Hundreds of UMBC community members gathered on Thursday, September 20, for an open listening session on sexual misconduct, in a painful and powerful moment for the university.
A large crowd rapidly filled the Fine Arts Recital Hall and then two overflow spaces in the biology building and library, connected through a live video feed. As everyone took their seats, ready to begin, a sense of quiet tension filled the space—a community taking a breath, ready to speak and to listen.
UMBC leadership, the Student Government Association (SGA), Graduate Student Association (GSA), We Believe You, Resident Student Association, National Pan-Hellenic Council, and Student-Athlete Advisory Committee co-organized the session. Collin Sullivan ‘19, information systems, president of the Student Government Association, and Kim Spadafora ‘20, mathematics, vice president of We Believe You, served as moderators.
Representatives from the UMBC Counseling Center, Women’s Center, University Health Services, Green Dot, and Relationship Violence Awareness and Prevention advocates were onsite to provide support if needed.
“This event is about listening,” said Spadafora, in her introduction. Sullivan emphasized that although the session was for all community members, and their support was appreciated, the organizers’ goal was to “center the voices of UMBC students.”
UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski also gave a brief introduction at the start of the session. Reflecting on a week of meetings with students, faculty, staff, and alumni, and in particular hearing from survivors of sexual assault, he said, “I am so sorry. I want to say to all of you that I apologize, because we can do better and be better for you.”
All students deserve to be heard, President Hrabowski said, “So now, I’m going to listen.”
Over the next two hours, students and others came to the microphone or submitted anonymous comments through index cards and a webform. Many shared anger about painful experiences of sexual assault and struggles navigating campus support services and the Title IX process.
One core focus was the need for students to feel safe, and to feel that their concerns about safety are taken seriously. “I want to feel safe walking around campus,” said one student. “It’s important that we are heard. It’s important that we all feel safe,” said another. A third stated firmly, “Everyone on campus deserves an equal amount of safeness.”
Students also emphasized the need for the university to engage students in honest conversations about sexual assault, beyond a single listening session. “The university needs to find new ways to engage students on these difficult topics,” said one student. Another said, “Stop silencing our voices and start making changes.”
Many students simply wanted to be heard, to be taken seriously, and for the university to take to heart their experiences in determining active steps to make campus a safer place for all. “It takes courage to seek help,” said one student, “UMBC should make it easier, not harder.”
Students powerfully argued for change in how the university works to prevent and respond to incidents of sexual misconduct. Examples include requiring evidence-based sexual assault prevention training for all new students, faculty, and staff; expanding health services; and making the Title IX investigation process more responsive.
Speaking directly to the university leaders on the stage, one student said, “As the administration, you are in a position of power. Take that power and use it to fix this institution, and then share that knowledge with other institutions.”
Some students, as well as staff, also spoke of their deep connection to the UMBC community, and of that feeling as a driving force to improve the university. “I love this university too much,” said one student. “We can’t let this happen here.”
Following the event, President Hrabowski, Provost Philip Rous, and listening session partners responded with a firm commitment to taking both immediate and longer-term action to address several concerns brought by students. To begin next steps, they named a team to lead this work in collaboration with student, faculty, staff, and alumni leaders, effective immediately.
This team will be responsible for reviewing recommendations heard through the listening session, other meetings, and formal statements, in collaboration with campus partners. Members include Vice President for Student Affairs Nancy Young; Vice President for Administration and Finance Lynne Schaefer; Assistant General Counsel Morgan Thomas ‘13, political science; Chief of Staff Candace Dodson-Reed ‘96, English; Women’s Center Director and We Believe You Advisor Jess Myers; and psychology professor Christopher Murphy, whose research focuses on abuse and violence in intimate adult relationships.
In addition to moving the work forward, this group will also keep the campus updated on next steps and how UMBC community members can stay engaged.
The morning after the listening session, President Hrabowski spoke with the University System of Maryland Board of Regents about the event, and how student voices continued to echo through his thoughts. He was joined by Sullivan, Spadafora, and Adam Harvey, M.S. ‘17, a physics Ph.D. student serving as GSA vice president and newly elected chair of the University Steering Committee.
“Yesterday’s listening session was a powerful experience for all of us,” said President Hrabowski. “I continue to think about the voices, faces, and experiences of our students who spoke…I continue to feel the care and empathy shown by them and our staff and faculty who joined them to be supportive yesterday…We know we can be better.”
Header image: UMBC community gathers for the listening session, with university leaders onstage. All photos by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.