The events of last November that go by the name Amherst Uprising—centrally, a sit-in at the library by students of color and many others that lasted for several days—were not something that many saw coming. The students involved were as surprised as anyone by the turn the events took. The name itself came late. It has stuck, a shorthand that allows for fast and easy reference—too easy and too fast, probably. It doesn’t describe and it certainly doesn’t explain. The events came and went so quickly that they were hard to assess even if one was close to them, as most people with an interest in Amherst were not. Media accounts were haphazard or superficial, and often inaccurate. Even on campus there is no single point of view about what happened: appreciation, skepticism, understanding, perplexity—you will encounter all of these and more. Many alumni were surprised and taken aback.

This may be a good time, with the perspective that comes from distance, to review what happened during those three or four days last fall. There’s a granular way of looking at the protest—the origins, the actions, the reactions, the outcomes—and in recent months I’ve talked at length about all these things with scores of students, faculty, staff, and alumni. There’s also another way to look at the protest, one that considers the larger impulse behind it: the challenge of fostering community in an environment of diversity—the kind of community where every member thrives; where topics such as race, class, and gender are addressed openly; where strangers do not stay strangers for long. 

November 12 was a typical fall day, clear and dry and slightly warmer than crisp. It was a Thursday. The previous weekend, the women’s volleyball team had beaten Connecticut College in the NESCAC quarterfinals. Men’s cross-country had won the ECAC championship. The Amherst-Williams football game lay just a couple days ahead. Students were attending the usual array of morning classes—“Exploring the Cosmos,” “Developmental Psychology,” “Nazi Germany,” “Macroeconomics,” “Writing the Past.” Information sessions were on the books for anyone seeking internships in the health and tech professions. The military veterans’ creative-writing group was set to meet.

It was also a time when the country was hearing reports from a number of campuses—the University of Missouri, Yale University, Ithaca College, Oberlin College—about episodes involving confrontations over race. Those episodes, driven by issues specific to each campus as well as by a long series of tragic events nationwide, were getting significant attention and had become the subject of heated debate. In places as varied as Fortune and Rolling Stone, Politico and The Federalist, the focus of commentary moved beyond particular incidents to broader reflections on race and higher education. Two essays from around this time that I recall as well worth reading, though markedly different in outlook, are the ones by Hua Hsu in The New Yorker (“The Year of the Imaginary College Student”) and by Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine (“Can We Start Taking Political Correctness Seriously Now?”).

Students at Amherst were in touch with friends at the affected institutions and at many other schools. To talk about some of these episodes, and to show support for protestors elsewhere, three black Amherst women planned a sit-in to be held on the main floor of the Robert Frost Library, inviting other students and members of the community to stop by starting at 1 p.m. The Facebook post that announced the sit-in opened with a picture of a poster bearing the words “Do You Care?” The gathering did not have a name and it was not expected to last for more than an hour. Professors remember getting apologetic emails from students at around lunchtime on Thursday saying they were going to swing by the library briefly on the way to class, and might be a few minutes late.

In fact, many stayed longer than intended and others, from all parts of the student body, arrived throughout the afternoon. Faculty came too, along with deans and other staff members. Word of the gathering continued to spread. By mid-afternoon there were several hundred people in the library—sitting cross-legged in the lobby, squatting on the stairs, perched on the bannisters. What drew them was the fact that, on a campus where academic commitments are heavy, where everyone has too much to do, where expressions of vulnerability are infrequently volunteered, and where communication across social boundaries is sometimes constrained by awkwardness or diffidence, students were talking candidly and often emotionally about their experiences involving race. The event had started with the sharing of news from other campuses, and with the broader subject of race and the college experience. But the emphasis soon shifted.

One person who was present on that initial day recalled, “The first statements were about what was happening at other schools. ‘We want to make sure that people understand. We want to be in solidarity with them.’ And then the direction changed—someone saying, ‘Let’s not pretend that the things that happen here at Amherst College aren’t similar to the things that are happening in other places.’ And then someone else saying, ‘No, no, we don’t have campus police chasing us around.’ But people began talking about how we treat each other, about things that happen in classrooms, things that happen in residence halls, things that happen in lots of other places on campus.”

Students talked about their lives at Amherst but also their lives before and outside of Amherst. They said out loud what they had perhaps never said before, or had said individually to one another or to trusted advisers but not in such a large setting. They talked about the relatively small number of faces like theirs among the ranks of faculty and staff. About feeling excluded at social events. About distinctions of class that are all too visible when seen from one side but may be given little thought by those on the other. About casual remarks and behaviors that cause anger and pain, and whose residue inexorably accumulates. About the widespread ignorance of the path that many students of color travel as they make their way to Amherst. About legacies of personal history that other students can scarcely imagine and could never infer. About the exhaustion sometimes involved in juggling college life and family needs at home. About the utter disorientation that may occur when arriving at an idyllic spot with alien folkways that others take for granted. About having few people to talk with about any of this, and classmates who may be unaware that these issues loom as large as they do.

