It’s been thirteen years, and it seems like nothing has changed.
In 2006, college President Charles Carlsen was accused of sexually harassing a female college employee. The previously popular Carlsen, after a series of board meetings and sudden, harsh scrutiny from students and the community, decided to step down as president in the wake of the accusation. Upon further investigation, more women came forward with claims of unwanted touching by Carlsen, choosing to keep their allegations off-record. Carlsen’s name, already stamped in big letters on the campus’ proudest building, was suddenly and definitively tarnished.
And yet here we are, more than a decade later — and there Carlsen’s name is, unremoved, unchanged, unquestioned. Most students are oblivious to Carlsen’s transgressions, and probably his very existence as an impactful piece of the college’s past. That’s how it goes in two-year junior colleges: people forget.
We can’t afford to let Carlsen’s history slip pleasantly from our minds, though, no matter how much easier that might be. Things were different in 2006. Going through the process of changing a building name over an unproven sexual harassment accusation might’ve seemed dramatic to many. Now, we have entered a time when allegations of this sort are given the weight they deserve, and thank God for that. I’m relieved and, sadly enough, grateful that the fight against sexual harassment and “rape culture” has risen as a paramount issue in modern-day America. This popularity of the anti-rape culture movement has made The Carlsen Center stick out like a sore thumb in the otherwise respectful and progressive legacy of Johnson County Community College. It is a blaring signal that the college does not take sexual assault allegations seriously, a signal transmitted weakly to the oblivious students attending classes in the building, the teachers giving lessons in its classrooms, the janitors cleaning its hallways and the community members attending musical performances and magic shows in its theatres.
Since one out of every six American women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, as published by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, we can assume that many of these students, teachers, janitors, and community members have had personal experiences with sexual assault or harassment. Whatever tedious work, public opinion or cost that may arise from pursuing a building name change utterly pales in comparison to the discomfort and disrespect our college forces upon victims of sexual assault by leaving Charles Carlsen’s name on one of our campus’ buildings. Does the college truly want to continue branding itself as an institution that honors the accomplishments of someone facing multiple sexual harassment accusations? What does that say about us?
There are examples across the country of colleges changing building names upon deciding that the names no longer represent the college’s image. Last year, Stanford University changed the name of a building and a street when their namesake was discovered to have had a harmful impact on Native American communities. Also last year, the University of Scranton renamed three buildings that were named after bishops in light of local catholic priests being accused of sexual assault. Duke University stripped two of its buildings of their names once it became clear that the figures they were named after were white supremacists. In 2004, a building name was changed at the University of Missouri after the student it was named after was accused of cheating by a roommate: the name was changed a mere week after those allegations arose. And yet, after thirteen years, the students and staff of our college are still waiting.
I want to make it clear that the accusations against Carlsen remain unproven — that is, not proven to be true and not proven to be false. This brings up a hard question, one that crossed my mind a few times: what if he didn’t do it? This question, even in my own thoughts, strikes me as highly patriarchal. When several people accuse someone of robbing them, most people’s first response isn’t, “are every single one of you lying?” And when it comes to the building, the constant reminder of sexual harassment (if it’s true) outweighs the status blow of a name removal (if it’s false) by miles. As a college, as a community, as a society, we must ask ourselves if the possibility of innocence outweighs the horrific injustice of sexual harassment.
I implore students, staff, and community members reading this article to voice their opinions on this issue to the Board of Trustees. It’s truly as easy as sending an email. The more voices that are heard, the more the college’s decisions will reflect the attitudes of those attending classes or working within its walls. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to at least attempt to leave our college better off than how we found it? What would it feel like to leave this campus forever, knowing not only that such a stain still remains here, but that you didn’t attempt to remove it?
As Christine Caine said, “It is one thing to be awakened to injustice and quite another to be willing to be inconvenienced and interrupted to do something about it.”
Story by Samantha Joslin