Students protest outside president’s house demanding for change in sexual assault protocol at UNH


Melanie Matts

“Be proactive, not reactive!” The students at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) chanted outside President James W. Dean’s house on Monday, Oct. 25; the second protest to take place within a week regarding the sexual assault and rape claims against a UNH student. 

On Monday, two emails were sent out to the UNH community. The first email sent at approximately 9 a.m. led with President Dean saying, “Congratulations, it’s official! You attend one of the most sustainable universities in the country.” The email noted UNH’s renewed platinum rating under the Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System (STARS), the most rigorous system in higher education for measuring sustainability.  

The second email didn’t hit Wildcat’s inboxes until about 2 p.m.; “Update #36 from President Dean,” regarded UNH’s policies and practices for sexual assault cases.  

The email opened with President Dean acknowledging the recent allegations of sexual assault on campus, writing “I know the devastating effects that sexual violence can have on survivors and am committed to providing them with resources and options to help them make informed decisions after experiencing an assault.” 

Part of the email warned students to be careful of what they come across on social media regarding incidents of sexual assault. “There is often a great deal of conversation on social media in the aftermath of a reported incident, and much of what is shared on social media is simply not true. These factors are relevant to the current incident, and to essentially all such incidents,” wrote Dean. 

“Why is my safety second to sustainability,” yelled first –year students Angelina Merlo and Trinity Hutt at the protest on Monday night. 

Many students were distressed after reading the second email, interpreting that  Dean’s message was directed to victims and survivors of sexual assault. 

In an interview with The New Hampshire (TNH) staff the day after the protest,  Dean offered a clarification of the line from his email. 

He said, “I was certainly not referring to victims. One of the things I learned from talking to students in the last 24 hours is that they thought that I was referring to victims, and that apparently victims sometimes will use social media… to communicate what’s happened to them. I actually didn’t know that. I had not heard that before.” 

He continued, “What I was talking about was, there’s been a lot of communication on many different platforms of social media, where people will say things about a case that, as we’ve said, aren’t true. This includes the number of assailants, setting, reporting status and other details.” 

On Monday night,  Dean, Senior Vice Provost for Student Life Kenneth Holmes, Title IX coordinator Laura Buchs, and other members of UNH’s administration stood facing the crowd as students voiced their frustrations about the way UNH administration handled the most recent sexual assault report, as well as the system for handling sexual assault reports in general. 

A variety of chants, speeches and demands for answers and solutions were thrown in the direction of  Dean and administration. 

Taylor Yankelevich, a sophomore political science major said, “[Administration] needs to hear us and our pain and take accountability for failing to protect their students.” 

Many students voiced their concerns about their safety and well-being on the Durham campus. 

Junior occupational therapy major, Julia Denoia said, “I know UNH knows how to deal with a pandemic, but what about the pandemic of sexual assault?” 

“I was just looking to ask President Dean why as a 19-year-old woman I have to feel unsafe on this campus,” said first-year business administration major, Rachel Wells. 

After several students spoke out on safety concerns,  Dean addressed the crowd. He said, “Of course I want you to feel safe and I understand that you don’t. You told me that you don’t feel safe and we’re going to have to see what we can do to try and change that.” 

The crowd went into their final uproar for the evening just before Holmes got their attention through the mega-phone.  

Holmes began by thanking the crowd of students and administration for coming out in support of sexual assault victims and survivors. He went on to say, “Sexual assault, any kind of violence on this campus, is not tolerated! We need to talk about next steps. How do we report so that we can support every victim on this campus? A lot of us are new to the university. We cannot take responsibility for the past. We will certainly work hard in the present and in the future to make sure that every student on this campus feels safe.” 

After questions from a variety of students, Holmes asked for names of individuals that would be willing to work alongside him and his team to actively make UNH a safer campus. After a few final chants, members from the crowd began to come forward and provide Holmes with their names, contact information and possible ideas for creating a change.  

On Tuesday, Oct. 26, TNH staff sat down with President Dean, Holmes, Buchs and Dean of Students Michael Blackman to discuss the protest and university protocol when it comes to sexual assault allegations and reports. 

“The university does not discuss investigations outside of those directly involved in the case, for both legal and personal reasons,” said Buchs. 

Buchs provided further explanation on the confidentiality saying, “For one reason, it can be very jarring to folks to find something that they’re personally involved in, in the media. And so as much as possible, we try to keep their information private and to keep the processes private. Because we don’t want to add what is already a stressful situation. We also have some responsibilities under the law to keep these things private, and to not discuss them. And so we’re mindful of our responsibilities in both of those things, both the personal and the legal.” 

Blackman also addressed the issue of rape culture on UNH campus, which was brought up numerous times at Monday’s protest. “Rape culture is a systematic issue across colleges across United States and has been for a very long time. And I don’t think UNH is particularly shielded from that,” he said. 

Blackman said he doesn’t believe there is statistical evidence to say UNH is doing particularly better or worse than other institutions on this issue, especially similar ones. However, he said this does not mean they will “throw their hands up,” but will instead increase education efforts on campus as well as address reporting concerns that have arisen. 

“So many of us are new here, and we just think we can be doing a lot better. And when we see so many students expressing these concerns, in public protest, we know that whether that issue is more systemic here than it is at a different institution, it almost isn’t important, it is an issue and we need to address it,” he said. 

UNH Police Chief Paul Dean confirmed that the police are investigating a report of sexual assault in Stoke Hall on Oct. 15.  

 The university is unable to comment on this information as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) laws prohibit the university from sharing confidential information about students. 

The UNH police department is unable to share details of ongoing investigations as they can only release the name of the subject if the case is closed. Cases of sexual assault may remain open for a significant period time, according to Chief Dean.

Photos courtesy of Ben Domaingue/TNH Staff.