methods, this larger goal could potentially be lost altogether.
“Anger is good,” she said. “But I wonder if with SASVY, it’s not being expressed in a way most conducive to real progress.”
Overall though, most SASVY and CCE members view both groups as necessary foils to one another. But in the eyes of Alexandra Brodsky ’12 LAW ’16, one of the 16 Title IX complainants in 2011, who also assisted SASVY in drafting its open letter, the two camps reflect irreconcilably different attitudes toward Yale’s sexual climate. While the two groups champion the role of education in their respective missions, she underscores that SASVY is unafraid to explicitly address questions of violence and discipline.
“CCE talks about froyo,” she concluded. “SASVY talks about rape.”
* * *
Earlier this semester, Zhuohan Li ’17 and the rest of the freshman class joined their respective freshman counselor groups for their first consent and communication workshop. The workshop’s aim was to facilitate constructive discourse on the many faces of sexual assault, but rather than tackle the issue head on, Li and others were presented with the task of “role-playing” with frozen yogurt.
In groups of two, freshmen took turns acting out various scenarios organized by the CCEs. Freshmen were instructed to consider their interactions within a range of constructed contexts — one student takes on the role of a club leader; the other, of a new member. The group leader invites the new member to grab froyo, and then a slew of prescribed situations begins to take place. For instance, the group leader is very casual about the request, and the new member would love to go, but really can’t tonight; the group leader needs to get the new member to the froyo shop for a surprise party, and while the member doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t want to damage his new relationship with the group; the group leader is enthusiastic about going, with the new member responding in kind.
Mary Kate Dilworth ‘16 remembers vividly her frustration with the workshop.
“It was frankly kind of ridiculous,” she said. “It was trying to teach people their own boundaries, like how to say no [to unwanted sex]. But it wasn’t something that would ever come up… Someone was just pressuring you to get froyo. It was stupid.”
Other students commented that the workshop, rather than leaving them with a more informed understanding of the nature of consent, merely fueled feelings of apathy and humor. Patrick George ’16 recalled that the workshop was “more the butt of jokes than anything else,” something he deemed strange given the gravity of the topic at hand.
For Villena, this cognitive dissonance underscores a more fundamental problem with the CCE program: the glaring perception gap between the CCEs themselves and the students they are attempting to educate. In her eyes, the program’s work is undeniably positive, a “necessary” institution to a sexual climate as scrutinized as Yale’s. But with a subject as urgent as sexual assault, she concluded, euphemistic tones only serve to confuse and alienate a student body otherwise willing for a true education on the issue.
“I think the CCE program is great — the education they’re doing is not being done anywhere else,” the anonymous senior echoed. “But I’ve watched my friends go from the administration’s most vocal critics to suddenly becoming employees of the administration, and then defenders of the administration. That’s my biggest concern. At the end of the day, the administration consistently, consistently, consistently neglected to prosecute rape, and I just wonder if the CCEs have forgotten that.”
But Boyd stresses how individual CCEs are urged to draw from their own convictions when it comes to addressing any student concerns or high-profile episodes on campus: “The CCEs think for themselves and are all the more powerful for it,” she said. Further, she notes that the CCEs are likely to see the administration as a group of people they know and work with closely, not an “anonymous mass.”
While Boyd characterizes this notion as “obvious,” some students don’t see it that way.
Ultimately, for Yalies, confusion with the program is rooted in an inability to separate the seemingly dual identities of CCEs. On the one hand, CCEs are viewed as well-educated students, their perspective offering a sense of relatability to the general student body. On the other, CCEs’ position as paid employees leaves many students feeling suspect, as they’re unable to determine which advice is genuine, and which directives are merely a scripted subset of University policy.
And most troubling of all, according to Villena, is that CCEs do not seem able to determine which is either.
“It just baffles me that I can’t have an honest conversation about the program with my closest friends,” she said. “Are they our educators or our peers? Because you can’t be friends with your teachers. You just can’t do both.”
Stephanie Addenbrooke and Isabelle Taft contributed reporting.
Correction: Sept. 30
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Elizabeth Villarreal.