The Sexual Health Information Center (SHIC) at Grinnell College reopened on Jan. 29 after the administration closed the office and suspended operations “indefinitely” less than a week earlier. The student-led organization is now limited in the scope to their activities, raising serious questions about SHIC’s future and student autonomy at Grinnell.
SHIC started as part of a class project when it first opened its doors in 2009, and has operated as a student group providing “a space for students to ask questions and be referred to resources” regarding sexual health and safety for over a decade. In 2017, SHIC partnered with the Student Government Association (SAG), which “expanded its inventory, lowered prices and provided more educational opportunities for the student body,” as reported by the Grinnell student newspaper The Scarlet & Black.
As part of their mission, SHIC made a variety of sexual heath items available to students, including condoms, pregnancy tests, tampons, pads, dental dams, dysphoria management products, transitional equipment and sexual pleasure products, both on their campus location and their web page. SHIC’s programming, products and salaries for student employees are funded through a student activities fee paid at the beginning of each semester.
For many students, SHIC has been an invaluable resource to ask questions and seek assistance free of judgement. SHIC had been granted a large amount of freedom and student control by administrators in regards to programming and product distribution in the past. That changed last month when the SHIC office, located in the Main Hall and First Lobby on the South Campus, had a notice posted on the doorway: “SHIC is Closed indefinitely (thank you, admin).”
According to a joint statement posted on SHIC’s Facebook page on Jan. 23 by SHIC student administrators Anna Bell Hines and Zama Buthelezi, “They have removed us from the space without at timeline for reopening and have expressed to us that when we reopen, they will not allow us [to] provide sexual pleasure toys or Plan B, again citing medical liability without examples of medical danger.”
Hines said in a Feb. 6 email to Little Village they found out about the closure after being called into a meeting with Grinnell administration when students returned after winter break. SHIC had been in talks with the administration about getting additional trainings and a hypothetical vending machine dispensing the emergency contraception Plan B, also known as the morning-after pill, for the next semester.
“At no point was it indicated that the center would be closed or there would be an immediate and indefinite ban on the distribution of pleasure products and emergency contraception,” Hines said.
The Division of Student Affairs posted a statement on the Grinnell website, which reads in part: “In short, the risk and compliance issues (individual, organizational, and institutional) associated with SHIC’s current operation and practices were such that it required our attention. SHIC and its membership were directed to stop distributing any consumer products or providing medical advice or medicine on behalf of the College.”
Last spring SHIC was assigned an advisory board established by Student Affairs and SGA, which has been evaluating the group’s operations. The administration reached its decision after consulting with Grinnell’s lead general counsel, the Des Moines law firm Nyemaster Goode, P.C., and a local health care professional (who remains unnamed), citing issues of “medical liability” and “unlicensed therapy” by student employees.
“The college has not been able to provide one example of medical danger from items like pleasure products or emergency contraception,” Hines said, “and has not been more specific than ‘liability in a retail setting’ for the legal reasons for restricting our product distribution.”
According to a Feb. 10 email to Little Village from the dean of students, Ben Newhouse, the advisory board will be taking a more active role in the operations and supervision of SHIC, and a staff member of the Division of Student Affairs has a formal supervisory relationship with organization.
“Any responsible institution must ensure that employees have adequate qualifications and supervision in place to provide services, especially when these services involve the health of our students,” Newhouse said.
Given the freedoms SHIC had been granted in previous years, Hines said this attitude by the administration is “extremely recent.”
“It is my opinion that the administration recently discovered the specifics of organization, was embarrassed by previous lack of administrative oversight and is currently dramatically over-correcting to the detriment of the health of marginalized students,” Hines said.
Asked by Little Village to elaborate on what the administration means by “medical liability,” Newhouse did not provide any examples.
Hines and Buthelezi said in their Jan. 23 statement, “The actions of the administration show a serious breach of trust and a dissolution of self governmental values to the ultimate detriment of female students, LGBT students, students of color (not to mention students at the intersection of all these identities), all of whom have found a home in SHIC.”
The move by the administration to suspend SHIC activities seems to share similarities with their efforts to halt the organizing efforts of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW) to expand its membership. Nyemaster Goode, P.C. attorney Frank Harty argued the case against UGSDW at last year’s Labor Board meeting, as the union sought to expand its membership across campus.
Students have voiced concerns about potential bias on the part of Harty because of organizations and cases with which he’s affiliated.
Harty graduated from the University of Iowa School of Business before earning his law degree from Drake University. He took over as head legal counsel for former Gov. Terry Branstad in a discrimination lawsuit last year, and has also represented the Diocese of Des Moines. He serves on the leadership council of the St. Francis Knights of Columbus in Des Moines, part of the “world’s largest Catholic family fraternal service organization,” which opposes abortion, birth control and LGBTQ rights.
“Nyemaster Goode, P.C. has acted as General Counsel for the Grinnell College for a number of years, and they regularly provide consultation on legal matters for the college,” Newhouse said. “The decisions about the college are made by the administration and, when indicated, the board.”
UGSDW is taking a position of solidarity with SHIC and its employees, hosting a general meeting on Jan. 29 where SHIC employees who were also union members were invited to share their concerns and discuss efforts to support SHIC in the near future.
UGSDW press secretary Evangeline Bolles-Rioux issued a statement to Little Village on Jan. 28 stating they will continue to advocate for all student workers and work with the community to reverse the administration’s decision on SHIC, as well as oppose arbitrary resource, community and work space closures.
“SHIC workers are paid student employees of the College, many of whom rely on their income from this position for part of their rent or food budget,” Bolles-Rioux said. “The closure of SHIC is not only an attack on community-building efforts by the student body, but also a strong strike against student-run initiatives and labor that provide valuable services lacking in the wider community.”
As objections from students over SHIC’s closure mounted, it was announced on Jan. 29 that SHIC was reopening their office, albeit in a diminished capacity. They would resume distribution of contraceptives and menstrual supplies, but were unable to provide peer educational programming or distribute sexual pleasure products and emergency contraceptives, among other items.
“Now the only place for a Grinnell student to acquire an emergency contraception on evenings or weekends involves a 45-minute walk to Walmart where they can purchase Plan B for $50 from behind a locked cabinet,” Hines said. “This is a serious issue of accessibility and safety because emergency contraception becomes less effective the greater amount of time between unprotected sex and the pill ingestion.”
Hines continued, “Refusing to provide (or to allow students who are passionate about sexual health and empowerment) students with emergency contraceptives after hours and on weekends is fundamentally dangerous and irresponsible of Grinnell College.”
“The college will continue to work with SHIC leadership, the SHIC advisory board, and others to ensure that the services that the organization provides are appropriate,” Newhouse said. “The health of our students has been and will continue to be the driving factor in decision-making for both the college and SHIC, and we will work together to determine a path forward.”
SHIC employees have been meeting with the administration multiple times each week, but, according to Hines, “the administration does not have specifics about the sort of training they want from us before we can resume operations as usual” or specified “training measures we must undergo before we can resume distribution of emergency contraceptives, sexual pleasure products, and peer to peer educational programming.”
But the students scored a victory this week. On Wednesday, SHIC announced that they’d been granted permission to distribute emergency contraception again, free of charge. “We are still in conversations about restoring pleasure products, but the conversations are positive and we should have an answer about them within the week,” the organization posted to Facebook.
Bolles-Rioux said UGSDW is continuing their collaboration with SHIC student leaders and are planning “a week-long action combining labor rights, student rights and the right to sexual health and information.”
“We are also planning a student-led, peaceful demonstration to show the administration the importance of the organization to the student body,” Hines said.