A Community-Wide Day of Learning

Friday, November 10, 2023

12:45-3:45 PM

Eighmy Powerhouse

Join us for a community-wide half-day of learning about the past, present, and future of affirmative action, and the implications of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision against race-conscious practices for higher education and beyond. 

Registration for this event is encouraged. Light refreshments will be provided.

12:45-1:40 p.m. — History  

A conversation with Paul Smith ’76, P’09, vice president for Litigation and Strategy at the Campaign Legal Center, and Pat Fitzgerald ’82, H’07 about the history, debates around, and impact of affirmative action and race-conscious admissions, and how affirmative action has impacted considerations of sex, gender, and other identities. The conversation will be moderated by Sheree Ohen, chief equity and inclusion officer. An audience Q&A will follow the panel discussion.

Paul Smith ’76, P’09 

Paul Smith is a Professor from Practice at Georgetown Law School and Vice President for Litigation and Strategy at the Campaign Legal Center, which seeks to protect voting rights, to defend reasonable campaign finance regulation, and to enforce government ethics rules. Before taking these positions in 2017, he practiced law at the firm of Jenner & Block LLP, where he became one of the most prominent Supreme Court advocates of his generation. He has handled many cases involving civil rights and civil liberties, notably in the areas of free speech, voting rights and gay rights. He has argued 21 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including the landmark gay-rights case Lawrence v. Texas and Brown v. EMA, which established the First Amendment rights of video game producers. Paul was elected to the Amherst College Board of Trustees in 2016.

Pat Fitzgerald ’82, H’07 

Patrick Fitzgerald, a former member of the Board of Trustees, is a partner in the Chicago office of the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and Affiliates.

As the United States attorney for the Northern District of Illinois from 2001 to 2012, Fitzgerald led numerous high-profile investigations and prosecutions, including the convictions on corruption charges of two successive governors of Illinois—George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich. As a special counsel, Fitzgerald was selected to lead the investigation of leaks in the Valerie Plame matter, and he tried the case of United States v. I. Lewis [“Scooter”] Libby. From 1996 to 2001, Fitzgerald was national security coordinator for the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in which capacity he served on a team of prosecutors investigating Osama bin Laden and was chief counsel in prosecutions related to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. As assistant U.S. attorney in New York City from 1988 to 1996, he prosecuted Mafia figure John Gambino, as well as Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and 11 others charged in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Sheree M. Ohen

Sheree M. Ohen joined Amherst in June 2023. As chief equity and inclusion officer, she works closely with President Elliott, faculty, staff and students to direct and shape priorities, policies and programming utilizing best practices around all aspects of inclusion, equity and community to advance the mission of the College. Ohen will lead a sustained effort supporting a vibrant campus culture in which everyone has the opportunity to thrive through a true sense of belonging. This includes promoting and incorporating equity, inclusion and accessibility across campus; supporting education and compliance around Title IX in particular and civil rights more generally; and assessing and evaluating initiatives already in place at the College. In addition, Ohen leads the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and engages with the Board of Trustees and alumni.

In her previous position as an associate dean at Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Ohen co-founded, managed and oversaw the Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging. Before that, she served as chief officer of diversity and inclusion at Clark University; campus diversity officer for staff and students and diversity and inclusion program manager at the University of California, San Francisco; and an attorney specializing in criminal and employment law and civil rights litigation. She received a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, and a J.D. from Golden Gate University School of Law.

1:45-2:45 p.m. — Practice  

A conversation with Michael A. Elliott, president of Amherst College, and Matthew McGann, dean of admission and financial aid, about the College’s approach to admissions, staff and faculty hiring, athletics, and student life. The conversation will be moderated by Rhonda Cobham-Sander, the Emily C. Jordan Folger professor of Black Studies and English. An audience Q&A to follow the panel discussion.

President Michael A. Elliott ’92

Michael A. Elliott ’92 is the 20th president of Amherst College. A distinguished scholar of American literature and culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries, he has published widely on the history of fiction in the United States, Native American literature, and practices of public history. He holds a B.A. from Amherst College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in English and comparative literature from Columbia University.

Since returning to Amherst as president, he is prioritizing three things: reinvigorating the College’s foundational commitment to preparing students for a lifetime of contributing to the greater good; supporting student wellbeing and an inclusionary environment where all can feel a sense of belonging; and ensuring that Amherst is a great place to work.

Prior to being appointed to the presidency of Amherst in 2022, Elliott was a faculty member and administrator at Emory University for 24 years, including serving as dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences, the university’s core undergraduate division and home of the liberal arts. In this role, Elliott spearheaded critical work to establish race and inequality as a signature research and teaching strength of Emory, made significant advances in enhancing faculty diversity, increased support for undergraduate research, and garnered substantial philanthropic support for need-based financial aid. 

Matt McGann

Matthew L. McGann has served as dean of admission and financial aid since joining the College in 2018. Matt is responsible for overseeing all aspects of access and affordability at the College, including recruitment and admission for first-year and transfer students, and financial aid and student employment for all students.

