Monday, October 22, 2012

Will Amherst College change its culture?

It has been suggested that there is a somewhat underground culture of sexual misogyny at Amherst College in Massachusetts. An article on Jezebel last week discussed the issue of on-campus sexual assault, the seeming lack of support for alleged victims from "first responders", and how the underground, largely unacknowledged Greek system at Amherst has contributed to a dangerous sexual climate at the college.
One underground fraternity printed a t-shirt last year featuring a bikini-clad, woman hog-tied, with bruises on her body and roasting over a spit. According to the article, the administration held a meeting about the incident with fraternity members and other students which resulted in the fraternity having to issue an apology.
A recent story in the college's student paper was written by a former (she withdrew from the school) student who wrote of her experience being raped on campus and not receiving adequate help from college administrators. Other alleged victims have been coming forward complaining that administrators encourage them to forgive the men who assaulted them, or have discouraged them from moving forward with disciplinary action. One of the major offenders apparently is counseling services. I thought this was unusual. At my undergraduate institution the sexual assault organization, which offered counseling and advice negotiating the criminal and disciplinary process, was constantly criticized for being too sympathetic to female students who came to them reporting an assault.
The former student's report that she was denied even the possibility of changing dorms was very disturbing to read but also reminiscent of other cases we have written about where female students who was sexually assaulted and shushed by administration have tried to at least put physical distance between themselves and their assailants but have been turned down. These cases are Title IX cases and these stories are used as evidence that the college had prior knowledge about either a particular student's sexually violent behavior or a climate of sexual violence and took no steps to remedy it.
There are current and former students working to change the college's sexual assault policies (including that those found guilty of sexual assault receive a lesser punishment than students who steal another student's laptop!). Additionally there has to be something going on at Amherst that has so many students speaking out now--mostly anonymously--about their own experiences. Counseling services may require some alternations, but also a potential issue is the reporting and disciplinary systems. Are they up to snuff? Would they hold up if one of these students decided to file a lawsuit? Are these questions Amherst College is asking itself?
President Biddy Martin held a forum last weekend about the issues, allowing students to voice their concerns. The school has also issued formal statements, from Martin herself--whose convocation speech addressed the concept of sexual respect, as well as the Board of Trustees, all stating that these issues will be addressed.
I have a great amount of respect for Dr. Biddy Martin. I was quite pleased when she left Wisconsin and came to our Happy Valley. This is a problem she inherited. I hope she is very serious about her statements to change the culture at Amherst College.