Meeting of the Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct

November 6, 2012

Present were Sarah Barr, Director of Academic Engagement Programs, Center for Community Engagement; Professor Jack Cheney, Associate Dean of the Faculty; Suzanne Coffey, Director of Athletics and Title IX Coordinator ; Professor Margaret Hunt (Chair); Marian Matheson, Director of Institutional Research and Planning (of counsel to the committee); Andrew Nussbaum ’85, Trustee;  Professor Marisa Parham; Dianne Piermattei, Assistant to the Secretary of the Board of Trustees (staff liaison to the committee); Susan Pikor, Chief of Staff, President’s Office, and Secretary of the Board of Trustees; Liya Rechtman ’14; Janet Tobin, Assistant Dean of the Faculty (recorder). Robert Wasielewski ’14 and Paula Rauch ’77, Trustee, were absent. The meeting began at 3:30 p.m. and ended at 5:20 p.m.

Professor Hunt thanked those assembled for agreeing to be a part of the important work of the Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct (SMOC). Focusing on the future and asking the question “what can we do better?” will be a signature of the committee’s approach.

It was agreed that the committee would strive for as much transparency and accessibility as possible. The committee will post public minutes and will receive comments from the community via a dedicated email address: smoc@amherst.edu. Members of the community may also contact Professor Hunt directly, if they wish, the chair noted.

After focusing on operational matters, including setting a weekly meeting time, the committee turned to a discussion of its charge. The recommendations of the SMOC, in the form of a report, will be shared with the Board of Trustees at the January 2013 meeting of the Board.

It was noted that there may be some overlap in the work of the SMOC and the Title IX Committee and the Sexual Respect Task Force.  Since there is overlap among the members of these entities, it should be possible to coordinate work and avoid duplication of efforts. 

The committee discussed the charges of the Title IX Committee and the Sexual Respect Task Force and possible intersections with the work of the SMOC.  The committees will have the following foci: Title IX Committee will focus on legal requirements and the development of policy governing sexual harassment and sexual misconduct and sexual violence.  The Sexual Respect Task Force will focus on providing ongoing education and training for faculty, staff, and students in the area of sexual respect.  The SMOC will focus on issues of overarching policy, administration, and education across the College in regard to sexual respect, including ways to prevent and address sexual assault on campus.

Conversation turned to the five key areas of the charge: Campus Environment, Resources, Education, Recent History, and Policy and Title IX.  The SMOC will develop a sense of what it wishes to see as an outgrowth of each part of the charge; what evidence (both from existing documents and from interviews the committee will conduct) it will need for its deliberations; and how it will gather the information it needs.

Learning about the extent to which the ways in which campus social life is structured (including the relationship of social life and drinking and the place of social groups), and the relationships of these structures to issues surrounding sexual respect, will be important.  The goal will be to try to get to the root of problem and to identify ways to help prevent misconduct and assault, and the resulting trauma, before they happen. The committee agreed that it would be helpful to gain a sense of policies and procedures on other campuses surrounding sexual respect. 

The committee discussed a schedule for considering the key areas of the charge. As part of its first conversations, which will focus on the Campus Environment, the committee agreed that it will be important to engage a cross-section of the student body in discussions about such topics as the alcohol policy and hooking up, in addition to reviewing relevant reports and other forms of written evidence.  Attention will be paid to the impressions and experiences of individual students and student groups that have played an active role on campus in regard to issues surrounding sexual respect, as well as the views of students who have been less involved in these issues.

Among the areas to evaluate within the area of Resources, the second area on which the SMOC would focus, are the Counseling Center and the Dean of Students Office.  Questions to ask staff should include their views on systems they could imagine that would better serve our students. What system might elicit more confidence?  The perspectives of experts who have evaluated areas of student life for the College will also help inform the committee’s work.

The members agreed to have discussions about how resources might be better allocated to help deter sexual misconduct and assault, including in the conversation a consideration of how the layout of campus spaces may be contribute to incidents of sexual assault and misconduct.  It was also agreed that the SMOC should discuss ways that resources and administrative responses might be directed to minimizing “re-traumatization” among students who have experienced sexual misconduct or assault. It was agreed that much can be learned from structures and policies at peer institutions.  

In the area of Education, in addition to reviewing relevant documents, the committee will discuss ways of enhancing, and possibly extending, orientation programming, and the more general topic of ongoing education programs.  Suggestions of possible educational topics on which to focus included forming connections in the healthiest way and bystander behavior (encouraging students to take responsibility for the community and to be accountable for the behavior of their peers).  The members also agreed to explore ways to build community.  The possibility of incorporating into First-Year Seminars topics surrounding sexual respect could also be a part of the committee’s discussions, but it was noted that doing so would be a curricular decision that falls within the purview of the Faculty. 

After having had conversations with members of the community and digested relevant reports, the committee agreed to return to the topic of the Campus Environment. Since the work of the Title IX committee is moving forward and policy is being developed, this area of the charge will require less emphasis on the part of the SMOC and can be on the agenda later in the semester, it was noted.   Ms. Coffey was encouraged to bring any questions or concerns that arise from the Title IX Committee’s deliberations to the attention of the SMOC and to keep the committee apprised of her committee’s progress. 

The committee’s next discussion would focus on policy around sexual respect and Title IX, as well as the Recent History part of the charge.  In terms of Recent History and campus culture, the committee agreed it would be most productive not to dwell too much on the past, but to try to gain a sense of the kind of improvements that might be needed for a better future, including an impression of the kind of social and sexual lives to which students aspire.  It was agreed that it will be important for the SMOC to try to gain a sense of the volume and complexity of the problem surrounding sexual misconduct and assault at the College;

The final two meetings of the SMOC will be devoted to a discussion of recommendations and drafts of the committee’s report.  The committee anticipates getting the recommendations to the president by January 15.