October 22, 2015
Dear Members of the Hobart and William Smith Community,
A year ago at Convocation, I outlined my vision for an enhanced campus culture of respect, one in which empathy, inclusion and truth are valued and practiced, and one in which we all have the tools and resources to cultivate excellence and pursue lives of consequence.
Since then, I have spent considerable time in dialogue with the HWS community, seeking the perspectives of students, the Board of Trustees, the Alumni and Alumnae Councils, faculty leadership, senior staff and staff colleagues. I have met with student groups like the Women's Collective, Hobart for Equality and Respect, affinity groups and student leadership; held informal sessions with students in residence halls; and invited students to my home for meals and conversation. I met with the faculty as a whole and with many professors one-on-one, all of whom have dedicated their professional careers to Hobart and William Smith and have inventive ideas for progress. We have benefitted from the counsel of the Sexual Violence Task Force, the Coalition of Concerned Students and HWS Community for Change, as well as the results of the Junior Faculty Survey and the Campus Climate Survey. Thanks to the leadership of The Fisher Center, we have hosted on campus some of the nation's leading authorities on advocacy and sexual violence prevention. My own perspective has been enhanced by experts I have sought out in higher education as well as policy makers and victims' rights lawyers who shared their assessments of the work ahead. During the course of the past year, we have received hundreds of letters and e-mails from individuals who have offered helpful suggestions. At events across the country and here on campus, I have received advice from parents and volunteers, and from alumni and alumnae who have reflected on their own time as students as they've shared their hopes for the future.
I am especially grateful to Professor Emeritus of Economics Pat McGuire and former Director of Admissions and Associate Vice President of Advancement Mara O'Laughlin, both now retired, who returned to campus to co-chair a task force on ways in which we can better realize a culture of respect. I appreciate the thoughtful engagement of the committee during the past year. Pat and Mara recently provided me with their recommendations for enhancing a culture of respect, and I thank them for their dedication, candor and significant work.
While there is progress on a number of fronts, particularly regarding the organizational structures and policies that serve to support a culture of respect, there continue to be challenges we must address. In my meetings over the past year, I have laid out both my view and our challenge: Hobart and William Smith is a great place, indeed a special place; but how can we make it an even better place?
And so I write today with the first in a series of communications as we work together to translate all that has been learned and advanced into positive action. In a recent meeting with the Sexual Violence Task Force, members observed to me that with a strong foundation of new procedures and practices, our work should now focus on how to truly enhance our culture. I agree. How will we build upon all of the efforts of the past year to truly strengthen a campus culture where the dignity of each and every community member is valued and respected?
This letter outlines the first steps of my thinking to more fully realize our aspirations. I anticipate that these efforts will develop further as the year progresses, as we achieve goals and face new challenges. But based on all of the conversations I have participated in, I am confident that our community will rise to the challenge before us, that we will embrace change, acting with compassion and respect for one another and for the Colleges as a whole.
I return, therefore, to the five focus areas I outlined a year ago that provide a structure to our efforts in the coming months: Respecting Difference, Academic Experience and the Curriculum, History and Heritage, Safety and Wellness, and Campus Facilities.
A consistent theme that emerged in the past year is the need to increase occasions where the community can come together and engage some of the most pressing issues facing our nation and our campus - race, class, religion, ability, gender, sexuality and sexual orientation. We have numerous examples of successful interactions and the progress that occurs when we commit ourselves, but we also have far too many community members who do not always feel respected and valued.
I have therefore asked Chaplain Maurice Charles to lead a committee that will address equity and diversity on our campus and that will support established programs and create new opportunities for expanding inclusion. In my conversations with Chaplain Charles over the past months he has indicated that he views spiritual engagement to involve cultivating disciplined reflection on who we are becoming as individuals and how we are related to the whole. It is my intention that this committee will be a significant part of campus life, building community and providing guidance and education. I have asked Chaplain Charles to focus initial efforts on a range of projects including:
Last year, Associate Professor of Theatre Heather May launched an HWS student theatre company that draws on the lives and experiences of students as source material for its productions. Exploring concepts of diversity and social justice, Mosaic NY has provided the entire HWS campus with a thoughtful and engaging path to enter into difficult conversations about race, class, gender and sexuality. Mosaic NY has performed pieces about sexual assault during the past two Orientations, sparking meaningful conversation, and did tremendous work throughout the last academic year in helping to formulate a dialogue about race on campus. Mosaic NY is a powerful example of what can happen when a faculty member works with students to increase awareness and understanding, and to support a culture of respect.
