HWS faculty: New York Times article was 'a gut punch'

Posted: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 10:33 am | Updated: 11:56 am, Thu Aug 7, 2014.

By JIM MILLER jmiller@fltimes.com

GENEVA - Hobart and William Smith faculty have not yet hammered out the wording of a resolution responding to a recent sexual assault allegation and the New York Times story that put it in the national spotlight.

But the professors do seem to agree on at least two points, said Nan Crystal Arens, an associate professor of geoscience and chair of the Committee on Faculty.

First, they have zero tolerance for sexual assault. And second, the New York Times story was “a gut punch.”

“There were many folks who really experienced a struggle with the emotions of that,” Arens said.

A quorum of the faculty - at least 73 professors and at the beginning many more - met for two hours Monday afternoon to discuss the proposed resolution. It would be addressed primarily to students and focus on moving the Colleges forward.

“We made good progress on that, but at 5 p.m. we lost our quorum,” said Elizabeth Newell, a biology professor and the faculty’s presiding officer.

She did not know what the next step would be.

Newell and Arens joined two other faculty officers on campus Tuesday to discuss Monday’s meeting and the faculty reaction to the New York Times story.

They said some faculty believe they need to speak out now because everyone else with an interest in the situation already has. Others think the faculty should allow the deliberation and thought at which professors excel to proceed naturally, rather than forcing a statement now.

The faculty also are debating how and when to address the situation with the 600 incoming freshmen, Newell said. They know it will come up, but they also want to embrace the students’ energy and excitement about starting college.

In addition to Monday’s meeting, the faculty have organized an ongoing series of campus forums.

“Everyone in attendance absolutely agrees on how much we care about our students,” said Emily Fischer, an assistant professor of psychology and the untenured representative to the faculty’s Executive Committee. “We all agree that we want them to know that we care about them.”

Faculty members have long been involved in discussions about how to address sexual assaults. However, the pace and intensity of those discussions accelerated last month when the New York Times ran a page one story about a William Smith freshman who accused three Hobart football players of sexually assaulting her in September.

The Colleges cleared the players, and police filed no charges. The story raised questions about the fairness and effectiveness of the Colleges’ on-campus adjudication panels.

Since then, faculty have been getting plenty of questions about the case, even though most of them know few details. But they say the article also spurred something else.

“It provides kind of a moment of self-reflection,” said Richard Salter, associate professor of religious studies and chair of the faculty Committee on Standards. “It has provided a moment of re-examination, which hopefully every institution has from time to time.”

Arens acknowledged that some professors felt frustrated by the Colleges’ initial response. They thought the first statement made by President Mark Gearan may not have reflected the gravity of the situation or the emotions involved.

She said she and her colleagues now hope to help the Colleges move forward.

Salter said faculty has an ongoing conversation with the administration about how best to handle on-campus disciplinary and legal issues, and how to ensure that policies remain consistent with constantly changing laws. That conversation began prior to the incident reported in the New York Times, and it will continue, he said.

“The faculty are in the thick of it and are trying to disentangle these strings that are related to each other intimately,” he said.

Meanwhile, faculty members also worry about the impact the New York Times story and the incident that precipitated it will have on the Colleges’ future.

“It’s very hard when your institution is known for something bad like that,” Fischer said. “We would wish that all of those folks could learn more about everything else that goes on here at Hobart and William Smith.”

Trying to make that argument feels a bit like “kicking a stone,” Salter said. Professors can talk all they want about what HWS has to offer, but those stories are unlikely to land on page one of the New York Times, he said.

Still, the faculty will try.

Arens said one professor asked colleagues for help with the letter that goes out to new students. The professor wanted to address the New York Times story but also to highlight the many positive activities that Hobart and William Smith students can get involved in.

In part because of those activities and efforts like the professor’s, Arens thinks the Colleges will still look attractive to students who visit campus. But while she has confidence in the admissions office’s recruitment skills, she worries that fewer students will come to take a look.

“We have a headline and in our current media culture, it’s easy to just sort of have that headline scream at you without realizing that this is a much richer place than just that headline,” she said.


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