Wilkinson declined to comment to WHYY, but did remain on the panel after the walkout. Later in the discussion, a member of the audience asked Wilkinson how people like her who are representing alleged perpetrators can help survivors of sexual misconduct.
Holding people accountable in their workplaces is a good first step for those in her shoes, Wilkinson said. Personally, she said, she’s seen the way people act differently in the workplace when two women’s names are on the door of her law firm.
“You can ensure that these kinds of policies and procedures and safe places are set up, but I don’t think it’s proper really for someone who is an advocate for a system while you’re representing someone,” Wilkinson said. “That’s why it’s difficult. You’re there to represent your client. I do think you can be respectful to the victims, and I think that’s for whether it’s a sexual-harassment case or anything else.”
Saturday’s walkout took place in the shadow of protests by Princeton IX Now, a newly formed student coalition that is calling for changes to the university’s Title IX procedures for handling cases of sexual misconduct on campus. The group also called for programs it said would address some root causes of sexual violence on campus, such as the creation of a gender and sexuality studies department.
In May, Princeton IX Now hosted a 200-hour sit-in outside the university’s venerable Nassau Hall.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education found that Princeton — among many other universities — was not in compliance with Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination at colleges receiving federal funding.
Jamie O’Leary, a senior at Princeton and organizer with Princeton IX Now, said being a visible group on campus during the reunion weekend offered the chance to connect with alumni who may have had issues with Title IX proceedings at Princeton in the past.
“We’ve seen that this is a problem that has been persistent throughout the years and has changed but also has stayed the same in the sense that the administration’s response to it has not ever been sufficient,” O’Leary said.
She added that over 1,400 people have signed a petition stating they won’t contribute to Princeton’s annual giving fund until the students’ demands for reforms are met.
A spokesman for the university said Princeton is taking several steps to address any issues students experience while reporting sexual misconduct on campus. An external review of the Title IX program was approved by Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber.
In May, a joint committee of students and faculty outlined the next steps to be taken to address students’ Title IX concerns. Additional meetings with the students are planned for this summer, and the university plans to release a full report examining its Title IX process in the fall.
Navigating free speech, safety
O’Leary said she was “horrified” when she heard Wilkinson was going to be on Saturday’s panel, but also wasn’t surprised.
“This is a pattern of behavior from Princeton and from administrators of disrespecting survivors and putting them in positions where they’re having to defend their humanity,” O’Leary said.
In a written statement, a Princeton spokesman said the university takes seriously its mission “to support the free expression of all views.” But O’Leary said this isn’t a free speech issue.
“Yes, Beth Wilkinson has the right to speak, but she doesn’t have to be in every space, and she certainly should not be in the space where survivors’ voices are being centered,” O’Leary said.
Heniford said that she recognizes that on some issues that can be polarizing, Princeton’s hands are tied. But with something like sexual assault on campus, she said, Princeton, and many schools across the country, fail to consider the health and safety of survivors.
“The panel is demonstrative of this fact: that survivors are actually more dangerous to universities than sexual violence is,” Heniford said. “Unless sexual violence is especially horrific and unusually public, universities are much more threatened by survivors who talk afterwards.”
For Heniford and O’Leary, the silver lining to any outcome of their walkout is being able to connect to members of the Princeton community over a common goal.
“I didn’t want to walk out alone … so reaching out to the students was an easy decision,” Heniford said of Princeton IX Now. “They wrapped me in wholeheartedly to their community. I have been so impressed with the critiques that they have made. They are so sharp, they are so incisive … they are incredibly kind to me.”
“As one of their professors said at the beginning of the panel, they likely have learned more from this than their other scholarship at Princeton,” she added. “These are really valuable lessons, and I’m really proud of them for the work they’ve been doing.”