August 3, 2020
Dear Students, Faculty, Staff, and Alumni,
For the past few months, I have read, listened, and thought deeply about the experiences of racism and violence that Black students and alumni have shared, and which they endured across this country and also at Amherst. I have spoken before about the environment in which I grew up and the racism and violence that were endemic to it. I know how visceral and violent the belief in white supremacy can be. I have seen it first hand. I know how essential it is to many white people’s identities, even when its importance is unconscious and unacknowledged. Given what I have lived and what I have studied, I know there can be no neutrality about the fact of racism and no legitimate debate about the urgency of confronting it. It is time for me as a president, who is also white, to take stronger stands and to enlist the entire Amherst community in bolder efforts to make Amherst a truly equitable and inclusive place. For me, this is a time to transform what I know and what I have known into what I can do and what I can enlist you to do.
This summer has been another object lesson in how racism, particularly anti-Black racism, is woven into the fabric of the country. We have seen videos of the cold-blooded killings of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and Ahmaud Arbery by apparent vigilantes in Georgia. We learned of the fatal shooting of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor by Louisville police in her own home and the shooting of Tony McDade by police in Tallahassee, one of numerous killings of Black trans people. These killings show that a brutally racist past lives on in the present and that every one of us must do all we can to end it. The pandemic has also done its part to make the scourge of systemic racism undeniable, with its disproportionate impact on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities.
In this letter, I focus specifically on anti-Black racism, understanding that it has had a distinctive, very long, and deep-seated position and function in the economic, social, political, and moral history of the country. I recognize, too, that racism against Indigenous, Latinx, Muslim, Asian and Asian American people, xenophobia against people of other nationalities, and anti-Semitism are on the rise. These groups also experience the harm of discrimination and violence. The fight for greater justice and more truly democratic institutions has to be fought on all of these fronts, and at the points where they intersect, if the country and its colleges and universities are to make good on their ideals of freedom and equality.
For purposes of this communication, I feel an imperative to be as specific as possible about the impact that anti-Black prejudice and discrimination have on Black students, staff, faculty, and alumni, all the more so for those living at the intersections of other axes of discrimination—gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, nationality, ability and accessibility, to name a few. Ensuring the dignity, equity, and inclusion of all Black students requires a more nuanced and comprehensive approach than we have taken.
We will continue to see race and racism used as political tools. We may even hear that there are “good people on both sides“ of white supremacy, as a way of justifying and normalizing racist ideology and acts. In truth, there is only one legitimate response to the fact of anti-Black racism and the damage it inflicts. That response is opposition. And opposition requires that we take more intentional measures. We are a small college community with admirable aspirations and a history of leadership among our peers in educational excellence and in access and affordability. In 2016, the College was awarded the Jack Kent Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence for efforts to provide forms of support that go beyond financial aid to ensure that students from low-income backgrounds are able not only to succeed, but to thrive. Yet our historically predominantly white college still has a long way to go if we are to realize our promise of racial equity and shared ownership of the culture of the College. Those of us who love Amherst and the purposes of its strong liberal arts education can and should dedicate ourselves to more significant change. This letter ends by outlining some of the actions to which I and my colleagues are committed. With this message, I seek your active involvement and ideas.
Many of our students, alumni, faculty, and staff have already started to respond to the painful events of the summer by being part of the activism that has emerged across the country. They have also directed our attention to what they experience at Amherst. There are critical moments in history when the call for change is resounding. This is one of those moments.
John Lewis’s funeral service last week powerfully reinforced the importance of history, our responsibility to it, and the duties that come with an understanding of it—obligations that are personal, institutional, and national. Congressman Lewis was eulogized for his extraordinary courage, sacrifice, conviction, and activism, but also for his dignity, kindness, and commitment to truth. Lewis was celebrated for the way he comported himself as a human being in the ordinary moments of life as well as when marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The service itself showed how beauty and artistry, music, love of language and rhetoric, mentorship, and critical self-examination combine with activism and legislation to create a better world.
Institutions like Amherst stand for those virtues. The College has articulated the ideals of opportunity, intellectual rigor, equity, community, and contribution to the larger society; Amherst has sought, imperfectly, to hew to those values. We constantly strive and end up seeing more clearly both the failures in our journey and the never-ending challenges ahead. The willingness to see failures and gaps, especially our own, and to acknowledge them is core to our mission and the reason we value critical thinking in the pursuit of truth and democratic ideals.
In 2015, in the wake of the August 2014 killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, three Black women organized a gathering in Frost Library in support of students at the University of Missouri; what started as a brief show of support became the Amherst Uprising, a sit-in during which Black students spoke of their experiences of racism and inequity to an audience of hundreds of faculty, staff, and students. We heard their stories and learned that equity and inclusion require a great deal more of us; in response to demands for change, the College put a number of additional programs and measures in place aimed at achieving the promise of educational equity. Those pedagogical, curricular, academic policy, and administrative changes have enhanced the quality of our education for every student and have inspired pedagogical and curricular innovation on the part of our dedicated faculty.
Despite our efforts over time, serious gaps remain. Our students and alumni see failures and hypocrisy in our celebrations of diversity when full dignity, equity, and inclusion remain unrealized. The entire community needs to dig deeper to understand and uproot the underlying structural causes of the inequities that Black alumni and current students continue to experience. Amherst’s excellence requires this. There is no other way to make good on our promise.
Appended to this letter are some of the actions we will take to ensure a more excellent Amherst. I offer special thanks to Chaka Laguerre ’08 for a letter she wrote to me in June on behalf of Black alumni and our subsequent exchanges; the Black Students Union and the contributors to the Instagram site BlackAmherstSpeaks; and the dozens of students who, in the spirit of John Lewis, have helped create a better Amherst. Recognizing the tremendous amount of labor this has demanded of you, the College is grateful for your work and is the better for it.
In letters, social media posts, and conversations, these and many other Black students and alumni state that they have had exhausting, demoralizing, and sometimes debilitating experiences at Amherst. They feel that most of us do not fully grasp this fact or understand its systemic roots, raising questions that everyone in our community will want to ask themselves.
Black students and alumni contend with the exhaustion from daily experiences at Amherst and beyond of stereotype threat, outright prejudice, implicit and explicit bias, exclusion, discrimination, and sometimes violence. They do not see themselves in the leadership of the College, in the majority of the faculty, or in the ranks of the staff. Representation matters, as does mentorship and the creativity, knowledge, and intelligence that comes from more diverse teams. One consequence of the low representation of Black staff, faculty, and administrators is the work it adds to those who are underrepresented.
Alumni and students describe the invisibility felt in some of their classes when they made points that were passed over, only to have white students credited with the same offering. At the same time, Black students are faced with a painful hypervisibility when asked to speak for an entire race when issues of race and racism come up. Consider a faculty member who feels license to criticize a Black student’s hairstyle, or students and another faculty member who repeatedly confuse the only two Black students in a class. One of our alumni described the pain of low expectations from a faculty member who claimed that “some groups” are not cut out for a particular discipline, and another recalled an advisor who suggested there was no point in applying to the best medical schools.
There is excellent scholarly writing on the bias implicit in that now infamous query about why “all the Black kids sit together in the cafeteria.” Yet, our Black students and alumni have heard these questions from white people who seem oblivious to the fact that members of predominantly or exclusively white groups gather together without any racial diversity and see no need to ask themselves what role a tacit white identity plays in their choices. Black students, alumni, and scholars face attacks for their “focus on identity” and “identity politics,” even as their white critics take for granted the privilege that white identity confers, including the assumption that whiteness is an unmarked category.
