June 23, 2020

Dear Amherst College Community,

Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States announced a number of decisions, two of which were particularly important to students, faculty, and staff at Amherst—one affirming protections for the categories of sexual preference and gender identity under Title VII and one rejecting the effort to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy. We celebrate these decisions on behalf of our students, staff, and faculty as well as the College as a whole, consistent as they are with the value Amherst places on equality and fairness. Along with a groundswell of activism on behalf of anti-racist work in all areas of our society, I hope these decisions mark the beginning of a transformation toward a better future for us all. 

I write today to provide some detail about the decisions and to catch you up on developments this week.


In a decision handed down on Thursday, the Court blocked the Trump administration’s effort to end the DACA policy. In finding the administration’s 2017 repeal of DACA illegal, the Court did not address the constitutionality or merits of DACA itself (as some had hoped it would), nor did it prohibit future efforts to end the policy. Nevertheless, the ruling means that, for now, the immigration policy that protects eligible undocumented immigrants from deportation and provides them the right to work legally in the United States will remain in place. I rejoice at this affirmation of the wisdom inherent in allowing these young people, like generations of immigrants before them, to achieve the dreams in pursuit of which so many of their families risked everything to come to the United States, including pursuing an education and working in the only country they have known. 

Established by an executive order of President Obama in 2012, DACA allows undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children who meet certain age and residency requirements and have no felonies or serious misdemeanors on their record to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to become eligible for a work permit. DACA recognizes that these young people have contributed, and are currently contributing, to every aspect of our country’s strength and prosperity.

Currently, more than 700,000 young immigrants are active DACA recipients, including nearly 216,000 enrolled in higher education and 29,000 who work in the healthcare industry as nurses, doctors, technicians, and home health aides, along with many thousands of essential workers in other sectors. The vital role played by DACA recipients during the current public health crisis points to the depth and breadth of their contributions to our nation’s wellbeing during non-pandemic times, as well. Even as we celebrate the good news that DACA will continue for now, we do so with an awareness that many DACA recipients have family members who are not eligible for the program.

Students may have questions about how exactly this decision affects them and their families. Staff at Amherst, including those in the Center for Diversity and Student Leadership, the Office of Student Affairs, and the Counseling Center are ready to help. Please reach out to Tenzin Kunor, Director of Diversity and Student Leadership, at 413.542.5763 or tkunor@amherst.edu, who can connect you with resources, including access to an expert immigration attorney, mental health services, and additional resources to promote success both at Amherst and after graduation.

Amherst College will continue our commitment to recruiting, admitting, and educating the most talented students, regardless of where they were born or what resources their families might have. We will also continue to meet every student’s full financial need, whether that student is an American citizen, a permanent resident, a DACA recipient, an undocumented resident, or an international student.

In the eyes of the College, every student on our campus belongs here and deserves our support. 

Title VII

Last Monday, in a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court affirmed that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Title VII protects employees against discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, and religion; at stake in the ruling was the question of whether “sex” should be interpreted to include sexual orientation and gender identity. The ruling answered affirmatively to this question as it was posed in three consolidated cases. In two (Altitude Express and Bostock), individuals alleged discrimination based on their sexual orientation. In the third (Harris Funeral Home), an employee alleged discrimination based on their gender identity. In issuing its opinion, the Court declared unequivocally that “an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.”

While this decision ratifies a broader interpretation of sex discrimination under Title VII, it comes on the heels of the Department of Health and Human Services’ rollback of protections against gender-identity discrimination in the Affordable Care Act on June 12. This action, scheduled to take effect in mid-August, eliminates protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity in healthcare. Specifically, it asserts that “sex” means only “male or female...as determined by biology.” The rollback will allow healthcare providers, hospitals, and insurance companies that receive federal funding to refuse to provide or cover services on the basis of gender identity. At a time when the importance of civil rights and the ubiquitous social benefits of eliminating barriers and expanding access to healthcare have never been clearer, the administration’s attempt to strip away critical health protections and embolden discrimination in the provision of healthcare is disheartening and dangerous.

Interpretation of words matters. In light of the Court’s affirmation of a more inclusive meaning of “sex” in their Title VII decision, a coalition of LGBTQ groups, including the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and LGBTQ health clinics and medical advocates, have already filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of the HHS rollback. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that last week’s Title VII ruling will mean that LGBTQ people will, by law, continue to receive the protections HHS is attempting to erase. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that there will be other far-reaching implications that similarly extend beyond the realm of protections against discrimination in employment. As I have noted before, medical science does not support the belief that there is a simple path between putatively clear biological markers at birth and a person’s deeply-felt and essential sense of self. Nor does science support the claim that being LGBTQ is an “unnatural” choice unrooted in biology. Sexual orientation and gender identity are complex and fundamental aspects of our being that deserve recognition in civil rights protections. They also deserve many other forms of protection and embrace. At the intersection of race and gender identity, racist and anti-trans hatred continue to take their ugliest forms in the shocking number of murders of Black trans people.

Last Monday’s Supreme Court decision does not change the College’s non-discrimination policy. Our non-discrimination statement specifically includes sexual orientation and gender identity. However, we are currently drafting a new, more comprehensive policy to provide better mechanisms for reporting incidents of identity-based discrimination, options for resolving incidents, and support for those affected by such incidents.

There has never been a more important moment for the exercise of our rights. Those rights include essential forms of civic engagement. Among other things, please make sure that you and your families fill out the 2020 Census and register to vote.