Sexual assault activist nominated for honorary degree

Former Tufts student and nationally-recognized sexual violence advocate, Wagatwe Wanjuki speaks during It Happens Here, a gender violence awareness event, delivered in Cohen Auditorium on April 2, 2014. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily

Six years after she was expelled, Wagatwe Wanjuki, who identifies as a survivor of campus sexual assault, could receive an honorary Tufts degree at the 2015 commencement ceremony in May. Wanjuki, a former student of Tufts Class of 2009, was nominated for the degree by senior John Kelly.

When the university sent out its annual honorary degree submission request on Sept. 2, Kelly said he nominated Wanjuki as a recipient. He plans to launch a petition today to rally community support for the application.

Kelly, who also identifies as a campus sexual assault survivor, met Wanjuki in Washington, D.C. last year in July during a protest outside the Department of Education (DOE). The two said they swapped similar stories of how particular Tufts administrators treated them after reporting — four years apart — their respective abusive relationships.

“Tufts has been unable to handle sexual violence claims for a long time, and the same administrators are still in place,” Kelly said. “Right now what’s thought of Tufts, when we think about Tufts and sexual violence, is a blundering institution that doesn’t know what it’s doing. This is a chance to show Tufts is an institution that recognizes its flaws and is contrite for its past actions.” 

In spring 2008, Wanjuki, who was then a junior, said she filed a report about the multiple incidents of domestic and sexual violence she had suffered, but the school did not investigate the case.

Partnering with the organization Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER), Wanjuki became an outspoken advocate at Tufts for students rights under Title IX, the federal law that bans gender discrimination on campus, including sexual assault and harassment. Her student activism began before the DOE issued the Dear Colleague letter in 2011, which explained colleges’ obligation to look into reports of sexual misconduct.

Though her grades had dropped during and following the relationship abuse, Wanjuki said she maintained a GPA above the threshold for academic probation in the semester she was asked to leave. She explained that in the summer of 2009, a year before she was scheduled to graduate, Interim Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences James Glaser, who was then dean of undergraduate education, asked her to leave Tufts indefinitely. Glaser declined to comment for this story.

Wanjuki said that she appealed the decision without success.

“They said, ‘Well, if you can prove that you’ve recovered from the abuse and the rape then maybe we’ll consider letting you back in,’” Wanjuki explained. “I couldn’t even afford the doctor’s appointments that they would have required me to have to even begin to consider letting me back in, so I decided just to cut my losses and just stay at home.”

Ten years after Wanjuki began her freshman year at Tufts, she is scheduled to graduate with her Bachelor of Arts from Rutgers University next month. Wanjuki has also become a feminist activist, appearing on MSNBC and presenting campus sexual assault legislation with senators on Capitol Hill this past summer.

Wanjuki added that except for last year’s It Happens Here, an on-campus event where students shared first person stories of campus sexual assault, she has not returned to Tufts since the appeal meeting.

When Kelly consulted Wanjuki about submitting her name for an honorary degree this fall, she said she was “flattered,” but “ambivalent” about the prospect.

“It would represent something that I felt like I should have been able to get the chance to earn years ago,” Wanjuki said. “On the one hand, I do feel I deserve a degree. On the other hand…Tufts had such a strongly negative impact on my life.”

Although they said they are skeptical that Tufts will award Wanjuki the degree, seniors Ruby Vail and Taylor Strelevitz also submitted Wanjuki’s name to the Board of Trustees’ Honorary Degree Committee for consideration. They are among a handful of students to do so thus far for the Sept. 19 deadline.

“With almost all cases of campus sexual assault, and then especially Wagatwe’s, there was a lot of silencing — ‘if we just get her off campus, if we get these people off campus, if we stop talking about it, if we don’t have to report it,’” Strelevitz said. “If they refused to give her the degree, it would just be another example of that.”

Tufts releases its list of honorary degree recipients in the spring semester. Five people received an honorary degree last year. Secretary of the Corporation in the Office of the Trustees Paul Tringale declined to comment on Wanjuki’s nomination.

Below is a copy of Kelly’s original nomination: