Residential Life E-mail Generates Controversy
Issue   |   Wed, 10/30/2013 - 01:17

Two weeks ago, Amherst College received media attention when Newsweek covered the story of an e-mail that was sent to the student body prior to Homecoming weekend. The article, titled “College Warns of Drunk, Sexually Aggressive Alumni,” points to the offensively worded sections of the e-mail.

The content of the e-mail alerted students about the possibility of alums intruding the dormitories, stealing personal items and causing dorm damage. But the particular part of the e-mail that was under scrutiny was the warning about alums returning to Amherst “pretty jaded with the bar scene and blind dating of the real world” and wanting to take advantage of the college students.

This year was not the first time this version of the e-mail was sent out to the student body, according to some Residential Counselors (RCs), all of whom requested to remain anonymous. The e-mail is a template, written many years ago, that was meant to be a resource to the RCs. It recommended general items students should be aware of during Homecoming weekend. As a reference, the e-mail was sent out to the RCs, who had the options of sending out an exact copy of the e-mail, forwarding a re-worded version of the e-mail or personally talking to students regarding the e-mail. A few Residential Counselors mentioned that, because the e-mail was going around the school for the past six or seven years, the possible implications of its poor wording went unnoticed until now.

Many have said Newsweek failed to capture the background story behind the e-mail and accused the Amherst College administration for the e-mail’s portrayal of alumni as sexually aggressive people and students as their possible victims. The article pinpoints to Angie Epifano’s account of sexual assault printed last school year. Since then, the College has been particularly attentive and sensitive to issues concerning sexual assault on campus. While the Newsweek article addresses important points about victim blaming in sexual assault and negative portrayal of the alums, some have argued it views the issue in black-and-white terms. The article achieved its goal of grabbing the public’s attention, but, according to these critics, its inability to address all sides of the issue has left people polarized over the controversy.

While there is general consensus that some parts of the e-mail were poorly worded, there are others who feel uneasy about the accusatory tone of the article. William Herman ’17 pointed out that the Newsweek article does not objectively consider the true intention behind the e-mail.

“The truth is that the e-mail shows how the school is positively attending to its students’ safety by reminding them of the dangers of alcohol. The last line of the original paragraph in the e-mail, ‘Keep an eye on your friends and yourself!’ is a more accurate reflection of the spirit of the e-mail. The reality is that the point of the e-mail was to protect student safety, not to accuse alumni,” Herman said.

Though the wording of the e-mail later surfaced as a problem, some students, especially freshmen, found it helpful. New students were aware that alumni would return to Amherst to celebrate Homecoming. However, almost no freshmen expected past students to burst into the dormitories and nostalgically and loudly roam the hallways. According to many freshmen, the e-mail served as a warning about the seemingly unbelievable, but real possibilities that could happen (and have happened) during Homecoming weekend.

When asked about how Residential Life has been dealing with the issue since the Newsweek article was published on Oct. 21, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Residential Life Torin Moore, wanted to communicate the following statement:

“Let me start by expressing my deep remorse to our alumni for the unintended though hurtful way in which our words mischaracterized you. You play a vital role in the lives of our students and the college community; thank you for all that you do. I also wish to apologize to our students, who were offended by the message.

Though poorly worded, the intention of the message was to provide students with some general health and safety tips during a busy, festive college weekend in which many visitors to the campus were expected. The parts of the message that made headlines were written several years ago and not by [Area Coordinator for the First Year Experience Dominick Usher], who joined the Amherst community this past summer. Clearly, that message should have never remained in our files. In the past week, my office has worked closely with Dean of Students Jim Larimore and others to review all of our correspondence with students to ensure the appropriate intention and tone is being set. As a department that communicates regularly with students on a host of health and safety issues, we are committed to making progress in our efforts to prevent sexual assault on campus as well as raise awareness about the issue without offending students, alumni or other groups. It’s my sincere hope that working together and moving forward, we will continue the valuable work of addressing these important issues.”

Many have noted how ironic it is that, just a few weekends ago, the College lauded and thanked the alumni’s success in raising money for the college and then sent out a message warning the student body about the “dangers” of the alumni. However, there has been a general consensus that, instead of criticizing the administration or believing the media-induced distortion, the College should turn their attention to how Residential Life can effectively support student safety next year, learning as it goes.