December 4, 2012

Dear Amherst Community Members,

This past weekend someone made the cowardly and mean-spirited decision to carve a racist epithet in the snow on top of a car parked on the street just north of the Lord Jeffrey Inn. S/he spelled out the “N word” on a car that belongs to an employee of the College. One of our students took the step of filing a complaint with the police when she became aware of the incident. I applaud her initiative. Neither the Amherst College nor the Town of Amherst Police has identified the perpetrator; not surprisingly, no one has taken responsibility. In the face of such an aggressive act, I suggest that the rest of us take responsibility, not for having spelled out a racist epithet on a car, but for a response to it that condemns this act and all the forms of racism of which it is an instance. We cannot undo what is done, but we can call racism by its name, agree that it will not be tolerated on our campus, and counter it by doing more to create a culture that honors our differences and our shared humanity.

We have spent much of this semester addressing sexual assault and our responsibility as a College to do more on the side of prevention, while improving the way we handle it when it occurs. Other obstacles to equity and inclusion have arisen in our discussions and deserve our focused attention. We have made a start in the long-term project of changing culture, but there is a great deal more that needs to be done, here as elsewhere. Let’s draw on what we have learned and what has been put in motion this semester by spending time on race and diversity. I suggest that we plan a symposium, to be held at the beginning of the spring semester, involving faculty, staff, and students. To hear your views on this and other possible actions, I will be available tomorrow from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. in the Cole Assembly Room.  I hope many of you who do not have classes at that time will join me to discuss the steps we can take to ensure that Amherst belongs to all of us, and all of us to it. I seek your help in establishing a student advisory group, which would include student leaders from a range of organizations and interest groups on campus. Such an advisory group to the administration would meet regularly to bring forward matters of student concern. Because of College business, I will be out of town from Thursday of this week until Monday, December 10, but I can be available for ongoing discussion on Monday or Tuesday evening next week, and many of my colleagues in the administration are also available this week. 

As for other concrete steps, we are, as many of you know, in the beginning stages of a strategic planning process that will have Student Life as a primary focus. By the end of this semester, we will have appointed members of a working group on the subject, charged with the task of imagining what an Amherst student experience could be, were the College to feel more fully inclusive. The working group, which will include students, will actively seek the views of the student body as it develops goals and priorities for the College.

A crucial part of the planning process and the task of a second working group, also with student representation, will be to evaluate the physical spaces available to students on our campus in order to find more substantive opportunities for intellectual and social exchange. Space matters. We do not have adequate space for student activities and community-building outside the classroom. In the short term, we will find ways to re-locate at least two of the student organizations that need and deserve more visible and functional space—the multicultural resource center and the women’s center. I regret that students have been put in a position of conflict with one another over our limited access to space. We will find near-term solutions that, while they may not be fully satisfactory to everyone, will enable us to plan for significant and lasting change.

Amherst is focused on making—but has not yet completed—the changes that would more fundamentally alter our culture and give it the inclusiveness we seek. We have taken deliberate first steps through our admission policies by assembling students from very different socio-economic, racial, ethnic, religious, and national backgrounds, and of different genders and sexual orientations. Our task now is to put difference—and intellectual engagement with it—at the heart of our community and our everyday practices. Our efforts to make diversity a benefit for each and every one of us, to celebrate and embrace it, to develop a culture in which openness defines Amherst is our best hope for change. We won’t get there without acknowledging that discrimination of various forms continues to damage our institutions, our responses to one another, and our individual psyches. We won’t get there without accepting that this is an evolving community and that change takes advocacy and activism, but also time, patience, and the serious exchange of ideas.

There are a number of questions we need to address together, of which the following list is only a start. How do we acknowledge problems, while recognizing what is hopeful about our being together at Amherst? What projects would help make Amherst a place that is defined by its embrace of people from a wide variety of backgrounds, with varied and sometimes disparate interests and commitments? How do we support groups that have been marginalized on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, or nation without reproducing existing boundaries or creating new ones? How do we educate ourselves about our implication in structures of inequality and bias without becoming defensive or being paralyzed by guilt? How do we recognize that each of us simultaneously occupies multiple and sometimes conflicting positions, positions of privilege as well as of marginalization, and that no one is completely free of the effects of cultural bias?

I wish the members of our community had been spared the pain inflicted by the act that occurred this past weekend and the other acts and insults and exclusions that too many of you have endured in your lives. I want to work with you to combat racism and other forms of bias and disrespect, while building on what is hopeful about the opportunity at Amherst to make something of our diversity. Presidential statements, important as they may be in certain contexts, have limited power to make a difference. Change requires the involvement of a community, the willingness to listen to one another, a tolerance for conflict, and the hard work of collaboration.

I look forward to seeing you either Wednesday afternoon or early next week.