Black members of our community also see too little genuine curiosity about their experiences and perspectives and too little awareness of the way white privilege works. While the open curriculum permits students unparalleled opportunity to explore their own interests, it also allows them to avoid uncomfortable subject matter and engagement with material that is unfamiliar to them. In the absence of any requirement that students, faculty, and staff know something substantive about the centrality of anti-Black racism to the history of the country and its institutions, we fail not only our Black students, but every student who studies at Amherst and then goes out to assume responsibility in society. We who are white are being asked to recognize that our knowledge and views of the world are partial, in both senses of the word, all the more so if we have not done the work of understanding how we are implicated in a very long and brutal history of systemic racism, and then doing something about its present incarnations.
All our students deserve to walk safely through the campus, the town, and anywhere else, without fear. But many Black people learn from an early age that fear is warranted because of racial profiling and anti-Black violence. The experience of fear and insecurity is even more present for Black women who have spoken and written about the ways in which they are treated sexually in social environments on campus. We will continue to raise awareness and address sexual harassment and assault in ways that create a safer and more respectful environment for students. We will also incorporate Black feminist speakers into our on-campus programming and events to increase awareness of these issues. There are students and alumni who report experiences of profiling and differences in the way their social events and parties have been monitored and restricted, compared to other groups. In light of this fact and informed by our commitment to an inclusive campus, Chief of Police John Carter, in consultation with members of the senior staff, has taken stock of the overreliance by the College on our police officers for duties that could and should be part of our student affairs function. The College traditionally has limited the presence of student affairs staff in the residence halls and on campus after regular business hours, making campus police the primary interface with students. Black and brown people in this society live with the knowledge that they have only so many degrees of freedom and cannot let down their guards in the way that white people can. To say these experiences are corrosive is to vastly understate the case.
When Black students and alumni protest the harm they experience at Amherst, they sometimes receive strong criticism from people who accuse them of failing to show appropriate gratitude, as though it should be good enough for them that they are present, regardless of what they experience and despite our promise of a diversity of people who co-create the culture of the College. Some critics fail to understand how student and alumni critiques have helped make institutions like Amherst better. Some apparently assume the institution belongs only to them, those who have historically predominated. The expectation of gratitude in this context gives the lie to any pretense of inclusiveness or shared ownership. And it fails to recognize that the diversity of people, experience, and thought has made Amherst a better place for everyone.
The alumni letter and ReclaimAmherst, a statement signed by BSU members and contributors to #BlackAmherstSpeaks made available on social media almost two weeks ago, both open by avowing their love of the College and proceed by offering a set of priorities that will make it worthier of that love. The list below is responsive to a number of their priorities. We look forward to working with them and all members of the community going forward.
In closing, let me thank everyone in the Amherst community in advance for participating in the work that must be done and for your commitment to Amherst’s continuing leadership in liberal arts education. Over a hundred years ago Amherst President Alexander Meiklejohn predicted that the country would have achieved racial equality by the time the College reached its bicentennial. The country is far from achieving it. Let’s seize this moment to do what must be done.
Here is what we will do now. On each of these measures, we will report back to the community on our progress in three months, again at six months, and annually thereafter.
It is essential that we acknowledge the harm that our Black students and alumni have experienced, numerous instances but certainly not all of which I have conveyed in the previous section. I deeply regret the extent and depth of racist harassment, discrimination, threats, psychological and physical pain that so many have suffered at the College for much too long.
To our Black students and alumni, on behalf of the College and in my role as its current president, I offer you an apology for the harm you have experienced here and for having not made more progress. In 2015, in the wake of the Amherst Uprising, you requested that I apologize for the ways the College has fallen short and reproduced the oppressive inequalities of the society as a whole over the course of its history. I explained why I considered an apology of that sort to be a kind of arrogance, an assertion of a degree of control and authority that does not accurately reflect an institutional culture that so highly values shared governance. Amherst has reflected a much larger world of systemic racism, as all institutions have. But I have been challenged and have challenged myself to remember, and to comprehend, that too often white people deny responsibility for what they see as the sins of the past without recognizing how those sins live in the present, how systemic they are, and how much we who are white benefit from them, whether consciously and willfully or not. Against that backdrop, I offer you, our Black alumni and students, our recognition that the realities of structural racism in the United States have shaped our educational institutions, including Amherst, and my deep sorrow about the toll your negative experiences at Amherst have taken.
