Meeting of the Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct

November 15, 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); 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; Janet Tobin, Assistant Dean of the Faculty (recorder); and Robert Wasielewski ’14. Andrew Nussbaum ’85, Trustee; Liya Rechtman ’14; and attorneys Gina Smith (an expert on sexual misconduct and assault) and Rachael Keene participated in the meeting via speaker phone. Paula Rauch ’77, Trustee was absent.   The meeting began at 5:00 p.m. and ended at 7:00 p.m.

Professor Hunt and Ms. Matheson reviewed Clery statistics and National College Health Assessment (NCHA) survey results for Amherst and a set of peer institutions.  It was noted that the data that are available are limited and imperfect.

The Clery figures, which represent reported incidents of forcible sexual assault on campus, suggest that Amherst students report in slightly higher numbers than do students at other schools.  However it is important to note that these are merely reported incidents.  By themselves, they say nothing about the actual incidence of forcible sexual assault.  The National College Health Assessment survey is assumed to be somewhat more accurate than the Clery figures, and these data suggest that the frequency of sexual assault at Amherst is about on par with other schools with which we compare ourselves.  When the NCHA survey results are compared to Clery reports, we find that Amherst students report 3.5 to four times more incidents on the NCHA survey than turn up in the Clery reports.  On this basis, we can estimate that, overall, 25 to 30 percent of forcible sexual assaults at Amherst College are reported, while 70 to 75 percent go unreported.

The committee reviewed a sample of sexual respect/sexual assault websites created by peer institutions.  The members discussed Amherst’s new site and its role as a vehicle for communicating sexual assault and misconduct policies and procedures, and resources for education and for supporting survivors.  Ms. Smith explained that such web sites enable students to report incidents most easily and allow the options that are available to them to be presented clearly. These websites can also be helpful for capturing information about incidents and for generating more reliable reporting.

Members of the committee who had attended the committee’s recent meetings with groups of students provided summaries of views that had been expressed.  Professor Hunt noted that much of what had been communicated was consistent with feedback received after the November 2 day of dialogue.

Topics raised included issues surrounding the ways in which the alcohol policy is being enforced at Amherst and possible consequences, the relationship of excessive alcohol consumption to sexual assault and misconduct, the make-up of the Hearing Board, the need to empower survivors at every point of the reporting and adjudication process, matters of sexual agency and consent, and the relationship between misogyny, problematic notions of masculinity, and sexual violence.

The view that conversations about sexual respect should not be included in orientation programming, but should wait until students have settled in at the college and established friendships, was expressed.  It was felt that programs focusing on bystander training would be useful to include in orientation. Some students criticized the squad structure and expressed a preference for having conversations in smaller groups during orientation, especially on delicate issues like sexuality.

It was noted that, in the comments on the November 2 day of dialogue, many students expressed feelings of social isolation and loneliness.  Interest was expressed both in the meetings with students and in the day of dialogue in enhancing programming so that alternative forms of social interaction, beyond parties with excessive drinking, would be developed.

The relationship of spaces that are currently being made available for social functions, and sexual misconduct and assault, was discussed. A goal should be to develop spaces that create optimal conditions for positive forms of interaction. Implementing a planning process to consider how to create such spaces should be a goal. Welcoming spaces are needed in which campus-wide/campus community events can be held.

It was noted that ways must be found, through the allocation of additional resources, structures, and staffing, to allow the Dean of Students Office to move away from its emphasis on discipline and crisis intervention.  A goal should be that the office will have a much greater focus on the positive side of the student life experience, including enhancing the social lives and health and well-being of students. Establishing a vision for student life and being more intentional in the way it is operationalized should be a priority.

It should be a goal to enhance programming and train students to assume leadership roles in the social life on campus.   It was agreed that more creativity needs to be brought to the ways that resources are allocated for student programs.

The committee discussed the need for community-building and the role various college offices and structures could play in this area. Feedback from the day of dialogue revealed that students would value having more interaction with staff. One idea might be to establish teams made up of faculty and staff, with which students would remain affiliated throughout their time at Amherst and through which they could receive support. Ms. Matheson reported that survey results indicate that students at Amherst are less satisfied with the sense of community here than is the case with students at other schools.

It was reported that the Title IX Committee intends to enhance the transparency and clarity of policies regarding sexual misconduct and sexual assault. Students at the committee’s meetings expressed concern about a lack of clarity in many college policies regarding student behavior.  Making policies, and consequences for violations of them, explicit should be a goal.

The committee discussed issues surrounding consent and sexual behavior and personal responsibility and bystander behavior. Once again the issue of excessive drinking was thought to be intertwined.