March 22, 2019

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,

My email inbox and the conversations I have had over the past forty-eight hours are ample proof that we do not need an executive order to ensure freedom of speech or diversity of viewpoints on our campus. Faculty, staff, and students in this community have responded to the common-language document circulated on Wednesday with a wide range of views. Taken as a whole, the responses show the complexity of the issues and a desire to work through them together. Academic institutions do not need edicts to appreciate the value of expression.

To review recent events on campus: Our resource-center staff worked to create a guide that would help members of the community understand the experiences and perspectives of students from underrepresented and under-appreciated groups. It was sent out to the entire campus without appropriate vetting and without approval to be circulated, creating the impression that it was a formal college document calling for shared language about very complicated issues. Our chief diversity and inclusion officer, Norm Jones, and I quickly made it clear that the document is not an official college guide. We removed it from the college website in order to underscore that fact.

I understand and appreciate the intentions of those who created the document. They believed creating it would help us come to terms with the experiences and perspectives of marginalized groups and create an environment in which understanding and a sense of community could grow. These goals are crucial and must continue to be pursued. 

Still, a college, to be a college, must protect freedom of expression and promote differences of perspectives in ways the document, absolute and declarative in tone, did not appear to do. A college must also promote equity, respect, inclusion, and a sense of belonging. Being guided by both sets of principles and ideals is necessary and extremely hard, especially at a time in the nation’s history when political polarization limits our options and degrades our exchanges. That polarization is playing out in media coverage of the common-language document, with some sites cheering our removal of the document from the website as a win for conservatives and a loss for "biased liberals." Some are using the occasion to attack diversity and efforts at inclusion on campus.  Freedom of expression is much too valuable a freedom to be used to shut down such vital work.

I did what I considered to be right on the basis of my understanding of principle and protocol.  But I consider it just as important that we support the students, staff, and faculty who are doing the hard work that too few people are doing—the work of supporting those who have had the least access to cultural capital and financial resources, and for whom the Amherst environment can be most difficult to navigate. Resource centers of the kind we have at Amherst are vital not only to the well-being of students from underserved populations but also to the well-being of the entire community and to the dangerously divided world beyond our campus. There is no simple roadmap for building community in a racially, socioeconomically, and ideologically diverse environment. Most Americans live in racially and, to an even greater extent, economically separate neighborhoods and know little about one another’s lived experiences. The Amhersts of the world are trying to prepare graduates to live in community with one another. The alternative is greater division and greater conflict.

Mistakes will be made, as they are made everywhere—on campuses and off. All we can do is acknowledge missteps and work to do better. I hope everyone on our campus will renew efforts to learn more about one another’s histories, circumstances, and points of view.  There are faculty, staff, and students who are exhibiting these forms of curiosity and generosity of spirit, who take seriously the motivation of those who created the guide, who believe deeply in academic autonomy, academic freedom, and freedom of expression, and who choose the long view over the reactive outrage that seems to have too much of the country in its grip. Let’s be the deliberative, open, collaborative, and caring community Amherst is at its core as we do the work of building a genuinely inclusive academic community.

Sincerely,

Biddy