The importance of sensitivity in dialogue

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September 15, 2015

11:09 AM

It’s hard to identify the exact moment when Associate Dean of Students Dave Gilbert’s speech during Orientation Aide training took a turn for the uncomfortable. What is certain is that the seminar, titled “Amnesty and Community Values,” left some OAs deeply offended, many horribly confused and at least myself wondering how a face of the administration could speak so loosely about sexual assault, one of the most sensitive issues facing campuses across the country.

“Instead of hearing how to avoid hurting each other, we heard how we can best avoid getting a conduct charge for hurting each other.”

Gilbert’s words were unfocused, off-script and, at certain points, frankly incorrect. He detracted from his own message with poor attempts to connect to the OAs through humor, a rhetorical convention the situation simply did not call for.

When Dean Gilbert took questions from the OAs in the audience, he gave confusing responses, and sometimes answered different questions entirely. The Dean’s seminar was full of analogies that didn’t clarify his points, and made many in the room uneasy. Instead of hearing how to avoid hurting each other, we heard how we can best avoid getting a conduct charge for hurting each other.

“However, when a member of the administration engages in conversation with 200 students regarding such a serious matter and uses reckless language and flippant tones, we can begin to ask questions.”

As William and Mary is currently under investigation from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for Title IX, how is this the best the administration can put forward? In preparing to welcome the newest members of our campus community, we as OAs were left wondering not only whether or not we were familiar enough with the College’s sexual assault policy to explain it to the incoming students, but also whether the school is taking the issue seriously enough to, at the very least, not make jokes about it.

I don’t doubt that Dean Gilbert truly wishes to eradicate sexual assault on this campus. I also am sure that the tone we heard in training is not one he uses when handling these cases. However, when a member of the administration engages in conversation with 200 students regarding such a serious matter and uses reckless language and flippant tones, we can begin to ask questions. And when students walk out in the middle of that administrator’s apology statement crying because it left them even more offended, we should ask how members of the administration who see every detail of these cases can speak so insensitively.

“As we begin these conversations, let us keep the dialogue focused so as to eliminate as many gray areas as possible.”

One point that Dean Gilbert frequently returned to is that cases regarding sexual assault come with a lot of gray areas. It is because of these gray areas that everyone on campus, both students and administration, needs to treat this issue with care, so as to best clarify the uncertainty that inherently surrounds the conversation. Using humor, inappropriate analogies and vague hypotheticals does little to advance that conversation. That behavior reverses any progess that has been made in starting an exchange by making people uncomfortable and unsure if they can rely on the administration for accurate information and help.

Regardless of whether or not we are comfortable discussing sexual assault policy, there is going to be a dialogue on this campus in the coming months concerning this very issue. As we begin these conversations, let us keep the dialogue focused so as to eliminate as many gray areas as possible.

Email Josh Baquedano at [email protected]

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  • Joshua Baquedano