May 4th, 2021, 11:00 PM

AUP's Problem with Performative Activism

By Jacob Rogers
Image credit: Unsplash/Sharon McCutcheon
A discussion on queer inclusion, tokenism, and temporal awareness in our community.

Earlier this month, members of the AUP community were sent an email from President Celeste Schenck, discussing a shift in university policy. Titled, “Language Matters,” the email indicated to the community that the university policy on the word freshman was changing. Going forward, the term for students in their first year of studies will be first-year. 

“I am glad the student brought it to our attention, and I am glad we could make that change and not make designations of student’s status in a silly, gender inflected way,” said President Schenck when asked about her thoughts on the new policy. 

The question of gendered terminology at the university was raised at an event called, “Pronoun Breakdown”, hosted by two student organizations, ReSisters and GenSex. When discussing the reasoning behind the institution's decision to pursue this policy, President Schenck said, “The idea, of not saying freshman, is not a new idea to me. When I came to AUP 30 years ago, I suggested that it was time that the university stopped saying freshman.” She continued, “I don’t think it’s revolutionary, I don’t think it’s that big, I don’t think it’s that worthy of applause, frankly. I think it’s a couple of decades too late. But I am glad we did it.”

Image credit: Unsplash/Tim Gouw


Yet, after a year of particularly intense criticism of the institution’s responses to current events and important issues to students, this shift in policy was implemented rapidly comparatively. After the killing of George Floyd, the university faced criticism for a lagging response. Another ASM publication, “Slow Start: AUP Embraces Black Lives Matter”, created by Peacock Play’s Thais Moulie, discussed the events of the summer and AUP’s response. 

President Schenck refuted claims of a lagging response by the institution, saying, “AUP’s response can be measured in days.” 

However, it is possible that the problem is not of timing, but of quality. In the era of increased social awareness, cancel culture, and social media, it is not always easy for an institution to provide a proportionate response to world events. Yet, in the publication, “Slow Start: AUP Embraces Black Lives Matter”, President Schenck is recorded saying that, “Since that happened (killing of George Floyd), our first hire this summer was a person of color. Second of all, the board appointed a Black alumna to the board, this summer.”

Of course, AUP also took other measures after the summer to promote diversification apart from the hiring of people of color. The diversity council was created, staff training implemented, and several communications sent from the President’s Office to students. But, is it only performative

Image credit: Unsplash/Clay Banks


Addressing the claims that these actions were tokenism, which can be defined as the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce, President Schenck said, “I don't think it’s tokenism, we are in a very complicated moment where I have no desire to point, and nobody on campus wants this to happen, to point to a new hire that we have who is our first choice, who has splendid academic credentials, who we wanted to come to AUP, and describe that person as a diversity hire.” 

Yet, previous to the events of the summer, the racial diversity of AUP’s staff and faculty was nearly nonexistent. Additionally, President Schenck’s remarks, noting that AUP had appointed a Black alumna to the board and that a person of color was hired, came after a question of what the institution had done in the aftermath of the summer. Perhaps when prompted of what AUP’s response to a global racial reckoning has been, is it best to avoid pointing a finger at hiring a person of color, especially when that individual becomes a member of a shockingly small group of people of color in the faculty. That is if you would like for that action to not be called tokenism. 

AUP’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement last summer is not the only one that has been criticized. Following the decision to change the term freshman to first-year, the questions of necessity and perspective have been raised. 

“ With AUP trying to be LGBTQ+ inclusive, it’s sometimes low hanging fruit,” said Alex Lane, the Vice President of ReSisters. 

Image credit: Unsplash/Sharon McCutcheon


In attendance at the event where the question of using the term freshman was raised, was an AUP student who identifies as transgender who wishes to remain anonymous. When asked what their opinion of the change to first-year was, they said, “I recognize this change is aligned with most anglophone universities, yet I do feel as though it is incredibly performative. In the sense that, if it was a concern over gendered language for trans people or women in general, I would question why, as a trans student, I felt under-supported financially and academically at AUP. If this was such a priority for diversity or gender neutrality, there would be other measures taken.”

Expanding on why they felt under-supported at AUP, they said, “For example, as a trans person, I took an extra-strength dose of birth control, which acted as my hormone replacement therapy, and our insurance either didn’t reimburse me at all, or it was reimbursed at a very low rate. Whereas if I was taking a typical dose for cis women, it would have been better reimbursed.” 

They then continued to say, “Even with my passing privilege, there is often a condescending undertone in my interaction with professors when it feels as though they are aware of my transness. For example, in an interaction with a professor on campus, there was an implication of me being sexist, despite me being a woman who has been discriminated against for her gender and trans identity."

Clearly, there is a disconnect on campus. While some are raising issues of gendered language, others are discussing their lack of support by the institution as a trans person. AUP has decided that the takeaway from a discussion on pronouns is that we should no longer use the term freshman. Meanwhile, the AUP community hears little to nothing further from the administration on what they are doing to make campus an LGBTQ+ inclusive space. 

When asked what AUP must do moving forward, anonymous said, “The university, in many ways, does not prepare female and queer students for the discrimination and harassment they will face in the city. Not that Paris is inherently unsafe, but there is an added layer of awareness that must be communicated by the institution to LGBTQ+ and female students in order to prepare them for the challenges of daily life in this city. For reference, I have lived in many major US cities, and have never faced the levels of harassment I feel on a daily basis in Paris.”

Image credit: Unsplash/Dewang Gupta

It is undeniable that AUP’s winning trait is Paris itself. Everyone from students, to faculty, to the administration can admit that one of the most attractive reasons to come to AUP is its location. Yet, it feels as if a school that has made a name for itself because of Paris should at least prepare students better for the daily struggles of living here. Ask almost any woman or member of the LGBTQ+ community on campus if they have been faced harassment or discrimination in Paris, the answer would likely be a resounding yes. 

Adding to the criticism that AUP has faced for its decision in recent years is the fact that it often feels as if AUP has a challenge of spatial awareness. When discussing AUP’s response to George Floyd’s death, President Schenck said, “Every time an event happens in the United States, we hear often from Alumni or from students who want the institution to make a political statement about it, who want an official statement. My feeling is that at AUP we have students from 105 nationalities, in that instance, we should be making a statement every time there is an abuse of social justice, or civil rights, anywhere in the world.” 

Of course, to an extent that is understandable. If that is the case, that the institution shouldn’t be focusing on only US political events, then it seems reasonable to focus on events that affect us all: those regarding France. 

Instead of discussing the discrimination and harassment that people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, or Muslim students face in this country, the administration has instead decided to spend time and resources on changing the word freshman. 

That is not to say that language is not important, or that we should not alter policy to reflect the less gendered language, the problem is if it is the only thing that is being done. Instead of changing the word freshman, we should be receiving updates on harmful laws in France dedicated to people of the Muslim faith, or a discussion on the lack of transparency of AUP throughout the pandemic, or how minorities in this city, and at AUP, are othered. 

Without substantial institutional change, AUP’s actions will continue to be labeled as performative.