Rhonda Cobham-Sander

Rhonda Cobham-Sander, the Emily C. Jordan Folger professor of Black Studies and English, teaches Caribbean and African literature. Her courses on “Childhood in Caribbean and African Literature,” “Issues of Gender in African Literature,” “Anglophone Caribbean Poetry” and “The Creole Imagination” reflect her interest in literary history and issues of gender. “I’m interested in how people generate new cultural forms in difficult spaces,” she says. Her most recent courses, “Digital Africas” and “Panama Silver, Asian Gold,” integrate Digital Humanities approaches into the study of Caribbean and African literature. She also teaches two of the three core courses in Black Studies” – “Introduction to Black Studies” and “Research Methods,” – as well as the introductory English courses, “Representing Illness” and “Reading, Writing, and Teaching.”

Cobham-Sander’s recent book,“I and I”: Epitaphs for the Self in the Work of V.S. Naipaul, Kamau Brathwaite, and Derek Walcott, looks at how these three famous Caribbean writers attempt to consolidate their literary legacies in their later works. She is focused now on two new projects: “Amital Queer: Aunts, Aunty Men and other Anansis, explores how Caribbean writers use the idea of the cross-gendered aunt (“tantie”) of oral performance to both subvert and support class and gender boundaries. Corporeal States: Body, Nation, Text, argues that using gendered metaphors to shore up the identity of the nation state in African literature may have the unintended consequence of destabilizing our assumptions about what constitutes a body and what defines a text.

“I keep trying to pretend I’m a professor who just wants to be left alone to read poetry,” Cobham-Sander says, but her commitment to the Amherst community and her interest in the study of race and gender has also drawn her into various administrative adventures, including serving as Special Assistant to the President for Diversity and Inclusion from 2004 to 2008. “One of the most exciting developments I’ve observed in my three decades at Amherst,” she says, “has been how the growing diversity of the student body has changed campus culture.”

2:50-3:45 p.m. — People   

A conversation on diversity through the generations with alums Nadia Biassou ’88, Chris Gillyard ’08, and Joon Kim ’18, and current students Jordan Trice ’24, Jacquelyn Cabarrubia ’25, and Erik Arciniega ’25 reflecting on what Amherst College was like in previous eras and the similarities and differences today. This is an opportunity to learn from the past to guide the future. An audience Q&A will follow the panel discussion.

Nadia Biassou ’88

Renowned diagnostic neuroradiologist Nadia Biassou is currently a Senior Research Physician in the Radiology and Imaging Sciences Department at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md. In addition to her NIH responsibilities, Biassou has taught and mentored numerous physicians-in-training from George Washington University Hospital, where she serves as Clinical Professor of Radiology, and Georgetown University Hospital, where she is a member of the core faculty in the division of neuroradiology. She also lectures around the world.

In addition to her work as a physician, Biassou is a trained linguist and obtained her master’s and doctorate in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania. She specialized in the relationship between brain and language and studied under the tutelage of renowned neuroscientists Professors Jean-Luc Nespoulous of the University of Toulouse (France); Loraine Obler of the Boston University School of Medicine; and Murray Grossman and Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania. Biassou went on to study medicine at the University of Chicago-Pritzker School of Medicine, graduating with distinction in internal medicine and neurology. She is one of less than a handful of cognitive neuroscientists worldwide to have achieved training in both medicine and linguistics. She is the only African American female in the nation with combined formalized training in medicine, biomedical imaging and linguistics and cognitive science. Biassou collaborates in numerous cutting-edge interdisciplinary research with other federal agencies, universities and industries. She was appointed as a Senior Fellow to the Linguistics Data Consortium at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania in 2018.

Chris Gillyard ’08

Christopher Gillyard graduated from Amherst in 2008, a double-major in Asian Languages & Civilizations and Theater & Dance. He was captain of the football team and the first player to major in either of those disciplines. Chris is currently a senior account development manager at NEC National Security Systems. He has been volunteering for Amherst since shortly after graduation, and now serves as president of the Amherst Society for Black Alumni as well as telecast coordinator for the Amherst Association of Washington, DC.

Joon Kim ’18

Joon Kim works in sales & corporate partnerships at LinkedIn and is concurrently completing a master’s degree in Computer Science at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since graduation, where he completed a two-year commitment as a Teach for America corps member. Joon moderated the Amherst Asian Alumni Network senior thesis symposium in 2020 and 2022 and co-hosted the Amherst Asian Alumni Reception at Amherst Reunion 2023. Joon graduated from Amherst in 2018, studied Mathematics & History, and wrote a senior thesis under Trent Maxey entitled “Chasing Soju: A History.”

Erik Arciniega ’25

Erik Arciniega is a Junior majoring in Asian Languages in Civilizations with a particular focus in Japan. Transferring into Amherst College a year ago, he now serves as a Senator on the Association of Amherst Students, Co-President of the Transfer Student Association and Co-Chair of La Causa, Amherst College’s Latino affinity group. In his  free time, he enjoys singing as a member of DQ, the College’s first a cappella group.