Understanding the Complexities of Social Life at Amherst

The social life at Amherst has undergone some less-than-stellar changes this year. The Scattering of Campus Social Life, an article published by The Student, did a fine job on reporting the conflicts which have risen as a result of the demolition of the Socials, difficult party registrations, and more frequent intervention on behalf of campus police.  The gist of the message is that students are unhappy with the lack of reliable spaces to host and organize parties where alcohol can be served. What they missed, however, was why these changes occurred. I have a theory.

Every so often I check the news to see if there are updates of the John Doe v. Amherst College case, in which an accused student was expelled after allegedly not being able to properly defend himself under the purview of the current Title IX framework and procedure. This is not the first time controversy surrounding Amherst College’s Title IX department has been featured in national headlines.

For those unaware of this, here’s a summary of the past 5 years’ worth of negative publicity targeting the Title IX department at Amherst: In 2012 Trey Malone committed suicide related to a 2011 sexual assault which he blamed Amherst for mishandling. 2013 was the year Angie Epifano filed a federal complaint against Amherst College for failing to support her after she filed a rape complaint in 2011. She wrote an article for the Student a few years ago about her experience. In 2015 the college reached a settlement with John Doe, a student who was hastily expelled in 2014 after an allegation from 2009 surfaced. Complaints against the college included a lack of due process, improper representation, and the barring of evidence which could have acquitted Doe. In 2015, the college went under investigation related to these complaints, which leads us to where we are now.

If the college is responding to the past five years’ worth of Title IX failures and negative media attention by eliminating student-thrown parties where alcohol is present, then they are approaching the issue from the wrong angle. While Dean Gendron, Senior Associate Dean of Students and Title IX Deputy Coordinator, said that he’s unaware of any conversation when such a motive was discussed for destroying the Socials, I think the possibility is still worth exploring, considering that the absence of the Socials have produced a number of unresolved problems. In the above-listed controversies, the complaints centered on the trauma inflicted on the victims, compounded with Amherst’s response, not social spaces. Malone wrote in his suicide letter, “What began as an earnest effort to help on the part of Amherst, became an emotionless hand washing. In those places I should’ve received help, I saw none.” In her article detailing the Administration’s response to her rape, Angie Epifano shared, “The more that I learn about Amherst’s policy toward sexual assault and survivors in general, the more relief I feel in deciding to transfer. How could I stay at a school who had made my healing process not just difficult, but impossible?” This problem requires an answer much larger than removing social spaces, and to approach such an issue in that way is beyond insulting to the victims who went unanswered for help. Such diversionary practices will only read as an attempt to avoid further controversy.

In my conversations with three different Title IX administrators about this issue, they agree that the destruction of the Socials hasn’t fixed any problems pertaining to sexual respect. According to Laurie Frankl, Title IX Coordinator, complaints made to Title IX have remained at a steady number since Fall, 2015. Yet, now that the Socials are gone, a number of foreseeable issues have arisen which the administration is aware of, but has yet to adequately address.

What problems have spawned because students at Amherst have no reliable party spaces in campus? Well, there are the consequences outlined in The Scattering of Campus Social Life, of course, in which student tension and frustration have risen considerably, but unanticipated effects will soon start to have a larger impact. In an effort to fill the void of the Socials, students may choose to venture into unfamiliar spaces like UMASS which has a reputation for having far less safe social scenes compared to Amherst. Furthermore, we can expect more students to file for off-campus housing in an attempt to find a space which caters to their needs and desires, which will almost certainly reinforce divisions among the student body as off-campus parties become popular. Ironically, this may lessen the overcrowding issue which Amherst has faced in the past few years, but what will this look like in terms of financial contribution for room and board to the students who choose to stay on campus? As current students look for off campus housing, prospective students will may overlook Amherst as we try to amend these problems. What strikes me as particularly troubling is the precedence this could set in how the school reacts to controversy.

So, how do we go about tackling the issues which I’ve raised? The first is to confront the drawbacks of the Title IX division: I have to admit that I have not observed many. I believe Title IX is currently one of the few administrative departments on campus where the staff’s first priority is the well-being of students. From both personal experience and stories shared to me, the college seems to have addressed the department’s flaws to make the process simple and fair to all parties, and constantly reviews processes to ensure consistency and impartialness. If you are particularly interested in how you can contribute to Title IX policies, you should reach out to or look into joining the Title IX committee, which consists of students, staff and faculty, who contribute to shaping Title IX’s policies. My greatest worry in regards to our Title IX department is the lack of understanding students have about the resources they offer, as well as the influence of student groups like the PAs and the SHEs.

