March 20, 2019
Creating a sense of belonging on a campus is difficult and complicated work. It is also vital to student success and the success of the entire community. I know of no educational institution that would claim to have succeeded completely in the effort. Missteps are inevitable.
The “Common Language Document” produced by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and circulated yesterday at Amherst takes a very problematic approach. The document defines terms in an effort to assist people in talking with one another about their identities and positions. The motivation of those who generated the definitions is understandable. They were responding to questions from people who wanted to know better how historically underrepresented groups and individuals think about their identities and positions.
The job of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is to support students in their academic aspirations by helping create a welcoming environment, one in which members of the community understand and respect one another’s backgrounds and perspectives. But when the approach assumes campus-wide agreement about the meaning of terms and about social, economic, and political matters, it runs counter to the core academic values of freedom of thought and expression. I was not aware that the document was being produced and I did not approve its circulation. It cuts against our efforts to foster open exchange and independent thinking. It is not a formal college document and will not be used as one.
Awareness and understanding of backgrounds and experiences other than one’s own are vital. Using language that conveys respect for those differences is part of building community. But prescribing a particular language and point of view is anathema.