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06/04/2013 07:37 am ET Updated Jun 04, 2013

Biddy Martin, Amherst President, Weighs Fraternities In Tackling Sexual Assault

AP

This article, written by investigative journalism students at the University of Massachusetts, is presented as part of a larger series addressing issues related to sexual assault on college campuses.

Six months after Amherst College was pulled into a national discussion about rape on college campuses, school officials are considering whether to eliminate the activities of officially unsanctioned fraternities.

"My feeling is that ambiguity is the worst of all possible worlds," said Amherst President Carolyn "Biddy" Martin in a recent interview, referring to the vague status of Amherst fraternities.

Students and school officials have raised concerns that because fraternities are not formally recognized by the college, sexual misconduct that happens at off-campus frat houses may not be reported in the same way that similar cases of campus misconduct would be.

Amherst banned frats from campus in 1984. But the college allowed the groups to remain organized, as long as their activities are off-campus.

"Clarification of the status for these frats is high on the list," Martin said. "I believe the Title IX committee and the special oversight committee has taken up the questions to find which policies will be followed and changed in the case of off campus incidents."

Addressing the status of fraternities is one of several initiatives at Amherst. Martin said a new plan is in the works to create more open spaces on campus, including a new loft space she said she hopes will add supervision and create a comfortable space for open mic nights, parties and other social events.

"Currently, there aren’t many spaces where people can be visible to one another, where friends can keep track of each other in social settings, and where students can have the kind of fun that would be safe and legitimate," Martin explained.

Amherst administrators said they are looking to hire a new Title IX coordinator, to oversee the school's compliance with the federal law that requires equal access to education for women, and are working to reexamine and create new sanctions, harsher punishments and ultimately a safer process for victims of campus assault and rape. College officials are also changing the training process for judicial hearing board members.

Suzanne Coffey, the school's current Title IX coordinator, said the college plans training on both the law and specifics of school policies.

"You don't want sexual assault to happen," Coffey said. "I'd like to end it tomorrow, but the reality is there is going to be sexual misconduct. We are working on creating an environment where people feel safe coming forward.”

Coffey is also the acting athletic director at the school. Her dual role has has drawn some accusations of bias from students.

"It is unfortunate that we have a member of the Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct who holds such obviously biased and absolutely incorrect views on the causes of sexual assault," argued Chris Friend in a February 2013 op-ed in the student newspaper, The Amherst Student.

As a senior administrator, Coffey stepped in as the Title IX coordinator in September 2012. She said there will likely be a new one by September 2013.

Amherst came under media scrutiny in October 2012 after Angie Epifano, a former student at the college, published a detailed account of the school's response to the rape she said happened to her on campus. Epifano said the "prep boy" mentality is alive and well at the prestigious liberal arts school in Massachusetts.

"A lot of these boys going to Amherst College have been told yes all their life," Epifano said in an interview. "When they hear no, they figure out their own ways to get what they want."

Around the time Epifano's op-ed was published in October, Theta Delta Chi, an off-campus fraternity at Amherst, created a T-shirt featuring a woman tied up over a fire. Students were outraged by the administration's lack of response.

Epifano acknowledged a general feeling of discomfort surrounding the frat culture at Amherst. "The problem is never one that can be dissected in such a way," Epifano said. "Perpetrators are everywhere, but it may certainly be higher in a space like this."

A member of one of the underground fraternities, who asked to remain anonymous, said his organization's leaders are constantly worrying about being shut down.

"In general, I think the concept of fraternities does perpetuate sexual misconduct, rape, that kind of attitude," the member said. "At all-male or all-female parties, there is something about them that isn’t necessarily good. And, it's not something that's easy to talk about."

In an October 2012 Amherst Student editorial, the administration was criticized for a lack of control over Greek life, and ultimately, the inability to address a larger cultural problem.

"It is possible that in any group of male students -- sports teams, fraternities or even all-male suites -- we will find exaggerated enactments of 'masculinity,'" the board wrote. "Unless every student recognizes and understands their own behavior, this phenomenon will perpetuate itself until a ‘herd mentality’ leads to offensive acts by the members of the association."

Lynn Phillips, a communication lecturer at the nearby University of Massachusetts-Amherst, said fraternities perpetuate "the notions of masculinity set out to make men feel like they have to conquer.”

Both Coffey and Martin said improving education is key to increasing sexual assault awareness on college campuses.

"We need to educate our community from a variety of perspectives," Coffey said. "Not just that there are policies and procedures and what they are, but also what it’s like to have a community of people who respect one another."

Martin said new programs will educate incoming students on sexual misconduct at orientation.

Martin has been instrumental in the changes. She has been a women’s rights activist her entire life, and as Coffey pointed out, “she is also a very skilled leader and what’s more, the right leader at the right time.”

“From the very beginning, she pushed everyone to be very transparent about everything and was herself the beacon for that," Coffey said.

Martin has kept herself visible to the public. She participates in videocasts to help set a model for other schools, has taken responsibility for the mistakes Amherst College has made, and talks about change.

“It has been an exhausting year," Coffey said, "but [Martin] has been the person who has kept her foot on the gas pedal, hard on the gas pedal."

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