Amherst Magazine

College Row

 

Tough Love

As a large turnout of Amherst graduates renewed ties and reminisced at Black Alumni Weekend, March 31 through April 2, there was talk about past trials and triumphs, and a bridge was built to a new generation of African American students.

Patrick Egeonu, an Amherst junior, told the 56 returning alumni that they could help black students by "getting us in here, getting us through this place, and helping us after we leave."

The alumni agreed. "You should take advantage of all of us," William Parker '77 told students. "Leaving Amherst and going into the world of work can be traumatic. We're there to help." Mark Robinson '78 urged each student to establish a link with at least one of the black alumni during the weekend. "Then, if you have a problem," he said, "call that alum; if they can't help you, they'll tell you who can."

Robinson, Parker and others spoke during an open-mike session in the Cole Assembly Room, ending a day of discussions and social gatherings where other black alumni emphasized thatwhatever the past trauma of being a black student at a once overwhelmingly white collegeit had been worth the struggle. At an emotional closing session on Sunday morning the group paid special tribute to someone who helped them with that struggle when they were students: the late Asa J. Davis, professor emeritus of history and black studies, who died last September after 29 years at Amherst.

Throughout the weekend two students, Justin Turner, a senior, and Jorge Peschiera, a sophomore, videotaped many of the returning alumni for an oral history of their experiences. "Most of them described Amherst as a difficult place to be, but said they realized afterward that coming here had really made them stronger, it had prepared them academically and helped them with their life and careers," Peschiera reported.

Similar testimony was given at Saturday's open-mike session. "This is an amazing place to be," Charlton Copeland '96 assured today's undergraduates. "And I don't say that just because U.S. News says that. To the extent that Amherst can be loved, there are black folks who love Amherst."

"Although Amherst thinks of us as one big community," Sidney Davis '73 observed, "we are also a distinct and special community."

Trustee Karen Hastie Williams spoke to the group at a Valentine lunch on Saturday, sharing "Thoughts on an African American Family at Amherst." Williams is daughter of the late Trustee, Judge William H. Hastie '25; sister of William H. Hastie, Jr. '68; and mother of an Amherst junior, Bailey Williams. She noted that her father and his cousin, the great desegregation lawyer Charles H. Houston '15, had entered Amherst during the presidency of Alexander Meiklejohn, when a few black students were welcomed as scholars and athletes but were excluded from the social life
on campus. "They didn't leave," she said, "because they saw the value of an Amherst education and they knew education was the key to success, the key to meritocracy."

Today 106 Amherst students identify themselves as African Americans. In a panel discussion President Gerety acknowledged that the numbers had remained at approximately this level for several years now"but I think you'll see us doing better over the next few years," he said. Tom Parker, dean of admission and financial aid, said his office had just offered admission to 1,000 applicants including 119 African Americans, and he welcomed help from the alumni in bringing them to Amherst.

The dinner speaker on Saturday night, Junius Williams '65, said he had learned to appreciate and develop skills he was learning as a student at Amherst in the '60s by using them off campus in the civil rights movement. He told today's students that, without a national movement to engage them, they need to hone these same skills by advancing their interestsand building their own support systemon campus.

Many of the alumni expressed warm remembrances of Asa Davis at Sunday morning's Johnson Chapel service. "Without Professor Davis and the Davis family, this would have been a much different place for black students," said Wayne Wormley '72. Kellie Jones '81, who directed the weekend's events, told fellow African American alumni that Davis had been the first to make her realize "our culture was worthy of being studied and passed on." Charles Burkett '80 said
Davis was so full of scholarly information that he was like a Website before there were Websites: "As you were talking to Asa, you could hyperlink anywhere, to a wealth of knowledge."

Thomas Wattley '75 and others remembered always being welcome at the professor's house and hearing his words of encouragement. "There were days when I was lonely," Wattley said, "and I went down to South Pleasant Street and I was home."

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A Pulitzer for music

Longtime campus friends and colleagues were delighted with news on April 10 that Lewis Spratlan, the college's Peter R. Pouncey Professor of Music, was winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in music. He received it for his composition, Life is a Dream, Opera in Three Acts: Act Two, Concert Version, which had its world premiere at Buckley Recital Hall in January.

The news offered a lesson in the value of patience and persistence. The New Haven Opera Theater commissioned Spratlan to compose an opera back in 1975. He did so in 1978, with James Maraniss, professor of Spanish, writing the English libretto. The work is an adaptation of Spanish playwright Calderón de la Barca's 1636 masterpiece, La Vida Es Sueno. But no part of it was performed until this January22 years laterbecause the New Haven company failed before it could present the new work.

Audiences finally heard a concert version at the Buckley premiere.

Describing the opera, The New York Times noted that Spratlan had "created a theatrical world in which the characters were given distinct musical thumbprints that were meant to embody their personalities, and in which the dissonances and angularities of contemporary styles were linked with traditional dance, march and madrigal forms."

