Last week a former Amherst College student’s harrowing account of being raped on campus — and of the administration’s subsequent appalling failure to support her or deal with the incident responsibly — was published in the college newspaper and almost immediately began to draw attention across the country.
Angie Epifano’s story of rape, involuntary institutionalization, and administrative failure brought other campus rape survivors forward, sparked vigils and other organizing, and prompted Amherst president Biddy Martin, until recently the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to announce an investigation of Epifano’s allegations and a series of possible revisions to campus policy.
In her statement, released six days ago, Martin declared Epifano’s experiences “horrifying,” and declared that the administration’s approach to rape complaints “must change.” As a result of an open meeting with students, she said, students would immediately be added to the campus Title IX and student life planning committees, campus penalties for sexual assault would be reviewed, and new regulation of off-campus fraternities would be considered.
On Friday a group of students secured a meeting with the Amherst board of trustees to discuss the crisis on campus, and the next day the board announced the establishment of a committee, to include student representation, which will conduct a review of campus policy in the area. The committee will make a public report in advance of the board’s next meeting in January, though it will have no formal institutional authority.
A crucial question going forward will be which students are brought into these processes, and how they are chosen. The president of the Amherst student government, not the administration, chose the delegation for the trustee meeting, but some students have been critical of the composition of that group, and are pressing for a less “manufactured” process for choosing representatives to the upcoming advisory committee.
Some activists also express concern that a narrow focus on written policies evades the core issues at stake. “The policy in place isn’t the heart of the problem,” senior Alexa Hettwer told the school paper. “Its enforcement by the administration has been shameful. This is more than just tinkering with policy; it raises serious questions about the direction and inclusiveness of the College in the future.”
Meanwhile, organizing continues. A new student website devoted to exposing sexual assault at Amherst appeared in the immediate aftermath of the publication of Epifano’s story, and yesterday they posted a photo essay of survivors (and allies) “featur[ing] eleven men and women who were sexually assaulted at Amherst College and the words that members of our community said to them following their assaults.” (The photos appeared on that site in slideshow form. They can be seen here in a single page format.)
And the impact of Epifano’s statement continues to be felt, most recently just this morning with the publication of another student’s account of how the Amherst administration mishandled her own rape complaint, leading to her transfer. (This student was enrolled at Mount Holyoke, a nearby college closely affiliated with Amherst, and was raped on the Amherst campus.)