Feburary 24, 2017

This statement appeared on The Chronicle of Higher Education website on February 23, 2017

A recent article in The Chronicle attributed divisions of race, class, gender, and athletics at my institution, Amherst College, to an abstraction that the writer, Jack Stripling, labels the “Amherst chain of being.” To state the truth in less-fanciful terms: What he's talking about are longstanding, societywide problems, hardly ones that are limited to any one institution.

Amherst has sought to confront those problems with persistent efforts to identify and enroll talented students from a wide range of socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds, to the educational benefit of all our students. Our success to date has brought extraordinary opportunities and also challenges. The story alludes to the larger societal context but concentrates on the problems as though they were the result of a dynamic internal and specific to this school—something in the water, say. What Mr. Stripling calls remnants of "the old Amherst" allegedly stand in the way of what would otherwise be a higher state of grace.

Too few institutions of Amherst's type and history have tackled the issues of educational inequality and lack of opportunity that plague the country as a whole. Amherst has done more than most of its peers, but the work of inclusion and a shared sense of belonging is far from over and never will be. The article points out that our athletics teams are less diverse than the student body as a whole. That has a great deal to do with Amherst's efforts and success over the past 10 to 15 years in diversifying its overall student body, outpacing most peers.

While Amherst's teams are in fact more diverse than others in the New England Small College Athletics Conference, they are not yet where we want them to be. In athletics we confront historical patterns beyond our control, including the fact that some sports have been less diverse nationwide than others, with difficulty of access for young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. We have coaches and alumni who are working hard to make some of those sports more inclusive at younger ages.

In addition to barriers that are national in scope, Amherst is part of an academically focused athletics league that has put significant restrictions on how, where, and at what point in a student's high-school career our coaches can recruit. We are operating within those recruiting constraints while also working with other schools to relax them to some degree, specifically in order to increase access to talented student-athletes from less-privileged backgrounds.

Because the issues attributed to Amherst athletics in the article are not problems specific to athletics, or to athletics at Amherst, but are challenges on a much larger scale, we cannot wish away or solve them overnight. As a community, we are asking a number of questions about the role of athletics. Given its elevation nationwide to a position of such prominence and value, periodic review is important. We are already well into the process, having commissioned a report two years ago that is quite open about divisions on campus and the role of athletics, for example. We have made that report available for discussion by the entire Amherst community and the conversation is well underway.

In addressing potential or actual problems that arise in athletics or at the college in general, we do not rely on demographic abstractions, as The Chronicle's article does. For us, it is a matter of seeing our students as individuals whose interactions are inevitably affected by circumstances that influence their relationships with one another and with the school. They have experienced different degrees of societal privilege or disadvantage by the time they arrive at Amherst, and the environment they enter is more culturally familiar and navigable for some than for others.

The college has made important strides in adapting to a new generation and new populations of students, and is better off as an institution as a result. Still, tensions are bound to arise, as they do in society as a whole. Tensions also attract more notice than do more-positive experiences of friendship and understanding across difference, no matter how pervasive.

At Amherst, we want students to acknowledge, understand, and communicate with one another about the differing effects on them of larger social, economic, and cultural forces, but we do not want them to be reduced or to reduce one another to abstract categories and certainly not to stereotypes. To us it was important, for example, not to paint the entire men's cross-country team with one punitive brush for online misconduct unearthed last year, but to recognize that the individual members of that team played very different roles in the initiation of new members—that some were actively involved (not all of whom were white and well-to-do) and others did not take part.

Among the students and alumni whom Mr. Stripling generalizes as representing "old money" or "old Amherst" or a chain of being internal to Amherst itself, we see a long line of talented individuals, each with his or her story of struggles and achievements. Some have faced much greater economic and social barriers than others. A significant number have fought hard to expand rights and extend privilege to those who have been denied those things. Among Amherst alumni now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s are men—some rich, some not—who fought successfully for coeducation and greater socioeconomic and racial diversity at the college and for civil rights on a national scale. That, too, is old Amherst.

Our goal is to enroll talented students from every socioeconomic background and provide them with the highest quality education in the liberal arts. At Amherst, students are learning what it means to deal with differences and inequities in an environment that welcomes "the real world" with its richness and its problems.

We live in a society in urgent need of people who have lived, studied, and worked closely with people they would not have encountered but for the kind of experience that colleges and universities can provide. Those environments are crucial learning and testing grounds for the leaders we need. I have no doubt that among our students there are leaders who are examining, challenging, and changing the story that The Chronicle's article tells far too narrowly.

Biddy Martin