COLLEGE

Alumni Are Creating A Network To Put Pressure On Universities Over Sexual Assault

05/28/2014 04:37 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2014
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Alumni from more than a dozen colleges and universities are creating a network to collaborate on ways to pressure their alma maters to improve their handling of sexual assault cases on campus.

The group, as yet unnamed, plans to hold its first conference call Thursday, multiple participants told The Huffington Post.

So far, the group features alumni from Amherst and Williams colleges in Massachusetts, Barnard College of Columbia University, Brown University, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, Duke University, George Washington University, Hanover College in Indiana, Harvard University, Occidental College in Los Angeles, Swarthmore College near Philadelphia, the University of Chicago, the University of Southern California and Yale University. Organizers said they are not capping membership and are still looking to include alumni from more schools.

Elizabeth Amini, a 1995 Occidental graduate, told HuffPost the alumni are "interested in collaborating first and foremost" with college administrators. But if that doesn't work, she said, the alums are prepared to contact "every last foundation and donor" and high school guidance counselor to say that "not only is there a major safety problem on campus, but the school is only addressing it partially."

Members of the alumni network are comparing notes on how various schools have handled cases of sexual assault and how they have responded to proposals to do things differently. Some members of the network have proposed paying $99 to join an email listserv with 800,000 high school guidance counselors so they can distribute their findings more widely.

The alumni say they are able to provide an institutional memory that runs deeper than the four or five years a student may spend as an undergraduate on campus. They also say they have more influence on the purse strings than someone who's currently enrolled in school.

"We decided it was time to start uniting our voices," said Lisa Paige, president of Alumnae/i Network for Harvard Women. "So all over the nation, women [and] alumnae are now contacting those of us who started getting involved, and a lot of new people are contacting who'd like to be involved as well."

Many of these colleges have federal probes underway into allegations that they mishandled cases of sexual violence on campus. Others have attracted attention simply because of current or former students speaking out about how their own cases were handled.

At Amherst, for example, former student Angie Epifano wrote a lengthy op-ed for the student newspaper in 2012 that detailed the school's response to her sexual assault. The op-ed went viral, and, together with a federal complaint that Epifano filed a year later, resulted in multiple policy changes at Amherst, including the school's recent decision to make involvement in the underground fraternity system grounds for expulsion.

Elsewhere in Massachusetts, at Williams College, a student's recent explanation of how she was treated following a sexual assault report led some alumni to threaten to withhold donations until the school made improvements. The Williams student, Lexie Brackenridge, said that after reporting a rape by a hockey player, she was harassed by his teammates, at one point being pelted with full beer cans. Her alleged rapist was suspended for three semesters, but not expelled, drawing criticisms from students and alumni that the school didn't go far enough.

Alumni of Tufts, Columbia and Occidental are also threatening to withhold money until their schools' policies on sexual assault are revised.

It's no coincidence that alumni are connecting now, during commencement season, when many former students are invited to come back and visit their campuses. Paige noted that her group will be planning events for women returning for their 25- and 30-year reunions in the coming weeks.

The alumni network is similar to groups that have formed among enrolled students in the past few years. In 2011, students at Yale, Amherst, Occidental and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill combined efforts to form the groups Know Your IX and End Rape On Campus, which have since advised students around the country on filing federal complaints against their schools.

Amini noted that when she was in school herself, students wouldn't even have been able to arrange a conference call with 20 people, let alone use the Internet to organize a national movement. She suggested that today's alumni could be a formidable force for change.

"The administrations are just waiting for the alumni to be appeased by simple changes or lose steam and leave," Amini said. "All of us are at points in our careers where we've achieved a certain amount of success. The Gen X people -- they're already the heads of their law firms and successful companies ... The two groups I don't see leaving are the tenured faculty and alumni."

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Earlier on HuffPost:

Images From 'Surviving In Numbers' -- A Project Highlighting Sexual Assault Survivors' Experiences
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