Spratlan has taught at Amherst since 1970, when he founded and conducted the Amherst-Mount Holyoke Orchestra. He was educated at Yale University and the Yale School of Music. His compositions have won numerous other awards and prizes, and his recordings include Two Pieces for Orchestra, available on Opus One Records, and Night Music on Gasparo.

Another of this year's Pulitzer Prizes, the award for general nonfiction, was given to the Amherst alumnus John W. Dower '59 for his book, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. The work by Dower, a history professor at M.I.T., also won the National Book Award for nonfiction and the Bancroft Prize for history. It is a study of the complex and difficult adjustment of Japan in the occupation following the war.

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An American first?

As graduates of a small college, most Amherst alumni value experiences they had in seminars
that are usually more characteristic of graduate schools: that is, small classes where they were called upon to exam ine, present and discuss their own interpretations of course material.

Today a respected part of the curricula at many prestigious colleges, the seminar was an experimental novelty back in the 1870s and '80s when it was first introduced at a few American institutionsprimarily at universities such as Harvard and the innovative Johns Hopkins.

And, we learn now, at Amherst College. In fact, the first undergraduate seminar ever taught in the United States may have been at Amherst.

A historian of higher education, Hugh Hawkins, the college's Anson D. Morse Professor of History and American Studies, notes that the seminar originated in German universities in the 19th century. While definitions of the term "seminar" vary, Hawkins has written that seminars in Germany were usually distinguished by "practices of interpretation and criticism of source documents performed by the student in the presence of the teacher and other students . . . ."

Which sounds a lot like a course that Humprey Neill, professor of English literature, taught at Amherst in the early 1880s.

Neill is given credit for bringing major improvements to the English department after he joined the faculty in the 1870s. According to a memorial tribute to Neill that was published in the 1906 Olio yearbook, at Amherst, until Neill's arrival, "literature meant dates and statistics about authors, rather than reading the authors themselves." With seminars and other innovations, Neill changed all that.

It's always risky to claim historical "firsts": often, the next mail will bring proof to the contrary. But we find nothing yet that questions an assertion made, more than 70 years ago, that the "earliest use of [the seminar] in undergraduate work was probably in Professor Neill's classes at Amherst." This appears in the book, Eight O'Clock Chapel: A Study of New England College Life in the Eighties, written by two Amherst graduates from the Class of 1883, Cornelius Howard Patton and Walter Taylor Field, and published in 1927 by Houghton Mifflin.

Patton and Field described Neill's pioneering seminar in some detail:

"It was his habit each term to assign to every student a special subject, following so far as possible individual preferences or aptitudes. It might be a character from one of Shakespeare's plays or it might be an author or a poem or a novel or any literary problem that fell within the range of the term's work, but taken together, these topics veerd pretty closely the preiod that the class was studying. Each student was expected to master his subject and to present a thesis upon it. Recitations were two hours in length. The first hour was devoted to the general lesson of the day and to the presentation of the thesis, --the second hour--after five minutes' recess--to criticisms upong the thesis by the class, followed by an informal discussion and by a rebuttal from the writer. This method combined the advantages of literary and historical study with practice in English composition, criticism, and debate. More than all else, it taught the student to think and to form judgements."

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Sultana and Coronet

Amherst has connections to two historic ship projects. Drew McMullen '92 is project director for
a major effort in Chestertown, Md., to build and operate a reproduction of the 97-foot schooner Sultana, originally built in 1767 and described as "one of the few American-built vessels from the colonial period for which extensive documentation has survived." And a yacht with connections to the college's history, the 133-foot schooner Coronet, is slated for a $7-million, stem-to-stern restoration in Newport, R.I. In the late 19th century the Coronet won trans-Atlantic races and was the flagship of the New York Yacht Club. In 1896, when its owner was Amherst alumnus Arthur Curtiss James '89, it carried the college's astronomer, Prof. David Todd '75, and the Amherst Eclipse Expedition to Japan to see a solar eclipse. The restoration is being planned by the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport.

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Faculty speaks out on athletics

In a motion adopted on February 15, the faculty called on a new admission committee to exercise "significantly greater restraint" in allowing athletic ability to influence admission choices at the expense of intellectual promise. The 54-to-45 vote for the motion (with 3 abstentions) followed
a recent report from the Committee on Admission and Financial Aid [see Winter 2000 Amherst], which said that for a short period five and six years agothere had been "erratic and, at times, unacceptable weight given to athletics in the admission process."

The motion, put forward by N. Gordon Levin, Jr., Dwight Morrow Professor of History and American Studies, read as follows:

"In light of the evidence presented in the Report of the Committee on Admission and Financial Aid, the Faculty asks the College Committee on Admission and Financial Aid to exercise significantly greater restraint in allowing athletic ability to influence admissions policy and decisions in the future, and, while balancing the full range of Amherst's admission goals, to increase to the highest degree possible the number of matriculants in each entering class who offer the greatest promise of engaging the intellectual life of the College with ability, commitment and curiosity."

