Biddy Martin and the TD T-Shirt

(Liya Rechtman)–The Amherst College Administration has a habit of being notoriously slow to respond to issues that arise surrounding student life, particularly sexual assault and Title IX violations. However, as per the discussion this past Sunday, I for one have reason to believe that this could be changing.

For those of you who have been living under rocks and/or in C-level: last Monday, Dana Bolger wrote an article, “Amherst College: Roasting Fat Ones Since 1847,” which was published simultaneously in ACVoice and The Indicator about the campus’s response (or lack thereof) to an incredible offensive t-shirt printed and distributed by an Amherst fraternity. The issue at hand was not the targeted blame of any one sector of Amherst, but the community as a whole. Yes, of course the gentlemen in the fraternity should have been punished for distributing a picture of a woman, naked and abused, roasting on a spit. Dana’s point, though, was more nuanced than that. In her article she wrote:

[M]any more of us are to blame. Everyone who knew about that shirt—regardless of if they bought it, wore it, praised it, or privately condemned it—is at fault. Hundreds of us saw or heard about it and did nothing. We didn’t speak up. We didn’t write about it. We didn’t demand justice or discussion. If we were outraged—and I’m sure many of us were—we didn’t voice it.

Within a day, the post had received 7,500 views and was republished on several other blogs, including Feministing, Ms. Magazine, and In The ‘Cac. Alumni, faculty, members of the local Amherst community, and students alike were disgusted and confused by the image on the t-shirt and Amherst practice regarding sexual assault. They expressed this both to the administration, online over Facebook, and in the ACV comments section of Dana’s post.

Given the cries of outrage at the t-shirt, both from the student body and the larger community, President Biddy Martin called a meeting this past Sunday to discuss:
“changes to our procedures for addressing sexual misconduct, those that are already implemented or anticipated and those that you may wish to have us consider.”

The discussion was held in the Friedmann room, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the room nearly full to capacity. I found myself sitting between several men from Theta Delta Chi (the fraternity that had printed the t-shirt), anxiously sweating and fidgeting in their seats, and a Peer Advocate of Sexual Respect, ready to expound the virtues of the PAs and the Amherst survivor’s support group, “Break The Silence.” Looking around the room I saw many survivors of sexual assault, as I had expected, but also deans, faculty members, staff personnel, Amherst Student Senators, fraternity brothers from Chi Psi and DKE. While the Assistant Athletics Director was there, I saw maybe a handful of Amherst varsity athletes.

President Martin opened the conversation to discussion, mostly putting herself in a role to clarify and listen more than address Dana’s post or the t-shirt. She reiterated her commitment to making Amherst campus safe and fun.

The question of the position of fraternities in relation to the college was quickly brought up, both in support of disbandment and regulation. Emma Saltzberg ’13 noted that fraternities were in a “gray area” and needed to be disbanded entirely because they represent a time when Amherst was an all-male institution. As it stands, the administration can do little to penalize the individuals and the organization that printed the t-shirt. Professor Dumm asked the crowd: “Could the boys in the audience who are in a fraternity raise their hand?” On recognizing that they could not, without risking (ambiguously unstated) disciplinary action, identify themselves, he argued that the marginalization and lack of regulation put fraternity members in the position of outlaws, which then allowed – and perhaps even encouraged them – to exhibit behavior like this.

The conversation was multivocal, with a wide range of people participating. This meant that not all arguments were equal in weight, education or focus. There was a great amount of confusion, even by people who felt comfortable speaking, about the correct way to treat survivors and the definition of rape. While certainly well intentioned, these were generally unhelpful to the progress of Amherst College’s adherence to Title IX (the regulations that specify how a college should handle sexual assault and gender inequality). Andrew Kaake ’14 wanted to focus more energy on making the college responsible for reporting all charges of sexual assault immediately to the police. One woman, who identified herself as a P.A., noted that rape was often in a “gray area.” Stay tuned for articles on ACVoice about both of these issues in the coming weeks.

While I personally was attending the meeting to urge action on the part of the college, there are two very powerful speakers in particular I would like to highlight before discussing concrete results.

Caroline Katba ’15 compared the culture of punishment and the treatment of women at Amherst College with the Gaza Strip, where she lived directly prior to Amherst. “I am from a place where laws are no more than words on paper,” she told a captivated audience. Caroline remarked that she was taken aback to discover how lenient the policy at Amherst was and how riddled our campus culture was with mistreatment of women. As the president of the International Students Association, Caroline explained to us how hard it is, as a student not native to this culture, to encounter behavior like what she has seen of the social scene at Amherst.

Leslie Quiroz ’13, shaking as she clutched the microphone, recounted the experience of having to deal with a professor who made disrespectful and inappropriate comments in a class. Leslie exemplified the reverberating effects of a breach of professional boundaries in the classroom, an instance beyond and distinct from a specific relationship between a victim and an assailant.

Following the wide range of speakers, Biddy rose to address to the crowd again, noting first that she did not wish to be quoted. And here we are again, back at square one. I understand that she wanted to speak from the perspective of a human being, a woman, an individual and not as The Administration. I respect President Martin and I appreciate how quickly she responded after Dana’s article was published. However, asking to not be quoted perfectly exemplifies the lack of administrative transparency that advocates for changes to the sexual assault policy at Amherst College have fought so hard and long against. So while I empathize, in great part, the President’s wishes, I am also incredibly frustrated by them. What does it mean when, in a conversation exactly about how the administration can engage in more actionable dialogue with students, our President asks to not have her words disseminate to the 1,600+ members of campus who were not present at the meeting?

While I will not quote President Martin, as per her wishes, I will say that she was more open than I have ever seen an administrator in my three years here to changing this culture and granting our “asks.”

During the meeting, I outlined to President Martin 5 specific requests for administrative changes:
1. Putting a student representative on the Title IX committee
2. Deciding definitively on either the regulation or disbandment of frats
3. Discussing the unintended negative consequences of the perceived “crackdown” in the alcohol policy
4. Better utilization of and information about currently existing resources, including the Peer Advocates of Sexual Respect and the Sexual Respect Task Force
5. Improving the treatment of survivors both by faculty in the classroom (namely, addressing triggering material), by faculty outside of the classroom (during the disciplinary hearing process) and by fellow students involved in a disciplinary hearing
President Martin agreed immediately that we needed a student on the Title IX committee, and she promised that within a month there would be a committee on Student Life established in the context of the College’s strategic planning initiative that would include consideration of #3 and #4. She is already involved with handling #5 with the Sexual Respect Task Force and she plans on having a meeting off-campus with representatives from the fraternities in the immediate future.

Peace, Love, and Freedom of Press,
ACV Editor
Liya Rechtman