November 15, 2015

Dear Students, Faculty, Staff, Alumni, and Families,

On Thursday night I attended a student-organized protest against racism and other entrenched forms of prejudice and inequality.  The sit-in was held in Frost Library.  It had started Thursday at 1 p.m. and there were several hundred people from all parts of the campus in Frost when I arrived from out of town.  The gathering of students continued throughout the day on Friday and into the evening and through the night. Students have continued to gather through the weekend. 

Over the course of several days, a significant number of students have spoken eloquently and movingly about their experiences of racism and prejudice on and off campus.  The depth and intensity of their pain and exhaustion are evident.  That pain is real.  Their expressions of loneliness and sense of invisibility are heartrending.  No attempt to minimize or trivialize those feelings will be convincing to those of us who have listened.  It is good that our students have seized this opportunity to speak, rather than further internalizing the isolation and lack of caring they have described.  What we have heard requires a concerted, rigorous, and sustained response.

The organizers of the protests also presented me with a list of demands on Thursday evening.  While expressing support for their goals, I explained that the formulation of those demands assumed more authority and control than a president has or should have.  The forms of distributed authority and shared governance that are integral to our educational institutions require consultation and thoughtful collaboration.  When I met yesterday in my office with a small group of student organizers, I explained that I did not intend to respond to the demands item by item, or to meet each demand as specified, but instead to write a statement that would be responsive to the spirit of what they are trying to achieve—systemic changes that we know we need to make.  I also talked about why apologies of the sort that were demanded would be misleading, if not downright dishonest, suggesting, as they implicitly would, that I or the College could make guarantees about things that are much larger than a single institution or group of people.  Reacting immediately to strict timetables and ultimatums and speaking in the names of other people and for all times would be a failure to take our students seriously.  I was asked to read this statement to students today in Frost Library and did so at noon.

Our students’ activism is part of a national movement of students who are devoted to bringing about much-needed change.  They are exercising a fundamental American right to freedom of speech and protest.  Student protesters at Amherst have been threatened on social media with physical violence.  The College police are, as always, doing their job of keeping the campus safe.  And the administration will ensure that no students, faculty, or staff members are subject to retaliation for taking advantage of their right to protest.

Amherst has committed itself to equal opportunity for the most talented students from all socio-economic circumstances.  That commitment involves more than assembling a diverse population of students. It includes a duty to provide a learning environment that is equally welcoming to all our students and one that is supportive of all students, faculty, and staff.  When staff and faculty of color leave Amherst because they do not have faith that they can thrive here, it is a serious loss for our students and for the campus as a whole, and requires greater attention to the conditions and cultures we need to change or to create. 

The College also has a foundational and inviolable duty to promote free inquiry and expression, and our commitment to them must be unshakeable if we are to remain a college worthy of the name.  The commitments to freedom of inquiry and expression and to inclusivity are not mutually exclusive, in principle, but they can and do come into conflict with one another.  Honoring both is the challenge we have to meet together, as a community.  It is a challenge that all of higher education needs to meet.

Those who have immediately accused students in Frost of threatening freedom of speech or of making speech “the victim” are making hasty judgments.  While those accusations are also legitimate forms of free expression, their timing can seem, ironically, to be aimed at inhibiting the speech of those who have struggled and now succeeded in making their stories known on campus.  The shredding and removal overnight of protesters’ postings, which were reported to me this morning, is, on the other hand, unacceptable behavior according to the student Honor Code. 

Student protesters themselves are engaged in serious conversations about the importance of free speech and have asked themselves questions about uses of language that respect that freedom.  They are also asking themselves and us how the College protects free expression while also upholding our anti-discrimination policies and our statement of Respect for Persons.  Censorship and silencing are not the answer.  I believe our students know that.  It takes time, attention, and serious discussion to sort out and make clear how we protect free speech while also establishing norms within our communities that encourage respect and make us responsible for what we do with our freedom.  That is the discussion we need to have.  It must involve all members of the community—students, faculty, staff, alumni—and it must be the kind of discussion that reflects the traditions of Amherst and a liberal arts education at its best.

We agree with the students that racism and other deeply entrenched forms of prejudice and inequality continue to affect our institutions and our culture as a whole.  And we acknowledge that our efforts to achieve a more inclusive and egalitarian environment are insufficient.  I could not be sadder about the pain that many of our students are feeling or more determined to meet their demand for change. We are committed not only to continuing the efforts we are already making, but also to stepping up the work that needs to be done in order to:

1) build a more diverse staff and faculty, with more aggressive recruitment and effective hiring and retention strategies;

2) support our faculty as they develop innovative ways of teaching our students;

3) ensure that faculty, staff, and students have opportunities and incentives to develop their analysis and understanding of the issues our students are raising;

4) acknowledge and support the work done by those staff and faculty who are primary sources of support for low-income students and students of color;

5) consider what messages our symbols send;

6) provide more opportunities for conversation, collaboration, and shared responsibility in the classroom and in residential life for students from different backgrounds;

7) make sure that students, staff, and faculty find a mix of physical spaces and opportunities for social interaction, some of which will provide comfort and familiarity and others of which will put us in a position that challenges us and guarantees our growth; and

8) as we did in response to disclosures about sexual assault and the College’s handling of it, establish a multi-constituency committee charged with studying issues of race and racial injury and making recommendations to the administration and the Board of Trustees. 

This is a list of some, but not all of what we want to do.

What is going on at Amherst right now is not at odds with our educational mission or an aberration from its course.  It is part of a struggle in the direction of greater awareness, understanding, and freedom from ignorance, prejudice, and narrow ideologies.  On urgent questions ranging from race to gender to war and peace, members of the Amherst community have been deeply engaged for as long as there has been such a community.  The complexity of the issues is challenging, yes, but also energizing at institutions like Amherst—which is certainly flawed, as any human institution is.  Like other colleges and universities, however, Amherst is also openly committed to getting better at what we do, for our students, for the larger society, and for the generations to come. 


Biddy Martin