Amherst’s Problem with Consent

Thatcher Fox Richard, Staff Writer

Content Warning: sexual assault

On Sunday, September 19, hundreds of protestors gathered outside the Theta Chi Fraternity house to express outrage over a member of the fraternity sexually assaulting a young woman. Approximately 300 protestors stood outside the frat house chanting “Fuck Theta Chi” and, according to a video taken the evening of the protest, flipped a car parked in the driveway of the frat house. In a fit of cowardice, the CEO of the Theta Chi national fraternity wrote a letter to UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy claiming that the fraternity was in danger and required security, as well as calling upon the Chancellor to expel any student who committed violence or property destruction on Theta Chi property. I am sure it’s a new and frightening experience for Theta Chi members to feel afraid and helpless about the harm befalling them, since it seems that is something they are more used to dishing out than receiving.  

In a statement from a public forum Chancellor Subbaswamy stated he “[would] not be making a statement in support of the fraternity” and also stated “unless they’ve been investigated, I’m not going to say there’s nothing going on there, because we don’t know there’s nothing going on.”

University officials claimed that because there was no statement from a witness or victim, they “cannot take action against [the] alleged perpetrators without actionable evidence.” The sexual assault allegation on Theta Chi was posted to the app YikYak, a social media app where users can post anonymously.

Subbaswamy also released a statement via email on October 8th outlining the administration’s plan to “address concerns raised by students advocating to prevent sexual assault.” The letter states that UMass has hired the services of Comprehensive Investigations and Consulting (CIC) to investigate reports of “sexual misconduct” on campus. 

Subbaswamy stated that the CIC is “known for its expertise in conducting impartial and detailed investigations of local and state agencies.” However, the company was only filed in June of 2021. It’s hard to believe a firm that has only operated for 4 months can be known for something as niche as sexual assault investigations. Additionally, the team making up CIC is comprised of Daniel Bennett, former District Attorney, Kerry Gilpin, former Colonel of Massachusetts State Police, John Benzan, a former attorney, and William Baker a former police chief. A team that is comprised of high-ranking law enforcement and 75% male make up what Subbaswamy deemed an appropriate committee to investigate sexual assault. Sophomore Ava Hawkes stated, “It’s a team of people who, in many other contexts, we would consider hostile.” Law enforcement, specifically high-ranking male law enforcement, has a longtime track record of not just failing to defend survivors of sexual assault, but actively working to silence them. It is concerning that Chancellor Subbaswamy lacks the foresight to see the way this would make survivors at UMass feel even less safe than before.

The rest of the letter outlines what CIC plans to review, including the organization of all reports of sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence, or other gender-based offenses pertaining to Title IX, as well as ways to enhance sexual assault prevention efforts. Subbaswamy makes absolutely no mention of Theta Chi anywhere in this letter, only the mention of looking at “sexual based misconduct at UMass, including off-campus fraternities”. The letter itself is incredibly vague in how they plan to enact the promised preventions and makes no effort to show remorse for the decades of unanswered sexual assault reports they have that they now must investigate.

Sophomore Anna Morel-Paletta organized an Instagram campaign titled @disband.theta.umass to organize students and “hold Theta Chi members accountable for the multiple crimes they have committed against UMass students.” Morel is using the Instagram account to spread the word about upcoming protests, inform students of Theta Chi’s activity, and organize students who wish to share their stories with the university administration.

On Wednesday, October 13th, about 30 students gathered in the Whitmore Administration Building outside of Chancellor Subbaswamy’s office to call on UMass administration to take action regarding sexual assault. On the university’s alliance with CIC, Morel stated, “We are glad they are taking action to address the issue, however we believe it’s not enough.” Morel, one of the organizers of Wednesday’s sit-in, created a list of demands for the administration:

  1. Hold a second and better publicized Open Forum for students to speak to the administration about their concerns surrounding the issues on campus as of late.
  2. Implement the Survivor’s Bill of Rights.
  3. Permanent disassociation from Theta Chi due to their continued violence toward UMass students, along with a full investigation into the reports.
  4. Start a student task to address sexual violence on campus and support survivors.
  5. Create strictly enforced disciplinary guidelines for Greek life.

The students hoped to meet with Vice-Chancellor Brandi Hephner LaBanc, or the Dean of Students Evelyn Ashley. Ashley has worked at UMass Amherst since September of 2020 when she left her position at Southern Methodist University as Associate Dean of Students & Director of Student Support, Advocacy, and Accountability. The students were informed that both officials, including the Dean who specializes in student advocacy and accountability, would be too busy to meet that day. The group was then reminded that they would be required to vacate the building by 5pm (the time that administration members leave to go home for the day). The protest, which took place 5 days after Chancellor Subbaswamy’s email about CIC, exemplified how the administration is interested in operating within the comfort of their own protocol and not taking the time to listen to what the students are asking for. It is not enough to simply “look into” sexual misconduct. It is abundantly present on not just UMass’s campus, but every college campus. UMass can hire as many firms as they would like, however it does not change the fact that they are refusing to hear students’ concerns, nor are they taking victims’ stories seriously. Vice Chancellor LaBanc did not respond to a request for comment.

This is not the first offense Theta Chi has committed this year. In February of 2021 the fraternity was suspended for throwing two large parties which became COVID-19 super-spreader events yielding 298 positive covid tests among students and staff days after the party. The fraternity has little regard for the other students at UMass Amherst, and acts like cowards when faced with the consequences of their own actions. However, the more deplorable piece to this puzzle is the UMass administration who continues to shock and disappoint students. They are unable to take anything that involves changing their behavior to make the school safer seriously and refuse to operate outside of their protocol: a protocol that has served rapists and predators for hundreds of years. While Chancellor Subbaswamy is a man who seems to lack empathy for what is happening to the women at the university that employs him, both the Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Students are women who are leaving young female students to fend for themselves to maintain their jobs. The inaction of this administration is appalling and truly shows where their real concerns lie.