BOSTON — Allegations by former Williams College student Lexie Brackenridge that the school mishandled her complaint of a sexual assault there two years ago are beginning to have potential financial consequences for the western Massachusetts college.
Williams has loyal alumni. Fifty-eight percent of Williams alumni contributed to the college last year, the third highest proportion of any college or university in the country. Williams achieves that high participation rate thanks to a network of 1,600 fundraisers called class agents. One of them is Ken Hillman. After hearing Brackenridge’s account of how Williams handled her complaint, Hillman said he feels betrayed by the college.
“Until I get a better understanding of what the college is doing to bring justice to the Lexie Brackenridge situation, I do not feel comfortable being involved in fundraising, giving money or participating in activities on behalf of the college,” Hillman said.
Williams “can’t discuss the details of any individual disciplinary process,” said James Kolesar, the school’s vice president for public affairs.
The student whose scheduled return to campus is upsetting some in the Williams community can’t discuss it either.
An attorney for Brackenridge’s alleged assailant said his client cannot talk because of a confidentiality agreement with the college. The attorney, Andrew Miltenberg, said his client continues to dispute the allegations Brackenridge made against him.
“Which we believe, quite frankly, are and were unfounded,” Miltenberg said. “In light of this, we’re very distressed that he’s now the subject of personal attacks to which he cannot accurately or even respond at all. I can tell you, however, that he’s extremely grateful that the school administration has embraced the entirety of the circumstances, and has given him the opportunity to continue his education and earn his undergraduate degree.”
Before he was suspended for three semesters, Brackenridge’s alleged assailant was a hockey player. He came to Williams as a freshman after a year in a junior hockey league in Canada.
Before Hillman starts raising money for the college again, he would like Williams to reexamine the hockey team’s increasing reliance on players recruited from junior hockey.
“The structure, recruiting policy and demographics of their hockey team appears to be an incubator for trouble,” Hillman said. “In looking at the roster of the Williams College [men’s] hockey team, eight of the 24 members of the team list junior hockey instead of their high school. Those eight students have spent up to three years playing junior hockey in a minimally supervised environment. And I look at taking that dynamic and putting it into a small rural campus like Williams as a powder keg for trouble.”
“No group, including varsity athletes, is over-represented among those accused of sexual assault,” Kolesar responded. He said the school’s athletic director, coaches and team captains “are very much partners in the broad campus work on the prevention of sexual assault.”
“Athletes from a wide variety of sports are active and visible in this work,” Kolesar added.
Alumni are also coming to the defense of Williams.
Nick Fogel, of Cambridge, graduated just a few months before Brackenridge arrived on campus. Fogel said the college has been proactive in confronting sexual assault.
“I think the administration’s been pretty upfront about the challenges associated with changing the culture and in making Williams a safe and comfortable place and a place where people feel comfortable coming forward when things have occurred,” Fogel said.
But Anne Lindsay Fetter, another class agent who’s suspended her fundraising efforts in light of Brackenridge’s allegations, is critical.
“I feel she was, frankly, run off campus,” said Fetter, who was on the Williams ski team with Brackenridge’s mother. “Run off campus by a lack of support and harassment by the hockey team and nobody stepping up and saying this is unacceptable, and that’s just not right. She should not be the one that has to leave.”
Brackenridge transferred to Columbia University after her freshman year.
Earlier this week, Fetter publicly announced for the first time that she had been raped at Williams during her time as a student.
In 1984, Fetter says she was gang-raped by a Williams freshman and five of his high school friends. Fetter says after a night at a pub in Williamstown, they forced their way into her dorm room. She says the last man to leave, the Williams freshman, apologized and said: “We should not have done this.”
Fetter says she was so terrified and ashamed she stayed in her room and cried for four days. According to Fetter, she did not report the crime until she became pregnant from the rape and had an abortion. She said that when she finally went to the dean’s office with a friend, who corroborates her story, the response was inadequate and unsupportive.
“They basically quote-unquote told me I must have misunderstood,” Fetter said.
Fetter said the student she says raped her had a meeting with a dean and was allowed to stay for the next four years and graduate. She said she lived in fear of running into him for the remainder of her two years at the college.
“Current members of the administration learned of the sexual assault” on Fetter this week, said Kolesar. He said “all” are “horrified by what happened to her and troubled by the poor response she reports receiving from the college.”
“We can’t turn back the calendar, but this new information reinforces the importance of” ongoing efforts “to fight against sexual assault,” Kolesar said.
Despite her experience, Fetter spent years raising money for the college, until this week.
She said she is still grateful to Williams and her fellow alumni for inspiring her to serve her fellow human beings.