As the faculty works on the implementation of the curriculum revision and considers the goals as a barometer of our academic priorities and community values, I hope we can look to this example for inspiration. I have asked Provost Titi Ufomata to think through how the Colleges can better support faculty-sponsored initiatives that address respect or that use a culture of respect as a pedagogical tool including workshops, seminars, new courses and reader's colleges, among other works. I look forward to seeing how the faculty body comes together to create experiences that reflect our aspirations.
The times at which those academic experiences happen can often have an impact on success. With a fairly traditional academic day of classes and with evenings consumed by class preparation, athletics practices, club meetings and lectures, there is not often time left for faculty, students and staff to gather for conversation. As we seek to enrich a culture of respect on campus, we must make time available for people to gather in fellowship and dialogue. I have therefore asked Provost Ufomata, working with the Committee on Academic Affairs and the Registrar's Office, to develop options for the academic day that could accommodate, for example, evening classes and a daily common hour in which no classes or practices could be scheduled.
The Coordinate Tradition
Hobart and William Smith Colleges have a rich heritage of progressive movements and advocacy on a number of social issues from women's rights to civil rights. As coordinate colleges, we have a ready-made construct that has allowed us to examine gender and difference in ways that other colleges and universities simply cannot; embedded in our character is the foundation of a century of sustained and robust dialogue. In 107 years, Hobart and William Smith have periodically re-energized its identity: for example in 1938 when women and men began to take classes together; in 1943 when William Smith College was made equal to Hobart College rather than a department within it; in 1972 when Title IX legislation changed the landscape of women's athletics; or in 1992 when admission decisions for men and women were combined under one enrollment management policy.
During the past year, many have commented that the coordinate composition of the Colleges is in need of another revitalization to reflect the 21st century needs of students. This modernization should accommodate our faculty, staff and students as it also addresses the expectations of our alumni and alumnae for whom the coordinate system has made such a lasting difference. I anticipate that as the year progresses, a conversation visioning our coordinate trajectory will continue. This is a dialogue that must include our alums, with leadership from the Board of Trustees, the Alumni and Alumnae Councils, and our deans. I anticipate coming back to the campus community in the coming months with updates as we formulate how best to accomplish this work.
Fraternities have existed at the Colleges for generations, providing Hobart students with a community on campus and fostering life-long friendships. During the past year, a recurring topic of concern has emerged regarding the influential role that fraternities play in campus social life. Like colleges and universities across the country, we continue to struggle with this issue. But we also have an opportunity to bring progress and vitality to the Hobart fraternity system.
A decade ago, we completed a review of fraternities to ensure that the system was consonant with the goals and values of the Colleges. That review resulted in a number of positive changes in the ways that fraternities operate including changes in membership qualifications, a new accreditation process, and the engagement of alumni. It's now time to undergo a similar review, one that looks at every aspect of fraternities from rush practices and leadership development to community service and what has been expressed as the "hierarchy of hospitality."
I have been heartened by the dialogue that has been opened with fraternity leadership and encouraged by the ways in which these Hobart students have embraced their responsibility to be contributing citizens.
As we move forward with this review, I will look to Vice President for Student Affairs Robb Flowers, the Centennial Center for Leadership and the Intra-Fraternity Council to create a leadership model for all fraternities, one that emphasizes the values of the Colleges' mission and that promotes responsible conduct. We have seen tremendous success with leadership programming for Hobart and William Smith student-athletes in the past and I look forward to seeing similar results for Hobart students who belong to fraternities.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program. Just a decade ago, the work of Title IX was seen primarily as an issue of athletic parity - still an important component of the legislation. Today the increased numbers of students across the country reporting harassment and assault as well as the volume of new statutes at the federal and state level require the presence of an expert whose attention is focused solely on this area. The Colleges have invested in recent years in a fulltime Title IX Coordinator as well as programming designed to prevent sexual assault in its many forms - from harassment to rape. After a national search, this summer Susan Lee was appointed as the Colleges' Title IX Coordinator reporting to me. With more than two decades of experience, Susan has proven herself a powerful student advocate with a broad knowledge of policies and best practices. In anticipation of the New York State law "Enough is Enough" that went into effect on October 5, since the start of the semester Susan has met with every athlete on campus, presented to hundreds of students during Orientation and through workshops, delivered a Convocation address about the essential role of Title IX in the history of women's rights, and has already made a difference.
