October 11, 2012
Dear Amherst students,
I write to you concerning a matter that affects our entire community and for which we are all responsible, in one way or another. This message includes both information and an invitation. I know you are busy, but the issues are important. I hope you will take the time to read it.
Over the course of my first year as president, I heard from a number of you who had concerns about sexual misconduct and respect on campus. “Sexual misconduct” is used to describe a set of behaviors, including sexual assault, sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, sexual exploitation and/or discrimination. Some students shared a belief that such incidents were underreported and worried that the College’s disciplinary procedures contributed to a reluctance on the part of students to come forward with reports. Others expressed particular concerns about the composition of the hearing board and the process leading up to the hearings, including the responsibility assigned to students to “investigate” and present the violations and accusations that are brought forward. Your reports and concerns led me to the view that our procedures for addressing all forms of sexual misconduct needed rigorous review. Important changes were considered and approved in late spring, such as introducing alternative testimony options and using an investigator to conduct interviews and gather information for presentation to the complainant, the accused, and the hearing committee prior to the disciplinary hearing. Still, there continued to be room for improvement.
Over the course of the summer, the College sought help from outside consultants who were charged with reviewing our policies, procedures, and practices regarding sexual misconduct, making recommendations, and working with us to develop the best possible protocols and practices. This project has been led by Attorney Gina Smith of Ballard Spahr, LLP. Ms. Smith is an independent, nationally recognized expert with more than 25 years of experience investigating, evaluating, and adjudicating allegations of sexual misconduct, developing policy and procedure, and coordinating multi-disciplinary and collaborative institutional responses. With Ms. Smith’s guidance, we already have made improvements to the College’s policies, practices, and procedures, such as by developing and distributing a comprehensive guide identifying sexual misconduct resources and reporting options and by clarifying the roles of those who are most involved with sexual misconduct cases. This work continues apace.
Our overarching goal in taking these steps is to ensure a safe, respectful community that gives each of you access to educational, co-curricular, and recreational opportunities free of discrimination, hostility, and fear. We are committed to addressing sexual misconduct with the seriousness it deserves, ensuring prompt and equitable responses to reported violations, and attending to student needs.
A recent article in the Indicator and posted online to AC Voice makes a strong argument about the importance of a campus culture free of discrimination and harassment and one that does not tolerate or turn a blind eye to rape or sexual assault. I share the insistence of the author on such a culture and environment. All of us who have experienced violations of our bodily integrity know how serious and long-lasting the consequences can be and what impact they can have on our sense of safety and well-being.
The article highlights a particular incident that occurred this past spring, when an offensive T-shirt was made and worn by members of an off-campus fraternity. The T-shirt’s message and image offended and concerned a number of students who complained to the Office of the Dean of Students. The Dean’s office responded by calling a meeting that included a student who filed a complaint, other students who were offended by the T-shirt, the Dean of Students, Amherst’s Sexual Respect Counselor, and members of the off-campus fraternity responsible for the T-shirt. The meeting provided the opportunity for an open dialogue regarding the offensive nature of the T-shirt and its impact on others in our community. Following this meeting, members of the off-campus fraternity issued an apology. Those involved in this process viewed this meeting and the outcome as a satisfactory adjustment to the event.
Should the incident have yielded a more forceful response on the part of the Dean of Students’ office? Should additional measures have been taken? Should the incident have been brought to the attention of a broader community? The article and many of the comments in response to it suggest that there should have been more, or weightier, consequences. I cannot know in hindsight, but I do know how seriously my administration and I take the broader issue of sexual misconduct in our community. The Dean of Students assures me that Student Affairs will remain vigilant in addressing these issues through increased communication, education, and programming across our community.
The failure to respect the dignity, the boundaries, and the integrity of others violates the terms under which we are gathered as a community at this College. Indeed, it makes community impossible. And it will not be tolerated. I invite all of you to a meeting with me at 7:00 p.m. this Sunday, October 14, in the Campus Center Friedmann Room to discuss changes to our procedures for addressing sexual misconduct, those that are already implemented or anticipated and those that you may wish to have us consider. I also want to encourage you to think about other aspects of life at Amherst, both the positive and the less than positive, and to imagine what it would take to strengthen our sense of community, enhance your education outside of the classroom, and have more fun. As part of the College’s strategic planning process over the next year and a half, student life and the Amherst student experience will be one of our primary emphases. I look forward to hearing from you about how you would like to be engaged in that process.
Thank you for your attention.