Letter from President Biddy Martin

Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013

Dear Members of the Amherst Community,

This past October, in response to reports of sexual assault, Amherst College formed the Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct. The committee, chaired by Professor Margaret Hunt and composed of students, faculty, staff, and trustees, was charged with providing a report that reviewed policies and made specific recommendations aimed at improving our capacity to prevent and address incidents of sexual misconduct. Given the urgency of the matter, the committee was asked to prepare the report for presentation to me and then to the Board of Trustees at the January meeting that just concluded.

This past Friday and Saturday, Professor Hunt presented the report to the Board. The report is detailed, candid, and thoughtful. It holds Amherst accountable for putting in place the policies and systems that are necessary for addressing and preventing sexual misconduct.

I would like to thank the members of the committee—and, in particular, its chair, Professor Hunt—for their service. The report is now available to the community here.

I urge all of you to read the report of the Special Oversight Committee. A number of its recommendations have already been addressed—in particular, those related to the spirit and letter of Title IX. Under the leadership of Suzanne Coffey, the Title IX Committee has, over recent months, redrafted our policies, procedures, and protocols.  The College now has and follows an integrated response to sexual misconduct and assault that addresses the immediate needs of our students. The College also provides support, resources, and informed communications about reporting options. The Office of the Dean of Students has taken steps to improve its protocols and enhance coordination. Other recommendations await campus discussion, and some will also become part of our larger strategic planning initiative. The Board of Trustees has asked that we make meaningful progress before its April meeting, and we intend to act with dispatch. (A statement about the report from the Board of Trustees.)

In addition, Gina M. Smith of Ballard Spahr LLP in Philadelphia has completed her evaluation of the College’s response to Angie Epifano’s report of rape in spring 2012. Ms. Smith, a nationally recognized expert in the area of sexual misconduct in higher education, presented her findings and recommendations to me last week and to the Board this past weekend. In her presentation, Ms. Smith reported that Ms. Epifano provided a credible account of her experience. The focus in Smith’s assessment was whether the application of policy and process to Ms. Epifano’s report constituted an effective response by the College. It did not. Based on her careful review, Ms. Smith concludes that, in this case, the College failed to follow policy and procedure in a way that would have provided a prompt and integrated response to Ms. Epifano’s report. The failure of responsible parties to communicate promptly and effectively with Ms. Epifano and with one another precluded a successful response. Ms. Smith cited failures of protocol, coordination, communication, and effective supervisory relationships among staff. The result was an inadequate, even if well-intentioned, set of efforts to respond to and support Ms. Epifano.

The resulting recommendations that Ms. Smith presented to me and to the Board are consistent with the recommendations in the report of the Special Oversight Committee. Many have already been implemented or are in the process of being put in place.

On Tuesday, Feb. 5, at 7:30 p.m., we will hold an open meeting in Johnson Chapel, where Professor Hunt and other members of the Special Oversight Committee will be available to respond to questions about the committee’s work and where my colleagues and I will be available to hear your ideas about how best to proceed.  At that time we will also provide an outline proposing the sequence and timeline for consideration of key recommendations. In the meantime, I urge you to send responses and suggestions via the Suggestions and Stories link on the Sexual Respect website.

The report makes clear that sexual assault is a national issue and concludes that Amherst is not different from its peer institutions in the incidence of sexual misconduct; it also argues—correctly, in my view—that we at Amherst have an obligation to live up to the College’s values by holding ourselves accountable for efforts to prevent it and to respond effectively when it occurs. We are responsible for working together to make change.

We have started this work together; many of the recommendations in the committee’s report will sound familiar, because they echo the views expressed by many of you in public meetings, on the Day of Dialogue, and in other venues. I look forward to working with the entire community to change what must be changed in policy, procedure, and protocols; in the organization and coordination of student life functions across the College; and, over time, in our cultural and social fabric. 

Sincerely,

Biddy Martin