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Alumni fighting sexual assault push for change

Gretchen Wetzel picked a telling way to show her dissatisfaction with Dartmouth College’s response to campus sexual harassment: through donations to her alma mater.

Wetzel, a 1977 graduate, said she and her ex-husband, also an alumnus, have given more than $1 million to the college over the years. She has stopped donating to the general alumni fund and now targets projects she thinks will improve the environment at the Hanover school, including $80,000 pledged to Triangle House, a residential hall for a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

“I’m very concerned with what’s going on with sexual assault on campus,” Wetzel said. “I’d rather see my money go to a specific area where Dartmouth is doing something positive, instead of a general pot.”

Concern about campus sexual assaults has exploded as the Obama administration released a report last month calling for more vigilance by colleges. Activism has spread from students to alumni – most of them women – with groups at Harvard University, Occidental College and other institutions developing strategies that push their schools to stiffen policies and increase investment in programs.

“Everyone’s just really angry,” said Elizabeth Amini, a 1995 graduate of Los Angeles-based Occidental, one of at least 55 U.S. schools under investigation by the Education Department for their handling of sexual assaults. “The school belongs to the students, alumni and tenured faculty, and if these administrators won’t step up and do the job, we need to get rid of them and find someone else.”

Students across the United States – from Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., to the University of California at Berkeley – have formally complained to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights about their schools’ policies on preventing and responding to sexual misconduct and harassment. Among the grievances: They were discouraged from reporting assaults, weren’t protected from continued contact by their assailants and their schools conducted shoddy investigations.

The wave of complaints has been led by a network of women who said they were sexually assaulted while students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Amherst College in Massachusetts, and Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Most have graduated and are working to change their schools’ policies as alumni.

Annie Clark, who said she was sexually assaulted while an undergraduate at UNC, is a founder of End Rape On Campus, a group that helps students understand their rights under Title IX, the law that bars gender discrimination in education. She had already received her degree when she filed a complaint with the OCR about the school’s sexual-assault policies.

“Alumni involvement is crucial with this issue,” said Clark, who graduated in 2011. “Some alumni hold the purse strings for a lot of the university, and if they say we’re not going to make annual donations, that has powerful implications.”

Occidental, Harvard, and Dartmouth alumni are planning a teleconference to discuss how to get their schools’ attention and action. Donations to U.S. colleges reached $33.8 billion in the year through June and about one-quarter of it, or $9 billion, came from alumni, according to the Council for Aid to Education in New York. Any threat to gifts speaks loudly to universities, which work constantly to build programs, facilities and endowments.

While multimillion-dollar bequests are the lifeblood of such fund drives, donors can also make a statement by targeting or withholding smaller gifts. Some alumni have already stopped giving to their colleges because of a lack of response to sexual assaults, said Susy Struble, a Dartmouth graduate who helped found DartmouthChange, a group of alumni, students and faculty pushing for new student-life policies.

“It’s hard because people’s loyalties are strong to the college,” Struble said.

Wetzel also sees herself as a loyal alumna. Those feelings are tempered by her experiences as a member of Dartmouth’s second graduating class to include women. She said she was sexually assaulted while a student in the 1970s.

“There are many women who are hesitant to give to Dartmouth because of the treatment they received there,” Wetzel said in a telephone interview. “The attitude towards women then was, you’re lucky to be here at all.”

Last month, Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon called for a halt to sexual misconduct, excessive drinking and “extreme behavior” that conflict with the school’s mission and contributed to a 14 percent plunge in applications this year. He formed a steering committee of students, faculty, staff and alumni to make suggestions for how to curb harmful behavior, and has stiffened punishments for students found responsible for assaults.

Alumni gifts to Dartmouth rose to $67.9 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2013, from $63 million in fiscal 2011, according to the Council for Aid to Education. About 44 percent of Dartmouth’s 53,000 alumni gave to the college last year, compared with a national average of 14 percent among graduates of private colleges that grant doctoral degrees and conduct research.