A Racial History of Amherst
In ReclaimAmherst, students and alumni write that the College’s founders were slaveowners, among the most vicious racists of their day. Over my nine years as president, I have asked our archivist, Mike Kelly, several times to help me understand Amherst’s relationships to slavery. After quite a bit of examination, Mike does not believe the research supports the claim that the founders were slaveowners. As far as we can find, David Parsons, who is named as a slaveowner in ReclaimAmherst, and who did own slaves, could not be considered a founder. For more information on the founders, please explore the College’s early history collection and a web page of resources on College history. Regardless of whether any founders are discovered to have owned slaves or been directly involved in the slave trade, there is no question that the institution of slavery produced considerable wealth for many white people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and likely for some with ties to Amherst over the years.
What we need, in my view, is a broad and deep historical study of the College’s ties to slaveholding and the capital accumulation that slavery provided for some, following the lead of other projects such as those initiated at Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania. We will want our study to extend into the present, illuminating the experiences, achievements, and contributions of our Black alumni. We will commission this project with the expectations that interested Amherst faculty, staff, students, and alumni will be involved in the research. The College will make all findings publicly available. I will ask the provost, Catherine Epstein, herself an historian, and our archivist, Mike Kelly, to assume responsibility for organizing the project and establishing a panel of scholars with research expertise in this area.
Change and Accountability
I turn now to additional measures the College will take and the ways we will hold ourselves accountable for them.
- Biennial Alumni and Student Testimonies. We will organize and participate in biennial sessions for Black alumni and current students to share their experiences and perspectives with members of the senior staff and the board of trustees. A detailed summary of proposals for change will be made available to all participants within a month of the testimonies. The first such gathering will take place in the summer of 2021, and testimonies will recur every two years thereafter.
- The Board of Trustees is committed to racial and generational diversity among its members and will report further on its deliberations in these areas following the October 2020 board meeting. The board will shortly establish a new standing committee, on par with its other standing committees, focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. The committee will be charged with responsibility for oversight of the College’s progress toward these goals, which will also be taken into account by the board in its annual evaluations of the president. Other board standing committees, such as the committees on instruction, human resources, and student life, have aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion in their portfolios and will increase their attention to these goals, as well. The board is resolute in its support of my intentions and commitments in this letter.
- The Senior Staff. We will increase the racial diversity of the senior staff as positions become available. In the meantime, the president’s task force on diversity and inclusion will become a standing committee made up of faculty, staff, and students, and alumni, including representatives of the Committee of Six and other major governance committees. This standing committee, co-chaired by the chief diversity and inclusion officer, Norm Jones, and a member of the faculty, will have responsibility for reviewing progress of the three-year diversity, equity, and inclusion goals of each major unit of the College. The committee’s assessment of progress will inform the annual performance reviews of the senior staff. We will create a website on which divisional goals and other commitments made in this document can be tracked for progress.
Members of the senior staff will meet at least once a semester with the leadership of the Black Students Union and with representatives of other student organizations.
- Faculty Diversity and Development. We will continue increasing the racial diversity of the faculty, building on the progress that the provost and the chief diversity and inclusion officer have made over the past several years. All search committees for new faculty hires participate in anti-bias workshops and all candidate pools are submitted to the chief diversity and inclusion officer for review and approval. These measures will remain in place.
Of the five senior faculty FTE’s requested by the president and approved by the board in 2015 to diversify the faculty, only two lines have been filled. Together, Provost Epstein, CDIO Jones, and I will urge our academic departments to step up their efforts to identify and recruit outstanding Black and Latinx scholars for these approved positions. Those departments that have made progress toward racial diversity using existing lines or have filled one of the open new lines will get preference when the president and provost review recommendations from the Committee on Educational Policy for searches going forward. We are committed to making new funding available, based on demonstrated success. Our goal is to have the faculty that reflects the diversity of the student body.
