This morning The New York Times ran a story that featured Amherst College, among other schools. I want to provide context for several parts of the article and share information with you about the generosity of our alumni and the strength of Amherst’s longstanding values.
The Times article reports on the protests that occurred last November and on the board’s decision to stop using Lord Jeffery Amherst as a mascot. These developments raised concerns among some of our alumni and are part of the reason why some have chosen to reduce or forgo giving to the College this year. We know these are not easy decisions, given how loyal and involved Amherst alumni are. In my visits and conversations with alumni I have heard the worries expressed by the alumni who are quoted in the article. Intense discussion of student protests, divestment, policy changes, and other complicated issues is a hallmark of Amherst and this past year’s conversations are no different. They extend a tradition of open exchange—a tradition we value.
As is often the case with campus debates, the specific issues highlighted in the Times article are associated with society-wide matters that campuses across the country have confronted this past year. It is in the nature of higher education institutions that societal challenges will become the focus of debate and sometimes of protest on our campuses. As Cullen Murphy ’74, chair of the Board of Trustees, points out in the recent Amherst magazine, one of Amherst’s great strengths across generations has been the intensity of thought and feeling that current students and alumni bring to issues that face their College—and that can lead some to withhold their support for a period of time. Now as then, the College will remain steadfast in its fundamental commitments to educational opportunity, academic excellence, and the open exchange of ideas, even as it adapts to changes in society and to new opportunities for growth. The principles for which Amherst has always been known and loved have not and will not change.
As I said to the Times reporter, we also urge caution about attributing increases or decreases in annual giving to any one cause. In any given year fluctuations in philanthropic giving are affected by a range of factors—some external to the institution, some internal, and some a combination of the two. The factors that frequently account for fluctuations in fund totals played a role again this year at Amherst, including issues around which there are understandably strong viewpoints. And last year the Annual Fund received two unusually large reunion gifts that we knew would not be repeated this year. Some alumni gave less than they did last year or took the year off. At the same time, some alumni gave more and among some classes participation and giving were up. Still, many peer institutions have also experienced declines in annual giving this year and some of the change doubtless comes from concerns about the responses on our campuses to society-wide debates.
It concerns all of us when support declines and, to an even greater extent, when any number of alumni worry about the College’s commitment to its guiding principles and educational strength. I am encouraged by the increased support of our youngest classes in recent years, which promises to extend a longstanding commitment of alumni to future generations of students. This generosity is not new for Amherst; it was here from the start. The College is built on a nearly 200-year legacy of good faith and extraordinary philanthropy.
I am more convinced than ever that the world needs its Amhersts—institutions that combine the highest admissions standards with intellectual rigor and lively intellectual exchange, that seek and enroll a student body that is representative of the talent across our entire society, and that educate critical and creative thinkers who are capable of collaborating to put ideas to work in the world.
The College is fortunate beyond measure to have some of the most engaged, loyal, and generous alumni in the country—and some of the most outspoken. We are grateful to all alumni, parents, donors, and friends for everything they do to support, represent, and serve Amherst, and we will work hard to engage with those who currently feel disaffected.
For the College’s Annual Fund results in fiscal 2016, please visit https://www.amherst.edu/give/support/annual_fund. As the report shows, annual giving and participation are down this year overall, while they have risen in a number of specific areas and for a number of graduation classes. We appreciate every gift the College receives and the devotion and interest these choices represent.