Letter to the Editor

Barry O’Connell, James E. Ostendarp Professor of English, critiques Professor Dumm’s letter and discusses social life at Amherst.

Look once again at Professor Dumm’s letter in last Wednesday’s Student. What exactly does it imply? That one group of students on campus, male athletes — especially football players, bears primary responsibility for acts of sexual violence and for coercing others in covering them up. The evidence for such grave claims? Questionable studies and suppositions against the testimony of those who know our own College and have conducted reasonable if not exhaustive investigations. Otherwise: anecdote, hearsay and Professor Dumm’s own self-righteous belief in what is nothing more than stereotype, prejudice and discrimination in an especially vicious form. Substitute for male athletes “blondes,” or “gay males,” or “Latinos” or “African Americans” and one can immediately see both the injury of his words and their inescapable falsity.

Capping what is already too much, my colleague goes on to imply that the Special Oversight Committee and others engage in covering up or evading investigating the, to him, obvious center of a culture of sexual violence. It might be reasonable to worry about how quickly the Committee had to do its work (some six weeks), but also, decently, to acknowledge the high regard every member of the committee — faculty administrators, staff and students — is accorded by his/her colleagues. Disagree with them? Of course for that is the lifeblood of a healthy college, but not at the cost of impugning their integrity or of scapegoating an entire group of students.

If Dumm’s intention was to reduce the sexual violence and the risk of it, and to extend and improve the common good, might he first have reached out to some of our colleagues, the teacher-coaches in our first-rate Athletic Department? Or to its Director who also was a member of the Select Committee and is the Title IX coordinator? To my knowledge few faculty members and few, if any, academic departments have focused so skillfully as our teacher-coaches on a sustained effort with athletes to improve the College community, to succeed academically, to contribute substantially to the communities beyond the College and to grasp more deeply the meaning of “respect for others.” Not knowing this, or ignoring it, only adds to the injury of my colleague’s slanderous letter.

In one matter he has it right. Athletes, male and female, do dominate social life — at least in the eyes of most students and student-athletes that I know. It may be an indisputable fact.

How this might be understood, however, is somewhat complex. No administration in my forty years at Amherst has ever substantially addressed the impoverished student social life here, other than adding to it by reducing social spaces and by policies that privatize drinking to the smallest possible spaces (and the riskiest for sexual violence). Our administrations have consistently failed to offer the incentives and the means for students to create more various and capacious forms of socializing. The indifference of many faculty to students’ extracurricular lives reinforces these failures. Teams are the organizations left to create parties, the default social form at Amherst, in the absence of sustained community efforts to do more and other.

The College faces a resistant and complex problem in sexual violence. Excessive consumption of alcohol and drug taking contributes significantly. We know no campus is free of these problems but all of us on the faculty, perhaps especially, need to know better our students’ lives beyond our classrooms to engage with them and the administration in constructing a richer and safer social and academic environment. Such an effort begins in a recognition of each and all by reducing the barriers that keep us from learning fully from each other.