Levin said the words "balancing the full range of Amherst's admission goals" were meant to recognize that the college would continue, as it has for many years, to give some preference to children of alumni, to students of color, and to some number of athletes. But he said the word
"significantly" might mean reducing from about 95 to about 75 the annual number of students accepted principally on the strength of athletic ability.

Tom Parker, dean of admission and financial aid, told the faculty he thought this could be done and still leave the college "reasonably competitive athletically," as long as his office and the athletic coaches developed new ways to get the best student athletes.

The faculty members who opposed the measure did so for a variety of reasons. Some argued that the admission committees and administration now knew of this faculty concern and would be the best ones to guard against abuses. Some feared that an unintentional effect of the motion might be to stigmatize athletes.

While the committee report mentioned above did find that admissions had given "unacceptable weight" to athletic considerations five and six years ago, it affirmed college policy that gives admission officers "the latitude to consider extracurricular activities, including sports, as potentially significant assets in an applicant's folder." And Dean Parker has emphasized that the college can and does admit good athletes who are strong academically.

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Lowest rise in 35 years

The Trustees have set $32,400 as the college's comprehensive fee for 2000-01. The figure represents a 3.3-percent increase over this year's charges for tuition, room and board. It is the lowest percentage increase in 35 years.

At the same time, the board approved a new annual expenditure of more than $900,000 that will allow the college to reduce or completely eliminate loans for a broad range of low- and middle-income families. This action will provide increased support not only for new students in the entering Class of 2004, but for current students as well.

"While our financial aid policies have always led the way in emphasizing low loan-indebtedness, we're pleased to be able to take these additional steps to enhance our already significant aid program," President Gerety said. "This action also rein forces Amherst's longstanding commitment to equity and access in financial aid by providing additional support to those students and families who most need it."

Increased support for financial aid is one of the priorities of The Amherst College Campaign, scheduled to run until June 30, 2001. A $38-million portion of the $200-million campaign goal is earmarked for financial aid. Recently, the campaign had raised $24 million for financial aid.

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Alumni sons and daughters

The Admission Office has scheduled four Dean's Days to allow the sons and daughters of Amherst alumni and parents the opportunity to learn more about Amherst and
its admission policies. Dean's Days include group conversations for Amherst families with secondary school students who will be seniors in 2000-01. A light lunch will be served, and there will be tours of the campus. Dean's Days have been scheduled for Friday, May 26, Monday, June 26, Friday, July 28, and Friday, August 25.

If you are not able to attend one of these Dean's Days, you may arrange for a Conversation with a Dean, which offers time with a senior member of the Admission staff to discuss not only Amherst and its admission policies, but also allows the staff member to learn a bit about the student's interests and aspirations.

For further details about the two opportunities, call Flora Josephs at (413) 542-2328.

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Verbatim

A compilation of remarks from recent events at Amherst:

"Nothing is more expensive than keeping people in prison. How come it costs more per year to keep people in Walpole [State Prison] than it costs to send them to Amherst? The answer is, very few of you are trying to escape."
    U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.)
    In a talk, "In Defense of Government,"
    Johnson Chapel, March 6, 2000

"Instituting a catechism of good citizenship is suspect . . . . We should be pushing students to be more challenging, but they have to find their own way. And when they do, a goodly portion of them will be sitting in my office calling me a bum."
    President Tom Gerety
    Interviewed by The Boston Globe (Feb. 22, 2000) about a trend at some colleges to teach     "active citizenship."

"When you play the music of Bach for solo instruments, you have a feeling that you come closer to the man than when you play his other [ensemble] music."
    Anner Bylsma, Baroque cellist
    In a pre-concert talk,
    Buckley Recital Hall, March 3, 2000

"There is a notion in American society that there is a superior race and all other races are inferior. I still wrestle with an inferiority complex. Why would I, of all people, have that struggle? . . . When I studied history, I didn't see much of me; when I studied the great works of literature, I didn't see much of me. If we do not do something to show the whole world that all races and all ethnicities are equal, then we are poor leaders."
    The Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.
    At a service celebrating her father's life,
    Johnson Chapel, Feb. 6, 2000

"Captain Gorgon seized Queen Zola 'twixt his swarthy tentacles, cackling to the struggling, royal leader of Planet Lucasfilms in his clutches, through his what-the-humans-call-mouth/interdimensional-portal, 'You WILL be my bride, and the Galactic Alliance WILL submit its harvesting resources to meat long last, after the 12, agonizing lunar years of the Great Ruxpin War, the desert qualudes will finally be mine! Blar! Blar! Blar!'"
    Joshua Fischel '00
    Winning entry in the science-fiction category of this year's "Wretched Writing Follies" sponsored by the college's Writing Center.

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