November 20, 2015
Dear Amherst Students, Faculty, Staff, Alumni and Families,
I am writing today to provide an update and share some of my observations about this past week on campus. I want to thank students, staff, and faculty for their contributions to an extraordinary set of events in the life of the College. I am confident that our students' call for change will have positive and lasting benefits, helping us advance the difficult, but crucial and rewarding, work of making Amherst a more fully inclusive community. I also thank the many alumni and parents who have contacted me to share their responses to the statement I sent this past Sunday. As many of you know, our students are now busy completing work that needs to be done before break, and either preparing to leave Amherst for a week or eagerly awaiting the benefits of a break on campus.
I want to offer you a link to the statement released Wednesday by students involved in Amherst Uprising. It shows students' commitment to significant and lasting change, while also explaining that they are adapting their approach in order to achieve their goals. I remain fully committed to working with them.
Members of the Amherst community are taking advantage of a rare opportunity for open, honest, community-wide discussion. The events of the past week show the need for change on our campuses and in the country as a whole. They also make it clear that change takes time, attention, open disagreement, cooperation, and a willingness to expose human vulnerabilities and accept human imperfections.
Students started sharing their histories and experiences at Amherst soon after the sit-in began last week. That sharing underscored the importance of face-to-face interactions, presence, witnessing, and community. As they called our attention to racism and prejudice, our students also focused us on the importance of taking time to listen and establish sustained conversations. Clearly, there are many people who go about their days silently wishing for opportunities to interact with one another, to exchange ideas, to bring their intellectual abilities to bear on their lives, and to hear not only the voices of others, but also their own inner voices.
Since Sunday, several specific forums have been held to discuss the events of the past week and the larger questions they raise. Monday night, the faculty held a special meeting, organized and led by faculty in Cole Assembly Hall--the Red Room--that showed how much the Amherst faculty cares about the education and welfare of our students. The Red Room was packed.
The student government (Association of Amherst Students, or AAS) moved its regular Monday-evening meeting from Converse Hall to the Powerhouse and arranged to have members of the administration attend. We were there to provide information about existing programs and initiatives and to answer students' questions. The exchanges extended well past midnight.
On Tuesday night there was a long-scheduled meeting in Johnson Chapel, organized by the Dean of the Faculty, Catherine Epstein. Its purpose was to give students an opportunity to speak with faculty about academic goals and pressures. They asked questions about specific policies that seemed outdated. Finding the time to immerse themselves in their studies and to integrate what they are learning at Amherst was a consistent theme, as were students' intellectual curiosity, appreciation of high academic standards, and respect for their faculty. The Curriculum Committee that was established as part of the Strategic Plan has already begun incorporating what they heard Tuesday night into their deliberations.
Each of these meetings points to ideas for changes and ways forward, while also reinforcing what makes Amherst the great College that it is.
Over the past few days I offered additional office hours for students who might want to discuss the events of the week, from any point of view. Among those who visited, either on their own or in groups, were students who are centrally involved in Amherst Uprising; students who are sympathetic, but less involved; students who have not participated or attended events, but want to understand; and students who are critical of various aspects of the protests. There was not one meeting that did not teach me something, not one that did not deepen my respect for our students. I had the great good fortune of experiencing our students in the process of thinking.
The challenge now is to respond by working more effectively to change what needs changing while also ensuring that many voices are heard and that we stay true to bedrock principles of free expression and open inquiry. I know that some have remained silent over the course of the past week. Sometimes the silence required for thinking is appropriate. Sometimes it is caused by fear of criticism. Over time more perspectives and potential contributions to our efforts will become evident.
Let me say something about the matter of the mascot. At the end of their special meeting on Monday, faculty decided to take an unofficial straw poll on the question of whether the College should keep or drop its use of the Lord Jeff as the unofficial mascot of the College. As some of you have read in The New York Times and other media outlets, every member of the faculty who attended the meeting voted to stop using the current mascot. Because this was not an official meeting of the faculty, the vote is also unofficial. This was not simply a response to student protests. The faculty at Amherst has been discussing the mascot among themselves for a long time.
This week the student government conducted a poll of students. The results were released this morning. 1,606 students, or 89% of the student body, took part. In response to the question, "Do you think Lord Jeffery Amherst should be removed as our unofficial mascot?," 83% voted yes, 17% voted no.
The faculty and student votes come at a time when we have actively solicited the views of alumni. As part of the representative alumni survey that was done earlier this year, there was a question posed about the mascot. Responses to it broke down in the following way. One third felt that it should be kept; one third felt that it should go; and one third indicated that it did not much matter to them. I asked the Alumni Executive Committee just a few weeks ago to solicit additional input by involving more alumni and they have done that by arranging for an alumni forum on the College website. Recent events and media stories seem to have outstripped the process we had in mind in advance of a board discussion. For that I am sorry. On campus people have tried to deal with the divisiveness of the mascot as best they can. The Board of Trustees is going to take up the mascot issue at its January meeting. In the meantime, recent events have led the Alumni Executive Committee to continue seeking alumni views by adding a poll, which they will share via e-News with alumni later today.
I realize that the impressions that can be gathered from the outside will seem very different at times from what many have experienced on the campus. I also realize that everyone's experience of campus events is not the same; indeed, they are inevitably different. My own sense is that we are engaged in an important discussion and are learning from each other as we go. In settings that promote critical inquiry and the exchange of ideas, community cannot be defined in terms of unanimity. True intellectual community is the coming together of people from different backgrounds with different points of view, who share the love of learning and reasoned debate; who are committed not only to individual success, but the good of the whole; and who can allow themselves and others to be less than perfect. In a country that stands for freedom and equality of opportunity, we all have a responsibility to do what we can to combat systemic forms of discrimination and bias.
I feel privileged to serve at a College filled with such incredibly smart, earnest, and engaged students and with faculty and staff who care deeply about their development and success.
I will send future updates as appropriate. For now I want to wish everyone an enjoyable Thanksgiving break.