Amherst College president uses speech to address issue of campus sexual assaults

Last modified: Monday, May 26, 2014
AMHERST — In a commencement address Sunday, Amherst College President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin acknowledged the unwelcome attention the school attracted as one of 55 institutions named by the federal Department of Education this year for possible mishandling of a sexual assault.

But Martin told the 475 graduates to take pride in how they “inspired a national movement to end sexual assault on campuses.”

Martin lamented the “failure on the part of a few to observe and respect others’ personal boundaries,” adding that the problem is not unique to Amherst and pledging to continue to promote discussion of the issue, which came to the fore when former student Angie Epifano wrote an article detailing the hostile environment she said she faced from college officials after she reported a sexual assault.

Martin also gave a by-the-numbers account of the graduating class, pointing out that it included people from 23 countries and 35 U.S. states and territories. The top majors were economics, English, psychology, political science and mathematics. Taken together, the newly minted graduates spent a combined 71 years, five months, two days, 17 hours and 52 minutes in classes.

Among the 5,000 well-wishers who filled the Main Quad bounded by the Robert Frost Library and Johnson Chapel was Allen Torres, who came from North Carolina to celebrate his niece Alexandra Wong-Torres’s graduation. “It’s a passing of the torch,” said Torres of the occasion. He would tell his niece to “not only get the education but to get the experience and to have fun.”

The psychology major from the Bronx is going to graduate school next year.

In her address, the senior speaker, Katherine Sisk, who majored in English and Spanish, praised the commitment to ideas that surrounded her while in school. “Passion is the one thing that ties us together,” she said, “everyone here cares deeply about something.”

Martin followed former United States poet laureate and Amherst College alumnus Richard Wilbur on stage. He read his poem “Seed Leaves,” which he originally dedicated to Robert Frost. To the cheers of the crowd, the 93-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner rededicated the poem to the Amherst College Class of 2014.

Martin commented on Wilbur’s use of the word “ramify,” making that the theme of her speech. The word, she said, does not emphasize outcomes but instead puts the focus “on the process itself.” She encouraged the graduates “to think broadly and deeply” as they seek to live a good life. “The great universe awaits you and it needs you,” she said.

‘Resumé virtues’

During a weekend of celebrations this year’s honorary degree recipients gave public lectures Saturday. They included a talk to an overflow crowd in the Mead Art Museum’s Stern Auditorium by statistician Nate Silver called “The Signal and the Noise: Why Predictions Fail in the Era of Big Data.”

Columnist and political commentator David Brooks gave a talk to a packed Johnson Chapel titled, “The Road to Adulthood” in which he opined on what he called “resumé virtues” as opposed to “eulogy virtues,” which he said were ultimately a more important measure of one’s life.

Honorary degrees were also awarded to Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Cullen Jones, tech entrepreneur Thai-Hi Lee, contemporary artist Sarah Sze, former Amherst College Board of Trustees chair and businessperson Jide Zeitlin and the late American studies scholar and transportation expert Yasuo Sakakibara, who died a month after being informed of the honor a year ago.

Geology major Hayli Kinney of Spruce Head, Maine, said after the ceremony that the most special part of the day for her was that her high school math teacher, Donald Pietroski, was selected as one of three recipients of a special award the college gives to secondary school teachers who played a special role in supporting their students. “I was so pleased to see him receive the award and to spend the weekend with him,” said Kinney. “He was my soccer coach, my math teacher and my mentor.”

Pietroski encouraged Kinney to seek out a scholarship to Amherst College “which was the only way I could have attended a school of this caliber,” she said.

Kinney praised Martin’s speech, especially the president’s willingness to address the college’s handling of sexual assault allegations. Many students feel that the college is trying to “sweep sexual assault under the rug,” said Kinney, “today she did just the opposite of that.” Kinney said she believes the college is working to change how it handles such cases, but she is not yet convinced that meaningful change has been put in place. “It’s still early,” she said.

Lisa Armstrong, of Philadelphia, Pa., who was there to celebrate her daughter Jasia Armstrong-Kaulbach’s graduation, was also glad Martin raised the controversy. “It would have been negligent not to acknowledge it,” she said. “It is good that there is some acknowledgement and a desire to do better.”

Overall, Armstrong felt that Martin’s speech “balanced a lot of the intense experiences this class had with a wonderful optimism for the future.” Her daughter majored in English, theater and dance. She is going to London next year to study film directing. Graduation, said Armstrong, “is a threshold of accomplishment and a launching pad to many more challenges.”