March 20, 2019
Creating a sense of belonging on a campus is difficult and complicated work. It is also vital to student success and the success of the entire community. I know of no educational institution that would claim to have succeeded completely in the effort. Missteps are inevitable.
The “Common Language Document” produced by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and circulated yesterday at Amherst takes a very problematic approach. The document defines terms in an effort to assist people in talking with one another about their identities and positions. The motivation of those who generated the definitions is understandable. They were responding to questions from people who wanted to know better how historically underrepresented groups and individuals think about their identities and positions.
The job of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is to support students in their academic aspirations by helping create a welcoming environment, one in which members of the community understand and respect one another’s backgrounds and perspectives. But when the approach assumes campus-wide agreement about the meaning of terms and about social, economic, and political matters, it runs counter to the core academic values of freedom of thought and expression. I was not aware that the document was being produced and I did not approve its circulation. It cuts against our efforts to foster open exchange and independent thinking. It is not a formal college document and will not be used as one.
Awareness and understanding of backgrounds and experiences other than one’s own are vital. Using language that conveys respect for those differences is part of building community. But prescribing a particular language and point of view is anathema.
Statement by Norm Jones
Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,
You may have read a note sent this afternoon from my office regarding a Common Language Guide.
The document was created by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion as a response to requests from members of the community who asked for definitions of terms associated with identity, diversity, and inclusion. I believe it was a mistake to send it from my office to the entire community because of the implication that the guide is meant to dictate speech and expression or ideology on campus. It does not represent an official position of the College or an expectation that everyone on campus should use any particular language or share a point of view. The goal was to help create greater awareness of the ways many people at Amherst and beyond understand their own identities.
Please let me know if you would like to talk about any of this.
Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer