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Amherst College President Carolyn ‘Biddy’ Martin answers questions about rape on campus

  • Caroline (Biddy) Martin, Amherst College president, in her office Thursday morning.<br/><br/>
  • Amherst College President Carolyn Martin<br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Amherst College President Carolyn Martin<br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Amherst College President Carolyn Martin<br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Amherst College President Caroline Martin<br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Amherst College President Carolyn Martin<br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • College President Carolyn "Biddy"  Martin has lunch with Colby Jantzen, left,  Maria Kirigin and Maia Mares at Amherst College.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • College President Carolyn "Biddy"  Martin has lunch with Roger Creel, left, Colby Jantzen and  Maia Mares at Amherst College.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Caroline (Biddy) Martin, Amherst College president, in her office Thursday morning.<br/><br/>

For the past several months, Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, the 19th president of Amherst College, has been coping with a media storm over the issue of rape on campus, brought to the fore by first-person student accounts that went viral in October. Those accounts criticized administrators for ignoring or minimizing sexual assaults.

Martin, 61, a former chancellor at the University of Wisconsin Madison, was named Amherst president in 2011. Her response to the problem of campus rape has included shepherding changes aimed at making it easier for students to report incidents, hiring an outside expert to overhaul policies and canceling classes for a daylong forum on sexual violence.

The Bulletin interviewed Martin earlier this month in her Converse Hall office about her leadership of the college, particularly during the recent crisis over campus rape.

Below are edited excerpts of the conversation:

Q: When you became president of Amherst, media profiles talked about how the campus would be a respite for you compared to a huge school like UW Madison. Do you feel that way now, given what’s happened over the last few months?

Martin: I never thought of this position as a respite. People assume that the size of the institution is what makes everything different. The truth is, the constituencies are the same — students, faculty, staff, alumni — all the people who have a stake in the institution. I wanted to come to a place like Amherst that’s made commitments to building the kind of community where difference and diversity are at the core. I never thought it would be an easy task.

Q: Were you surprised by former student Angie Epifano’s account of being raped by a classmate that was published in the Amherst Student newspaper in October?

Martin: I heard Angie’s story for the first time in the student paper. All of us know that rape and sexual abuse are problems on college campuses. It’s still surprising when that’s revealed. I think it’s a good sign that I felt shocked but not surprised by her story. I wouldn’t want to be so hardened that I wouldn’t feel shock.

Q: What about Epifano’s claim that administrators didn’t do enough to help her. Do you think she was ill-served by Amherst?

Martin: The details of her case are still being investigated and I don’t yet know enough about those details ... What I have said to staff is rather than being defensive, the thing to do is to improve what we’re doing for students, be open and not get buried in questions, at least initially, about the details.

Q: You’ve won praise for being unusually transparent about how the college is addressing rape.

Martin: That’s just the way I was raised. It’s always better to be open in tackling things. I don’t know how to fix them without talking about them ... There were times when we debated how to be open and how to deal with the issues. We are also careful to avoid any hint that we’re making immediate attributions to any one group on campus as the problem.

Q: Can you talk more about that?

Martin: These issues are really complicated. When people begin to diagnose, ‘Well, it’s off-campus frats,’ for example, that can be problematic. While supporting students, we’re also emphasizing the need to study the cases and be fair, open-minded and not make assumptions.

Q: Did you get push-back from the college trustees about holding the Day of Dialogue or hiring an outside expert to overhaul policies?

Martin: There were no major conflicts about our approach and no push-back. The board has been willing to support what we’re doing.

Q: What about alumni?

Martin: The effort to be transparent, all of that brought forward letters of support, offers of help. The alumni love this place. Most of the emails I got were offers of help. I also got really moving and painful letters from primarily women alumni who revealed terrible experiences they had not felt able to talk about before.

Q: Do you think the reputation of the college has been harmed?

Martin: I see all of this as having had a very positive effect. It gives us an opening to make changes much more quickly. What I would say about Amherst is, given the diversity of the student body, this is an evolving community. We have an opportunity here that is rare to make Amherst the kind of institution that is exemplary of where the country and the world is heading.

Q: Would you change anything about how the college has handled this issue?

Martin: Well, if I could change the fact that these young people experienced the trauma that they did and left feeling like they were not well-served, I would. All I can do is applaud their courage and do the larger project of making Amherst the kind of place where these things won’t happen. This issue is so important, the stakes are so high and they exceed Amherst College. I’m saying in a nutshell it has been intense. But I can’t think of an issue I feel is more important.

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