“Dartmouth is honored and strengthened by the support we receive every day from generous alumni,” said Justin Anderson, a spokesman, in an emailed statement. “Their passion and participation energize the campus and help advance projects that improve the college for current and future students.”

Amini, the Occidental alumna, read an article in March about a student found responsible for two sexual assaults at the Los Angeles-based college who had been punished with a brief suspension and a book report assignment.

When she learned that the administrator who levied that punishment was still on Occidental’s staff, she became enraged, and started and alumni effort to force change at the school.

“It shows a serious error in judgment,” Amini said.

She began challenging her former college, where she studied cognitive science. A fellow alumnus shared his list of requests for changes in school policy with Amini, who thought it wasn’t tough enough. She helped rewrite the petition more forcefully, and posted it around the college April 9. About 280 alumni have signed an online version, Amini said.

“You have until the end of April to make these changes,” Amini said in the petition directed at the administration.

Nine days later, she was meeting with Occidental President Jonathan Veitch. She began asking the school’s trustees for meetings, and was told to go to Veitch and the board’s chairman for answers to her questions. Amini said the chairman didn’t respond to her.

Lourdes Barraza, a 1994 Occidental graduate living in Watsonville, Calif., heard about Amini’s petition through fellow alumni on Facebook and has become a staunch supporter. Although she’s an annual donor of small gifts, she’s vowed to stop until the school’s campus becomes safer.

As a clinical psychologist, she said she has seen the damage that sexual assault can wreak on survivors. One of her patients who was assaulted 10 years ago still has difficulty with intimacy, even with hugging her own son, Barraza said.

“These scars aren’t visible and others don’t realize how intense the wound is,” she said in a phone interview. “People tell you to just get over it, and it doesn’t work that way.”

Will Evans, Amini’s classmate at Occidental, said that while he’s given single gifts of greater than $10,000, he won’t donate again until the school steps up action on sexual assault. Freshmen starting in the fall need to be assured that they won’t begin with such a traumatic experience, he said.

“When you’re in a crisis, leadership needs to stand up and stop the bleeding,” said Evans, a product design consultant in New York.

Occidental alumni express their views to the administration on many issues, including sexual assault, in ways that include withholding gifts, said Jim Tranquada, a spokesman. Occidental has new personnel managing sexual-assault investigations, has changed some of its policies and has hired consultants to conduct a comprehensive review, he said.

A group of about 300 Harvard alumnae, known as Harvard Women, is considering actions to encourage the school to make substantive changes in its sexual-assault policies, said Lisa Paige, who graduated in 1980.

The group is planning an event May 31 called Surviving Silence during Harvard’s reunion week, a prime fundraising occasion. Among the speakers will be Wendy Murphy, a Boston lawyer who filed a complaint with the Education Department in 2010 that is still under investigation, alleging that reviews of sexual assault by Harvard Law School were conducted improperly.

Members of Harvard Women were dismayed that President Drew Faust appointed a man, former Provost Steven Hyman, to head a task force charged with studying the school’s policies and practices, and making suggestions for change. The women’s group would like to see a female co-chair appointed.

There are no plans to appoint a task force co-chair, said Jeff Neal, a spokesman for the university. Alison Johnson has been asked to lead a committee on sexual-assault policies for Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which includes most undergraduate professors, according to a May 6 letter from Dean Michael Smith to the community.

The task force delivered preliminary recommendations May 13, including expansion of the college’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. Faust said the next day she would act on them. Harvard Women will recommend to alumni, who choose not to donate to the school because of the sexual-assault issue, that they instead give to its Women’s Center or other related causes.

The choices aren’t easy for Paige. While she said she was sexually assaulted and stalked by a man at different points in her Harvard career, she still has positive feelings for the school.

“We all love our alma mater,” she said. “I wouldn’t be working so feverishly on this cause if I didn’t.”

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