Seniors at Amherst College may have spent their entire four years, apart from First Year orientation week, without going to a single program concerning Title IX policies or sexual education. This is because most of these programs run on a self-selection basis, and aren’t often catered to a campus-wide audience. After meeting with Laurie Frankl and Dean Gendron, it seems that Title IX is dedicated to becoming a less ambiguous and more approachable force in the immediate future, which quite frankly is a necessity given its speckled past. I think the best method is to pace interactive and informative programming over our four years at Amherst so they become unobtrusive and more easily digestible. This might be more effective than cramming a week’s worth of information during First Year orientation to the point that messages become desensitized, only to never be reinforced throughout the rest of college.

Furthermore, we need to make more use of resources like the the Amherst PAs and SHEs, which focus on prevention and education, as opposed to the administrative side of Title IX which typically handles reports and complaints. Right now, the PAs and SHEs are not necessarily considered by many to be an integral part of the Amherst community, which needs to change. We’ve seen how the college has been able to revamp student-held positions like Orientation Leaders, now we need to apply that to our other student leaders. My suggestion is to host more large-scale events, as well as an increased emphasis on student participation. Administration can look at popular college-sponsored events, like PINDAR dinners or seasonal fairs, and use them as inspiration to promote sexual respect. Some students have criticized events like this in the past, such as Consent Fest, but I argue that not only should consent be celebratory, but if your goal is to appeal to the general public, you need to host something that is, say, generally appealing.

RCs in party-heavy dorms especially need to organize more workshops concerning sexual respect, and need to encourage student attendance. Sexual respect and health programs were once required to be organized by RCs in every dorm at minimum once a semester but for some reason, these regulations are changing. The only sexual respect workshop held in Jenkins this year was hosted halfway through the second semester, after being prompted by numerous reports to Title IX by partygoers. We can do better. This doesn’t mean that every student needs to dive head-first into the deep end of social justice, but the responsibility of creating a healthy campus atmosphere is for the entire student body to bear. However, as full-time students with multiple non-academic responsibilities, we need the administration to take the lead on this.

There is also the issue of campus social life, at least insofar as it pertains to socializing with alcohol on campus. Just as it’s reasonable to expect students who do not want to be a part of that atmosphere to be accommodated, so to is it for students who crave typical college parties. Personally, the change I would hope to see is the resurrection of a reliable on-campus space used for parties which do not consistently get broken up before 12 AM. The Powerhouse has had trouble with maintaining popularity and meeting student demands, but if the requirements for students to host their own parties in that space are made easier, we could see a surge in its utility. If not, the Triangle dorms may save the day, but I’d warn residents frequently to check with administration what the dorm damage total is, as apparently it’s common practice to let students get into over $40,000 worth of damages without giving any notice. In fact, with management like that, I would look into off-campus housing for myself.

However, I think the real issue we face is an administration that quietly enforces ‘solutions’ to problems they don’t directly address, thereby creating more problems. This produces a disconnect both within the student body and between students and the administration. It also sets vague and unclear goals for the future of the college. Speaking to Dean Gendron, I suggested the idea of sending surveys out to students to gauge what issues are most pressing, paired with a newsletter every so often to explain what the administration is doing to facilitate positive change. Not only was Dean Gendron receptive of these ideas, but he shared with me his plan of utilizing focus groups to gather student opinions, an idea already put into motion with last month’s focus groups for Title IX research. Now all we need to do is keep the administration accountable for continuing their outreach to the student body. We can do this from a number of means, whether it be joining AAS, student committees, or scheduling one-on-one meetings with administrators to discuss the issues and propose solutions. As much as we need student leaders like the Senate, RCs, PAs, and SHEs to be a link between students and administration, we need students who are not in these positions to understand they are just as important in moving forward and also need to be engaged in the conversation.

Finally, I urge you not simply to take my word for at face-value. All that I’ve done is lay out a connection I’ve observed, and write my opinion on the matter. I could be wrong as much as I am right, but what’s important is that we start highlighting issues which are swept under the rug and demand they be addressed in a manner which suits the college’s needs – both from an administrative and student standpoint. Nothing is going to change just because I wrote an article; the most it will do is inspire others to act. If change occurs, it will be because the readers of this article understand there is a need for their involvement, and they will answer the call. Students should not be the ones expected to expend a majority of our time, effort, and resources in improving the college, as that is a position which full-time staff already being paid to fill, but I see so many squandered opportunities for students to promote a positive change for our community, either because of a lack of interest or information. This is our college, our home. To ensure an exceptional quality of life for each other is a worthwhile endeavor. Best of luck.


Rachel Boyette ’17