Letter to the Editor: Ignorant to his positionality, Jeff Flake visits Oxy

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*Trigger/content warning: This article, or pages it links to, contains information about sexual assault and/or violence.

Former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) took up considerable space on Occidental’s campus Feb. 5. The college deprived students of the ability to substantially engage with Flake, and in welcoming him to our campus, the administration elevated Flake’s voice at the expense of student well-being.

Dean of the College and Vice President for Academic Affairs Wendy Sternberg notified the Oxy community Jan. 24 that Flake was coming to campus as part of the Jack Kemp ‘57 Lecture Series, joined by Occidental Board of Trustee member Grant Woods ‘76. Sternberg called Flake’s visit “both timely and relevant,” making no mention of his deciding role in the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, nor how Flake’s presence could harm members of the Oxy community. A week later, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Rob Flot wrote to students, faculty and staff Feb. 1 that the college recognized Flake’s presence “has a different meaning” for survivors of sexual assault. Flot cited Survivor Advocate Marianne Frapwell and Project SAFE as resources and reminded us of the college’s dissent and demonstration policy, noting that “any speaker on campus can provoke strong reactions.” These emails demonstrate the administration’s misaligned priorities — they failed to recognize how Flake’s presence could affect those at Oxy until a few days before his arrival. Moreover, the phrase “strong reactions” is utterly belittling to the aftermath sentiments survivors navigate on a quotidian basis.

Feb. 2, President Jonathan Veitch invited all students serving on Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) to attend a small Q&A group session with Flake prior to the lecture. Veitch wrote that the session would “be an opportunity to learn more about the senator, discuss current-day political issues and ask questions.” We decided to attend the session.

Feb. 5, we entered the dimly lit room and sat awaiting to face Flake. More students filtered in until about 20 were situated around the room. Students present either served on ASOC, had participated in Campaign Semester or were a part of Oxy Democrats. Director of Communications and Community Relations Jim Tranquada, Director of Student Leadership, Involvement and Community Engagement (SLICE) Marcus Rodriguez and Associate Director of Orientation and Student Success Viktor Kerney were present as well. Frapwell entered the room, but her presence was not announced to the students present.

At approximately 4:30 p.m., Flake entered the room and sat in front with Woods. However, the last seat remained empty. Confused, we waited for a few minutes until, unexpectedly, Veitch strode in late and sat between Flake and Woods. We were completely caught off-guard. Never did we think (nor were we ever notified) Veitch would be in attendance. Moreover, we worried Veitch’s unannounced presence would limit students’ questioning. We were not wrong, since Veitch sided with and defended Flake from tough questions posed by students several times throughout the session. Grant’s presence was also unknown to students until he entered the room. During introductions, Woods revealed he was friends and long-time business partners with Flake — a blatant conflict of interest.

With Veitch and Woods moderating, Flake took up time from student questions by going into great detail of a non-existent seating chart of the House of Representatives at the State of the Union. Minutes passed until, finally, Flake received questions from students. Emily inquired about his involvement as a lobbyist in the late 1980s and 1990s when he worked for South African apartheid interests. In his response, Flake failed to take accountability for his past actions: he redirected the conversation to one about sanctions, which ended with a suggestion from Grant that we should all be a bit more “open-minded,” given the liberal-leaning tendencies of Oxy students.

Students asked Flake what he has done to support survivors of sexual violence since his deciding vote for Kavanaugh, only to be let down as Flake admitted to doing nothing. While the Kavanaugh trial was a nation-wide wake-up call to address the heinous and pervasive nature of sexual assault, our administration fiscally supported the man who refused to do just that.

In what world is it appropriate for our administration to compensate a speaker who rather than validate Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s experience, redirected our questions, appealing to his own privileged experience and the trauma he endured navigating the Kavanaugh trial? What are we giving up to make space for Flake? We mean not to discredit that the Oxy community benefits from engagement with diverse political views. However, if the college administration wished to bring a speaker with opinions oppositional to students,’ they should have just invited Veitch to speak, as he took up space meant for student questions regardless. To his credit, Veitch did attempt to source student sentiments following the session by interjecting in an ongoing student discussion, asking students what they thought. Receiving the response that Flake seemed to run circles around our questions, Veitch responded that we were just not hearing the answers we wanted to hear.

The college compensated Flake at least $5000 to provide students with a diverse political perspective. Instead, his presence conjured discomfort and was triggering to survivors of sexual assault. Flake’s visit showed change is necessary when welcoming future guest speakers on campus, particularly those invited through the Jack Kemp ’57 Endowment. Speakers invited to campus should not necessitate the presence of survivor advocates. Flake should have never been considered given his role in the Kavanaugh hearings. Students should be informed well before a speaker arrives on campus, instead of receiving notice less than two weeks prior. The administration, though perhaps strategically and intentionally, left limited time for students to react and organize a demonstration.

Students were deprived of the opportunity to meaningfully engage with the Flake, as seen in how members of the administration monitored discussion in the small group session and how administrators moderated questions in the Thorne lecture. In regards to the small group session before the main event, having a student instead of an administrative moderator would enable the centering of student voices instead of allowing for administrators to guide a conversation meant for the benefit of students.

Hope Fowler is on ASOC Senate as a senior class senator and can be reached at hfowler@oxy.edu. Emily Zepeda is a sophomore serving on ASOC Honor Board as Chair. She can be reached at zepedae@oxy.edu.