April 17, 2021

Dear Students, Staff, and Faculty, 

Many, but perhaps not all of you, are aware of Tuesday’s BlackMindsMatter protest organized by the Black Student Union. Hundreds of students gathered to call attention to the mental health challenges that Black students face by virtue of the two pandemics of COVID-19 and the systemic racism it exposes, as well as the many deaths of Black people at the hands of police over the past year alone. Just two days ago we learned of the fatal shooting of thirteen-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago. 

On Tuesday, students shared their grief, anger, and exhaustion. They described their own experiences with armed police; they spoke of their fear for their siblings, cousins, and friends back home. They also presented a revised set of demands that emphasizes, among other things, how hard it is for them to do everything that is asked of them at this moment. You can find coverage of the event in this week’s issue of The Amherst Student (amherststudent.com), where you will also find the revised list of demands addressed to the College.

For now, I write to provide information about the process and timing of our response to the issues that our students have raised.

  1. The students’ first demand asks for flexibility and lenience on extensions and absences from class. In our College bylaws, authority for curricular matters is delegated by the Board of Trustees to the faculty. The faculty has jurisdiction over the evaluation of student work, including extensions and class absences. In such extraordinarily difficult times, an interim measure may be needed in order to provide relief to our students. Provost Epstein and I have asked the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) to discuss the students’ need for compassion and flexibility at their next meeting, which takes place next Wednesday, April 21. In the meantime, we urge faculty members to consider the impact not only of the COVID-19 pandemic on us all, but also the racist violence in this country, and the disproportionate effects of both on communities of color. Many students are struggling with the mental health challenges of multiple sources of anxiety, anger, and fatigue, as are our faculty and staff of color.
  2. The students’ second demand focuses on mental health resources. We agree that the Counseling Center needs more counselors; on Tuesday morning we successfully hired an additional counselor who is also a person of color. We have started conversations about adding more positions and will provide more information before the end of the semester. In addition, the Counseling Center is partnering with the Steve Fund, and Health Education has convened a Wellness Working Group, both of which will engage directly with members of our community to better understand where additional support and resources should be targeted. The College’s next steps will include: 1) a study of student wellness overall to evaluate where additional resources will help us provide students with the skills, support, and experiences that allow them to thrive; and 2) designing an integrated health and wellness initiative that will take students’ varying experiences and needs into account. Student Affairs will provide an update on their plan by the end of May.
  3. The students’ third demand asks that the Amherst College Police Department be abolished. Such a decision would ultimately have to be made by the Board of Trustees. The trustees and the president have the responsibility and the duty to ensure the safety of the campus community. They have already engaged with students, faculty, and the administration on the topic of campus safety, and will continue carefully to consider the best way forward. I have asked The Collaborations Group, a team of experts in diversity, equity, and inclusion and culture change, with whom we haveconsulted on other projects, to work with Director of Institutional Research and Registrar Services Jesse Barba to set up a series of focus groups over the next few weeks. This process will allow students, faculty, and staff to help answer the question of what safety means and what form it should take on our campus. This work will begin soon and help inform the board’s discussions at upcoming board meetings.

The issues raised by our students deserve careful attention and thoughtful consideration. 

I believe over the past year our community has shown an extraordinary depth of care and respect for one another’s health and the good of the whole. These are unprecedented, difficult, and enormously stressful times, but I am optimistic that we will find ways, working together, to come out of them having learned and changed for the better.