President Mercer Addresses Sexual Assault and Alcohol Policies in State of the College

Photo by Nicole Williams

President Peter Mercer spoke to a packed house last Wednesday in Friends Hall to address topics like the College’s alcohol policy and new sexual assault prevention programs in his State of the College address. Instead of beginning with a word from the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, as is tradition, Mercer began his speech on a more serious note, defending a liberal arts education and contradicting the thought that liberal arts colleges are more focused on money than education.

In attendance at the address were James Batelli, Mahwah’s chief of police, Bill Laforet, Mahwah’s mayor, George Ruotolo, Ramapo’s Board of Trustees chair, Susan Vallario, another member of the Board of Trustees, and John Roth, Mahwah’s council president. Each guest was welcomed at the onset of Mercer’s speech.

In light of the two recent incidents of alleged sexual assault on campus, Mercer brought up Ramapo’s frequent internal and external assessments, with the most recent being the evaluations done by D. Stafford & Associates, a consultant that specializes in campus security, and former Attorney General Anne Milgram, who both looked at Ramapo’s sexual assault policies.

“It is important to realize that the consultant reports contain a range of recommendations and these were described in the ‘Ramapo: Advance’ document that was made available to all of you,” said Mercer. “As that document made clear, there are a number of recommendations, particularly in the report of former Attorney General Milgram that are still under discussion, and about which no decision has been made.”

He said that the issue of sexual assault was “complex,” with “many points of views,” and that the College was continuing to fine-tune its sexual assault policy in light of the consultant reports and the suggestions of faculty and staff. Mercer also took the opportunity to dispel problematic values frequently attributed to the administration of late.

“Sexual assault is never the fault of the victim,” he said. “Period … Alcohol consumption does not cause sexual assault. Period … There is, however, a strong correlation between alcohol consumption, especially excessive consumption and sexual assault.”

Mercer later went on to cite research that supports this correlation, including a 2004 study published in the academic journal “Aggression and Violent Behavior,” where it was found that men who are predisposed to sexual aggression may be more likely to commit sexual assault when intoxicated, as their sense of morality and empathy for the victim may take a back seat to feelings of entitlement, aggression and arousal, while drunk.

“The College has been criticized by some for addressing sexual assault by appearing to buckle down on our alcohol policies,” Mercer said. “As I hope I’ve made clear so far in this address, that is not the case. We are holding perpetrators accountable, we’re supporting victims and we’re investigating significant Title IX resources to overcome the campus culture of violence. The reason why the conversation on assault at Ramapo is incomplete if alcohol consumption is not also discussed is pretty clear from our experience and also from the established literature.”

According to Mercer, the programs put in place on campus for survivors of sexual assault include support from the Center for Health and Counseling Services, Healing Space, Bergen County’s sexual violence resource center, and communication with Kat McGee, Ramapo’s Title IX coordinator, along with Ramapo’s full institutional compliance with the prosecutor’s office or police, if the victim chooses to press charges, and possible issuance of a no-contact order against the perpetrator.

Mercer made clear in his address the suggestions that were and were not accepted by the administration, of those made in the consultant reports. One initiative from the consultant reports that has been accepted by the College is a new Title IX infrastructure, which includes sexual assault prevention and awareness training for faculty, staff and students, many of whom received Title IX and bystander intervention training over the summer, according to Mercer. Public Safety also received training over the summer on things like the Violence Against Women Act, Title IX and sexual assault. Ramapo has also taken the suggestions of establishing a pool of investigators, identifying and training four deputy Title IX coordinators, reworking the Title IX charge to a focus on changing the campus culture of sexual violence, and beginning the search for a director of affirmative action and workplace compliance/Title IX coordinator.

The suggestions rejected include changing Ramapo to a dry campus and placing a default ban on alumni from attending student gatherings. A decision has yet to be made about the suggestions to have students register parties, rescinding the “In the Presence of Alcohol” rule and replacing fines with community service.

Moving beyond the consultant reports, Mercer also talked about different ways the College was handling the party scene on campus. This includes expanding resident assistant rounds and adding additional Public Safety officers to carry out policing rounds on “historically active nights,” according to Mercer. Public Safety officers will now be paying closer attention to groups. If students have open containers or cups, Public Safety officers will approach them and advise them of Ramapo’s alcohol policy. If groups build, they will monitor noise levels and ask particularly loud groups to move along. They will continue to respond to complaints made about inside noise. Public Safety officers will also occasionally be asking people who come into the Village for their IDs, in an effort to make sure the only people roaming the College are students and properly registered guests.

Mercer intends to continue the conversation about effective alcohol awareness and sexual assault programs with students and faculty with scheduled meetings and increased accessibility to students.

While the bulk of Mercer’s address was dedicated to the ways the College would change and improve its policies, he did include other changes and initiatives being taken on by the College. He talked of Ramapo’s structural rearrangements, with many departments being reworked and administrators taking on new responsibilities and titles. He also spoke of his involvement in the College Affordability Study Commission, and the work they are doing to increase financial literacy among families.

He ended his speech with a litany of achievements made by the College and its faculty and students. Included in this were Ramapo’s acceptance of a Gates Foundation Grant, offered by Beth Barnett, Chris Romano and Joe Connell in recognition of the College’s advisement practices, and Ramapo’s recent ranking of the 13th best “bang for your buck” college in the Northeast, according to “Washington Monthly,” moving up from last year’s ranking of 89th.

Mercer’s list of Ramapo’s accomplishments served as a reminder of the College’s strengths in this time of great change on campus. Mercer’s State of the College updated, informed and honored, as he urged the students and staff of Ramapo to challenge rumors, consult primary sources and keep an open mind as the semester progresses and policies continue to be reworked.

“The reality is that the College as a whole must be accountable,” he said with regard to sexual assault on campus. “And if Ramapo is not presently organized to provide that accountability organizational change will have to take place to enable us to do so.”