Susan's work in education and prevention is critical. Yet the responsibility to eradicate sexual violence and misconduct does not rest solely in the hands of one office but instead must be shared by all. As sobering data continues to be reported nationally about the prevalence of sexual misconduct in our society and on college campuses, we must remain committed to our principles. As I have stated in past communications, the Colleges have no tolerance for violence or sexual assault of any kind. Under Susan's leadership, we will redouble our efforts in prevention and continue to seek transparency in our processes as we also protect the rights and privacy of individual students.
In the spring of 2015, Hobart and William Smith administered the HEDS Sexual Assault Campus Climate Survey with 20.5 percent of HWS students completing it. The results of the survey point to some real accomplishments regarding sexual assault awareness, resources and reporting: HWS students are significantly more likely than students from other participating institutions to say that they know what sexual assault is and how to recognize it (89.6 percent), know how to report an incident of sexual assault (82.9 percent), and know the actions they can take to help prevent sexual assault (86.8 percent). Although most HWS students agree that campus officials would take a report of sexual assault seriously (78.3 percent), in comparison to our peer institutions slightly fewer students believe that campus officials would support and protect the person making the report (68 percent). Of concern is the fact that just 59.1 percent of respondents feel their fellow students would support a person making a report of sexual assault. This is deeply troubling.
I know the seriousness with which we approach all sexual assault cases and the notable efforts we undertake to work with survivors. Student safety is and must always be our top responsibility. But despite the good work accomplished last year - and there is much to commend: increased training and prevention, new adjudication practices, the creation of a new sexual misconduct policy, changes in Orientation programming, investments in technology to assist students, partnerships with law enforcement, and many other initiatives - the results of the Climate Survey make it clear that we have more to do to become leaders in this field. To assess our progress on these and other issues, we will administer another campus climate survey in the spring of 2016.
Earlier this semester, the Colleges announced a revision to the alcohol policy that we hope will spur dialogue and reflection about the impact of substance use and abuse in our society and within our campus culture. The policy prohibits the possession of hard alcohol on campus and requires that all social events - including those hosted by fraternities, student organizations and the Colleges themselves - hire a third party caterer to sell and serve alcohol. There is no doubt that alcohol abuse contributes to risky behavior and is one of the leading threats to student health, wellness and safety. This policy shift is intended to curtail the misuse of alcohol, and although disciplinary regulations will not eradicate the problem, they do set the standard of expectation for appropriate behavior.
As residential, liberal arts colleges, the spaces in which education occurs are vital and can bolster or weaken a culture of respect. Quiet nooks for contemplation and large spaces for campus-wide gatherings allow all of us the opportunity to think carefully and to act responsibly and civilly.
As we celebrate the completion of the performing arts center and finalize the campus master plan now currently underway, this year we enter an exciting moment in the Colleges' history. We have an opportunity to propose thoughtful changes to our campus facilities - our academic, residential, social, athletic and outdoor spaces - so that we can properly accommodate the needs of the student body and foster enhanced respect. The campus master plan will guide our capital project priorities for the next decade and I am grateful to the faculty, staff and students who have dedicated so much time to this work during the past year.
Consistent with the feedback from many campus groups and reports seeking to solve some of the more pressing issues facing students, faculty and staff, we have implemented a number of interim measures to expand study space, to increase and improve social space including a renovation of the Barn, to create more lounge areas in residence halls, and to more clearly connect the residential and academic lives of students by placing classrooms, labs and faculty offices in residence halls. Projects similar to these will continue in the coming months including enhancing wellness, recreation and fitness spaces.
During the past year, I have been impressed by the seriousness with which our community has embraced the concept of respect. Collectively, the conversations, dialogues and resulting ideas have been far-reaching in their scope and inventive in their nature, yet they have also been firmly rooted in a deep regard for the Colleges and a shared confidence in our future. All of the various reports and summaries referenced in this letter are accessible on our Culture of Respect website. I am inspired by the creative ways that people have worked together, by the immense pride that has been shown for our history, and by the fresh ideas for change that will propel the Colleges forward.
I look forward to updating you on the work and invite your active engagement moving forward.
Mark D. Gearan
Share suggestions and ideas for change with Hobart and William Smith Colleges: HWSfeedback@hws.edu
A student group, the Coalition of Concerned Students, is working to ensure that the Colleges are a safe environment for all students and are joining with the Colleges and the HWS Community for Change to enact policy and climate changes. The Coalition of Concerned Students can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.