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  • Writer's pictureNathan Nicolau

My response to the UNCSA lawsuit as an alumnus.

When a class-action lawsuit was filed against my alma mater—the University of North Carolina School of the Arts—concerning negligence towards campus sexual assaults, my initial reaction was, “It’s about time.”

And I was not alone in that sentiment. Fellow alumni cheered, and floods of support came in from non-alumni and even those who dropped out. It felt like we won a long battle because, in a sense, we did. After years of UNCSA brushing off students’ concerns, the big guns were pulled out, and now all the school can do is admit to their wrongdoings.

I attended UNCSA from 2014 to 2018, graduating with a degree in filmmaking. During campus tours and my first semester, the school presented itself as one big happy family in a true artist’s utopia. Big happy family it was not, but it was indeed an artist’s utopia in a sense the school did not recognize. Artists, much like anyone else, are flawed people. I would even argue they are more flawed than most. Art takes a lot of trial and error, a lot of perseverance, and a lot of failures. All these can severely affect someone mentally. Every student I met (including me) had some kind of mental health issue with all the pressure the school put on us. In essence, we were all flawed people, but how we dealt with these flaws showed our character and growth.

However, with all this pressure came insecurity, entitlement, and egotism, which I saw all four years at UNCSA. I saw complete acts of depravity during my time: death threats, verbal/physical abuse, manipulation, labor exploitation, and the most significant problem the school does not want to confront: sexual harassment/assault.

Hearing stories of sexual assault, sadly, was the norm. And despite all the Title IX reports, it seemed like we were screaming into deaf ears. Abusers still walked into classes with their victims. Teachers with long histories of sexual harassment cases still got their paychecks. What was the point of alerting the school anymore? Despite near routine reminders of “We hear you and support you” from the school, there always seemed to be a catch with it. “We hear you...unless money is involved” was more like it. This class-action lawsuit certainly perked their ears up, and while I am glad it is happening now, these false promises of “hearing us” are gone once the school denies all the allegations in court.

Thankfully, I was never sexually assaulted during my time at UNCSA. Nor did I (nor would I) sexually assault someone. Throughout my entire time in school, I was in a healthy relationship with my girlfriend (now my wife). This did not mean I ignored the alarming amount of sexual harassment and the school’s abhorrent treatment towards it. During an all-school meeting right in the wake of #MeToo, the Title IX office had to, once again, pull the “we hear you” card. One female student had enough. She screamed from her seat, sobbing, shaking with every word, about how the office had ignored her case with no updates, how the office dared to suggest her case was false, how no police action was taken, how her abuser still walked around campus and in her classes. To this day, I can still hear her shrieking voice echoing around the whole auditorium.

And the office’s response was, essentially, “Sorry you feel that way.”

From that moment on, I seriously wondered how could any school, any person for that matter, treat a grave issue that way? Why all the secrecy and red tape? We were all told this school was an artist’s haven, so was it the university as a whole, or just bad apples? Then, the School of Filmmaking’s Assistant Head of Production at the time once quipped to me under a muttered breath that one lawsuit could tank the entire film school. That was when all the pieces fit together: money was the bottom line. Money was the reason so many issues I saw ran rampant and never seemed to stop.

I pray for two outcomes from this lawsuit: that those treated horribly from the school receive justice and that this opens up deeper, much-needed investigations into the school. Sexual assault, I am sad to say, is only the beginning when it comes to the issues UNCSA has, as I had noted earlier.

A university is a business like any other, I have learned. Since graduating, I am now a college professor myself. I have made it my duty not to succumb to a university’s dogmatic politics, given my prior experiences. I still hold to the idea that, above all, a university is an institution with a duty to educate and serve, not to profit. I ask UNCSA to reconsider its values as this situation unfolds.

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