Pre-tenure faculty rightly note that many departmental practices are opaque at best. Success in recruiting, retaining, mentoring, and tenuring outstanding faculty from a wide range of backgrounds requires greater clarity and transparency in departments. Over the course of this academic year, all academic departments will be required to document their policies and practices in departmental handbooks; these will be shared with the provost by the end of the spring 2021 semester. The provost’s office will make available best practices and scholarship in creating truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive working and learning environments. All departments will be expected to participate.
Given the abundance of evidence of racial and gender bias in teaching evaluations and their significance in reappointment, tenure, and promotion decisions, the president and provost will charge an ad hoc committee with exploring more holistic approaches to the evaluation of teaching that will be used during reappointment and tenure processes. The ad hoc committee’s work should be completed before the end of the spring 2021 semester.
- Pedagogical and Curricular Development. Provost Epstein has made curriculum development, with specific attention to race and racism, a priority for the faculty and expects every department to take part in workshops focused on pedagogical and curricular development. CDIO Jones has asked Allen Hart, James E. Ostendarp Professor of Psychology and a faculty diversity and inclusion officer, and Pawan Dhingra, a professor of American studies and likewise a faculty diversity and inclusion officer, to be part of the work of making race and racism more central to teaching. We currently have several inclusivity-focused examples of innovation in teaching and learning that are models of what it means to promote student success. One is already a national model, Associate Professor of Chemistry Sheila Jaswal’s “Being Human in STEM.” A new program promises to be equally successful, the STEM Incubator project, created and taught by Assistant Professor of Biology Marc Edwards and Assistant Professor of Chemistry Chris Durr, and also taught by Assistant Professor of Statistics Brittney Bailey.
Workshops will begin during the fall 2020 semester.
- External Review Board. We will re-establish an external review board on diversity, equity, and inclusion, to be made up of scholars and practitioners with expertise in educational equity and anti-racist work. As was the case with an earlier external advisory team, this board will visit the College every two years and assess progress on the basis of written reports each year they visit. We will seek advice from members of the campus community on the membership of the review team. The board’s reports and recommendations will be submitted to the administration and made available to the entire community and the board of trustees. The first visit of the newly constituted review board will be during the fall 2021 semester.
- Staff Diversity. Just as our faculty should be more representative of our student body, so must our staff, especially in managerial and leadership positions. We will accelerate efforts not only to construct diverse candidate pools for open positions, but also hold ourselves accountable for hiring more Black and Latinx staff in all areas of the College. I will personally hold senior staff accountable for making measurable progress, beginning immediately. For supervisory, managerial, and senior-level positions, we will contract with a Black-owned firm to ensure we are reaching out to all potential Black, Indigenous, and other candidates of color.
In addition, our staff—regardless of their race, ethnicity, and identity—must better understand and respect the lived experiences of the students they support and provide services to students in ways that can meet every student where they are. We will redouble our efforts to provide anti-bias training and other forms of education to all staff, many of whom have expressed eagerness to learn and improve competencies in this important work. We will begin immediately to require bias training for all search committees, to assess whether positions have been too narrowly defined for successful recruitment, and to require that all candidate pools and lists of finalists be submitted to Dina Levi in the office of diversity and inclusion for review.
- Senior Fellows Program. In order to ensure that we benefit from the work of the most distinguished voices in the area of anti-racist scholarship and policy, the president’s office will make funding available for visits by distinguished scholars and policy experts in the field. Ideally, this program of visiting fellows would become part of an existing center or unit. Fellows will be asked to be on campus or available remotely for two weeks each year for a period of two years to give a series of named public lectures, hold seminars, and offer office hours. Inaugural fellows will be selected during the fall 2020 semester for visits during the 2021-22 academic year.
- Bias, Harassment, and Discrimination. The College is establishing a new anti-discrimination and harassment policy and a bias reporting protocol that will serve all members of the community. In conjunction, the College is developing a single point of entry for all reports of identity-based bias, discrimination, and harassment. A cross-sectional team will review the reports, assess individual and community harm, provide necessary support to all involved persons, and inform those affected of options for resolving the incident and addressing the harm. These changes will be in place early in the fall 2020 semester.
