Alumni Weigh in on Sexual Misconduct Issues
Issue   |   Wed, 11/14/2012 - 00:21

Homecoming weekend brought alumni from all different classes and genders back to the College to connect with old friends, watch the football team demolish Williams and see how their alma mater has changed since their time as students. This year, however, alumni also confronted the recent revelations about sexual misconduct and gender discrimination on campus, attending multiple events about sexual respect in addition to their traditional Homecoming itineraries.

On Saturday, President Carolyn Martin held meeting in Johnson Chapel — similar in format to previous meetings held for students, faculty and parents — where she described the College’s response to the current sexual assault crisis and answered questions posed by alums. Gina Smith, the national expert from law firm Ballard Spahr hired this summer by the College to review its policies and procedures for dealing with sexual misconduct, explained the College’s obligations under Title IX and discussed the issue of reporting sexual misconduct to legal authorities in depth.

While the meeting touched on many of the same issues as previous events held for other members of the College community, the discussion with alumni was unique in allowing some of the alumni who attended the College before the arrival of women or the abolition of fraternities to share their opinions. Several of these alums used the forum as an opportunity to advocate for the return of on-campus fraternities, while others accused the College of blaming fraternities or athletics for sexual assault.
Scott Smith ’09, who attended the conversation, felt that President Martin handled these objections effectively and helped reduce tensions between older alumni and more recent graduates.

“A number of older, largely male alumni wanted to talk about the position of the off-campus fraternities in the ongoing conversation, and used the forum as an opportunity to voice their long-held opinion that fraternity life should never have left campus. I think President Martin was extremely tactful in diffusing any concerns that the College was going to place blame for sexual violence on any one group of students, and was extremely clear on the point that she is still in a review period when it comes to the role the off-campus fraternities play in the issue,” said Smith. “Biddy is right — no one group is responsible for sexual violence or encouraging a misogynistic culture, and this conversation is not the place to either vilify one group of students or turn prickly and defensive of your own peer group.”

Despite these challenges, many alumni felt the meeting was productive. Daniel Cluchey ’08 viewed the conversation as evidence that President Martin was committed to changing the College’s approach to sexual misconduct.

“President Martin was clear, eloquent and almost superhumanly thoughtful in addressing the questions posed to her at the morning meeting. I cannot imagine anybody attending that meeting, or speaking with her personally that day, leaving with the impression that she is anything less than wholly serious in her commitment to make sexual violence at Amherst a thing of the past. All told, I went in skeptically and left feeling as though the meeting had been an enormous success,” said Cluchey.

Following the event, Center for Community Engagement (CCE) Director Molly led a facilitated discussion in the Red Room to elicit suggestions from alums about possible changes to College policy, procedure and culture that could help promote sexual respect. Gina Smith and several counselors from the McLean Center also attended the meeting to offer their own perspectives and guidance for the discussion. While the meeting was mainly attended by younger alumni, Robert Howard ’76 offered his perspective as an older alumnus with a background in psychoanalysis and management consulting, advocating the importance of changing students’ visceral understandings of sexual assault.

“An event that focuses on the psychodynamics of sexual assault could be an effective method of getting the learning out of the head and a little more in the gut, in a way where students can’t just dismiss why we have to do this. In the end, it’s going to be the culture; it’s going to be the students themselves that make this change. The College can do everything in the world, but if this isn’t something that’s owned by the student body, it’s only going to be reactive,” said Howard.

Howard argued that organizing educational events such as group discussions or theater productions that dealt with sexual misconduct on a more emotional level could supplement policy changes to create a safer and more respectful environment at the College. On the other end of the alumni spectrum, Rebecca Eppler-Epstein ’12 agreed that education was important and suggested programming that dealt with issues of masculinity and sexual assault, as well as increased information for victims post-assault.

“I think the College needs to do a huge education push both for men on what it means to be a man and respect others — particularly women but also other men; we need to not forget the cases of same-sex rape — and on what to do if you experience assault. This has been suggested by others, but putting a page of information on who to call, what your rights are, and what you need to do if you want to have a chance of prosecuting in bathroom stalls could be really helpful,” said Eppler-Epstein.

Eppler-Epstein also suggested improving police training for handling sexual misconduct cases, a concern echoed by several other alumni, who were concerned that the current police practice of interviewing both parties simultaneously could discourage victims from speaking out. Gina Smith responded to the concerns, informing alumni about a program recently established by Hampshire County District Attorney to help train police departments at the Five Colleges on best practices for handling sexual misconduct cases.

Scott Smith felt that the discussion showed a commitment on the part of the alumni to promoting serious change on the issue of sexual respect and emphasized the need to improve support networks for women on campus, especially by expanding the Women’s Center, which is currently confined to a small space in the basement of Keefe Campus Center.

“One suggestion that was widely agreed upon was to move the Women’s Center and the Multicultural Resource Center out of the basement of Keefe as soon as possible. I understand that The Student has agreed to give the Women’s Center some space upstairs, and I’m glad to hear that. Anyone on AAS who is involved with these decisions should know that the alumni present strongly support moving these two offices to more accessible locations ASAP,” said Smith.

Overall, many alumni were optimistic about the College’s progress on sexual respect. Smith also praised President Martin’s leadership on the issue and expressed hope for the future.

“I was extremely heartened to see the level of seriousness with which President Martin has taken on this issue, and the rigor with which she is engaged in fact-finding, listening and pursuing a better campus culture. I think cultural shift is hard, but Biddy is looking at the issue from all angles, and that’s really encouraging. I came away believing that the administration is committed to making change real, and that President Martin has the sensitivity, drive, and intelligence to effectively pursue a safer, healthier campus,” said Smith.