President Martin’s Statement on Sexual Assault

October 18, 2012

Dear Members of the Amherst Community,

I write in response to the recent news about an incident of sexual violence and misconduct on the Amherst campus and to reports that the College has failed to treat similar incidents with adequate transparency or seriousness. A student’s first-person account in this week’s Amherst Student is horrifying—her rape, her painful efforts to deal with it on her own, and her subsequent experiences when she sought help on the campus.

In response to her story, still more accounts of unreported sexual violence have appeared in social media postings and in emails I have received from several students and alumni. Clearly, the administration’s responses to reports have left survivors feeling that they were badly served. That must change, and change immediately. I am investigating the handling of the incident that was recounted in The Student. There will be consequences for any problems we identify, either with procedures or personnel.

Addressing sexual misconduct and violence has been and is one of my highest priorities. Reviews of our policies, procedures, and practices have been underway for several months and they continue. Some changes have already been made. More significant changes need to be considered and decisions about them will involve students and other members of the community at every step. Oversight of this process will be the responsibility of a special committee I will form that will be comprised of students, faculty, staff, administrators, and trustees. In addition, we will hold a series of open meetings in the next several weeks so we can share information and solicit input on the changes we need. One of those meetings will be organized as a teach-in, involving students, faculty, staff, and administrators that will be planned and coordinated by Dean O’Hara.

On the basis of what I learned during my first year at Amherst, I have made campus leaders and the Board of Trustees aware of several challenges and opportunities in the general area of Student Life, including the need to review and make changes in our Title IX and sexual misconduct policies. Indeed, the agenda for this week’s board meeting, which was set some time ago, includes a report from a nationally recognized expert in this area who has been reviewing Amherst’s policies since July 2012. The board is deeply concerned and supportive of our efforts.

Sexual misconduct and assault are among the toughest and most consequential problems on college campuses and in the culture as a whole. Amherst is not alone in its struggles with it. But Amherst, given its values, its commitment to community, and its size should be a model of education, prevention, and effective response when violations occur.

No student should be discouraged from reporting offenses or seeking redress. All reports should be brought to the attention of the College administration. Every student should feel that the College will treat sexual misconduct and violence with the utmost seriousness. Every student should know that the failure to respect the integrity of others will result in punitive action. We will do what it takes to build confidence in the College’s approach.

For more information on existing policy and procedure and on next steps, please read the text below.

Sincerely,

Biddy Martin

Amherst College President's Statement on Sexual Assault: Additional Information

Recent Action Taken

This past Sunday evening, President Martin held an open meeting that gave students an opportunity to share their experiences, their frustrations and recommendations for change. At the end of the meeting, a series of action steps were agreed upon:

  1. Student membership on the Title IX Committee.
  2. Enhanced communication about the changes that are in play.
  3. Improvements in support for survivors of sexual assault.
  4. A review of penalties for those found responsible for sexual misconduct and assault.
  5. Student representation on the Student Life working group that will be part of the College’s  strategic planning effort.
  6. Consideration of the regulation or disbanding of off-campus fraternities as part of the longer term strategic planning discussion.

Next Steps

In the next few weeks the College will continue to follow up with a series of meetings to obtain additional information and solicit the community’s help with the re-design of policies, procedures and practices.  One of those meetings will be organized as a teach-in involving students, faculty, staff and administrators. Dean O’Hara has volunteered to work with the community to organize the teach-in. At another meeting, Gina Smith, a nationally recognized legal and policy expert, will present her observations and recommendations for Amherst. 

Summary of Changes to the College’s Disciplinary Hearing Process

In Spring 2012 the College Council and Committee of Six approved the following changes to the disciplinary hearing procedures, specific to sexual misconduct:

  • Alternative testimony options are available for Committee on Discipline hearings, such as Skype, providing students with full access to the hearing process.
  • Complainant and respondent have the option of submitting Impact Statements to be considered by the Committee while determining sanctions.
  • A trained investigator will meet with the complainant, respondent and relevant witnesses; gather evidence; and prepare a report for distribution to the two parties and the Committee. Using an investigator permits a more complete investigation and lessens the burden on the complainant and the respondent in preparing their respective cases.
  • The Disciplinary Hearing Officer’s role has been eliminated, except in complaints on behalf of the college.