- Statement of Academic and Expressive Freedom. The faculty will reexamine the Statement of Academic and Expressive Freedom at its meetings in the fall 2020 semester. The Committee of Six has already begun to address the request made by the Black Students Union to clarify that racial epithets and racial hate are not protected forms of expression.
- The Center for Restorative Practices at Amherst College (RPAC). Led by Professor Allen Hart, this year-long pilot focused on restorative practice has involved over 100 faculty, students, and staff engaged in dialogue-based conflict resolution and community-building. A national search is underway for an assistant director to support a center. RPAC will be used over time to strengthen relationships across students, faculty, staff, and alumni communities. The center director will report annually on the activities of the center, and reports will be made available to the community.
- Student Code. Also in keeping with an earlier commitment, the Student Code of Conduct will incorporate policies and procedures for identity-based harassment and discrimination, including explicitly on the basis of race. This work will be complete early in the fall 2020 semester.
- Reimagine Policing. For some time, the College administration has been discussing a shift in the overreliance on the Amherst College Police Department in student life. Without a robust after-hours residential program, the campus police have served as the primary interface with students after hours and on weekends. This has created anxiety among Black students, in particular, but also others. We will shift some resources from ACPD, including student staff and funds for mental health services. We will also begin now to shift the supervision of residence halls and other student spaces to residential life and student affairs. A report on the impact of these changes will be available at the end of the fall 2020 semester.
- Mental Health Support. Institutional racism takes a toll on the psychological and physical well-being of students, staff, faculty, and alumni of color. We will provide more resources for those who are struggling with the impact of racism. During the fall semester, the Counseling Center will launch a search for another staff member with expertise in racial trauma. The College is also applying to be a campus partner with the Steve Fund, an organization that addresses racial disparities in mental health practices and resources. We seek to participate in the fund’s Equity in Mental Health on Campus Initiative, a comprehensive needs assessment for students of color. The Counseling Center is also working to increase its telehealth resources.
- Training and Education. Anti-bias training will be required at all levels, from the board of trustees and the senior administration to each major unit of the College, including all administrative and academic departments. Each member of the senior staff is responsible for ensuring anti-bias and anti-racist educational work in the departments within their divisions, reporting annually on the form that work has taken and the difference it has made. This is not, as some believe, an exercise in what to think, but our need to learn and to gain in self-awareness.
The College is currently piloting the First Year Connect program for incoming students in an effort to create a student community that has the skills to engage effectively with their differences. Over the course of this academic year, we will develop a comprehensive program of this kind for all students as well as a new orientation program that focuses on race and racism.
The athletics department will complete a strategic plan to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in athletics by the end of the fall 2020 semester. This strategic plan will include, but not be limited to, ongoing initiatives, including anti-racism workshops for all coaches and the department’s partnership with Allen Hart to train coaches and student-athletes in restorative practices. The department will be held responsible for hiring a diverse coaching staff and coaches will be held accountable for recruiting student-athletes of color. The office of admission and financial aid will be asked to take up the question of how financial pre-reads might help in pursuit of this goal.
- Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Effective August 24, 2020, we will introduce the term equity into the office of diversity and inclusion—it will now be the office of diversity, equity, and inclusion and Norm Jones will become the chief equity and inclusion officer. The titles of the faculty diversity and inclusion officers and of Dina Levi will also change: Dina’s title will be director of workforce equity and inclusive leadership. The faculty diversity and inclusion officers will become the faculty equity and inclusion officers.
- Iconography and Representation. We will immediately establish a committee charged with reimagining our public spaces and ensuring that they reflect the diversity of our community and the achievements of our Black alumni and underrepresented alumni. The committee will issue recommendations at the beginning of the spring 2021 semester in time for decisions and, hopefully, some changes during our bicentennial year.