November 7, 2012

Sex- and relationship education that takes place throughout the year, not just at orientation. Explicit, step-by-step instructions on how to report a rape. Greater transparency about the frequency of sexual assault. More campus-wide events.

These are among the appeals, ideas and suggestions to come out of a day-long meeting held at Amherst on Friday, Nov. 2.  This “Day of Dialogue,” for which the administration canceled classes and closed offices, drew an extraordinary 68 percent of the college—some 1,900 students, faculty and staff. 

The meeting came in response to an Oct. 17 Amherst Student op-ed by Angie Epifano ’14. In the article, the former student wrote that she was raped on campus and described negative experiences with Amherst administrators and counselors after she reported the alleged assault.

The meeting was titled “Speaking to Silence: Conversations on Community and Individual Responsibility,” and it began with brief remarks by President Biddy Martin in LeFrak Gymnasium. Next came talks by Gina Maisto Smith, a legal and policy expert on sexual assault and misconduct, and Rhonda Cobham-Sander, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Black Studies and English.

Attendees then broke into small groups, during which student facilitators framed discussions around the following questions: How can individuals or groups go about taking responsibility for implementing change at Amherst? What are our next steps? What can we do to promote community on campus, either as individuals or as members of groups?

Martin asked all participants to provide written feedback, which the Office of Institutional Research has now summarized, sorting responses into 12 categories. According to the summary, the most common category of response was a request for more campus-wide events, with some people asking that such events take place on a regular schedule and cover a variety of themes.

Second-most-common were programming ideas, such as “respect-based sex education” and parties that focus less on alcohol and “hook-up culture” and instead allow students to interact in a healthy way. Third were appeals for education around issues of consent, relationships and alcohol. 

The aggregated responses will inform the work of three campus groups: the Title IX Committee, the Sexual Respect Task Force and the Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct. And already, the college is working with the Center for Women and Community at UMass to provide counseling, training and educational support, as well as 24-hour on-call crisis intervention.

“The Day of Dialogue did a good job of getting people to imagine a future that is different and better than the past has been,” says Margaret Hunt, professor of history and women’s and gender studies, who chairs the Oversight Committee. “That positive approach will both inform and help inspire our deliberations.” The oversight committee (which can be reached by email at is charged with delivering policy recommendations about sexual assault to the Board of Trustees in January.

In addition to the aggregated responses, Athletic Director Suzanne Coffey, who heads the Title IX Committee, says she welcomes additional community feedback, especially regarding the college’s new Sexual Respect and Title IX website.  The website includes a form through which visitors can send suggestions, and Coffey personally reads each one. “We very much look forward,” she says, “to using responses from our community as we develop policy initiatives related to Title IX.”