I won’t relate the particular stories; they are not my stories to tell. You can get a sampling of the substance, as well as reaction to these accounts, in the “Comments” section that follows the relevant news reporting in the Amherst Student’s online archive. Those who were there recalled an atmosphere in the library of close listening and deep emotion. “Communal intimacy” was the phrase one student chose to describe it. Quickly, an audience of predominantly black students and Latino and Latina students grew to include students of every background.

One common theme among students of color was the exhausting experience, as one of them told me, of being both “invisible and hyper-visible.” She went on, “It’s this idea that you have to speak for people. You have to represent your people. And that’s tiring. It’s really tiring to feel like you have to be the voice of someone. It also feels like you have no margin for error.” Another theme was what seemed to many the patchwork nature of the social fabric on campus. Thinking back on the conversations in the library, a young woman who was among the leaders of the sit-in later said, “One of the things that we talked about is the question of forming community. You’re bringing in students from all these different backgrounds, and they don’t know how to interact with each other or talk or create or just love. They’re afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. I have that fear as well. Which further isolates respective groups and calcifies these sorts of cliques. It’s the elephant in the room.”

The convergence in the library would continue through the weekend. There was debate and disagreement. The gathering was always peaceful. People arrived and left according to their schedules and inclinations. Many stayed overnight. Food was brought in by various campus offices and organizations, including the library and the Office of Student Affairs. Frost continued to function as a library at all times—there was never any disruption of operations. The satirical Amherst Muck Rake live-blogged what was happening there in its customary way. (“4:10 p.m.: Prospective students wander into Frost. Put off by large class size.”) Campuswide, classes went on as usual; students took breaks from the library to attend them. On Saturday, delegates from Purple Pride, the cheerleading team for home events—some of whom were involved in the events at Frost—traveled to Williamstown to support the Amherst football team.

Many students think back on those long hours of testimony and conversation in the library as what one of them called the spiritual core of the weekend. In conversation, they come back repeatedly to the eye-opening intensity of the experience, whatever their views about specific issues. It was a moment for the Amherst community alone. No outside media was there to witness or report it.

The aspect that attracted much wider attention occurred toward evening on Thursday, when some of the students, with the support and participation of many of those gathered, created a website, gave the sit-in a name and issued a statement and a set of demands that quickly went viral. This was the statement that called on the president of the College and the chair of the board of trustees to apologize for a number of things, including an “institutional legacy” of racism, colonialism, white supremacy, and xenophobia. It also called on the president of the College to condemn the unofficial mascot, Lord Jeffery Amherst, as racist, and to issue a statement that the College did not tolerate the actions of those who had hung posters that were deemed racially insensitive. There were eight other bullet points. Acceptance of the demands was to be initiated within 48 hours and completed within a week. President Martin, who was in Washington, D.C., when the sit-in began, and had been about to head to Japan on College business, instead returned to campus on Thursday evening to speak with the students in Frost. She listened as the demands were read and she promised a response. She did not accept the demands or the deadlines.

What President Martin and the students did do was remain intensively engaged with one another throughout the next three days. On their own initiative, participants in the sit-in took a hard look at the original statement, began to discuss their own misgivings about it, and undertook the process of drafting something very different. On Sunday at around noon, President Martin spoke again to the students in the library, reading a response that was also sent to the entire Amherst community—students, faculty, staff, and alumni. She acknowledged that students, in their conversations with one another, had spoken “eloquently and movingly about their experiences of racism and prejudice on and off campus,” and she affirmed the importance of their efforts. She declined to consider the original demands item by item. She explained that issuing apologies would be “misleading, if not downright dishonest” and that reacting to ultimatums would represent “a failure to take our students seriously.” Rather, Martin said, she chose to respond to the spirit of what students were trying to achieve. Among other things, she committed the College to building a more diverse staff and faculty—an effort that was already under way and that has since been accelerated. She also announced the creation of a multi-constituency internal task force as well as an external review team to study issues of inclusion and excellence on the Amherst campus. The latter was to report directly to the president and the board of trustees.

By Sunday afternoon, ordinary life at Amherst had begun to reassert itself. Reputation to the contrary, college campuses are rhythmically conservative places. Papers and exams were looming. Thanksgiving break was a week away. But the events of that long weekend have had an enduring afterlife, on campus and beyond. Students would gather again on Monday night in the Powerhouse to resume the discussion. Professors would set aside time in class to discuss the events in Frost; for the same purpose they also met in small groups and together as a faculty. In response to the initial list of demands on the website, and the way in which they were couched, alumni would make known their views in large numbers. And activists among the students would soon have something else to say, and would say it in a manner that deserves more notice than it has received. I’ll come back to all of this in a moment. Some context is important.

In significant ways the story of the protest in Frost begins not last November but many years earlier. During the past two decades, under a succession of presidents and with generous support from alumni, Amherst has made good on a commitment to admit students from a wider variety of backgrounds than ever before. This was in part a reaffirmation of the College’s founding promise to provide an education regardless of need—a promise cited by President John F. Kennedy when he dedicated that very same Frost Library in 1963. It was also an overdue recognition that the student body did not reflect the country’s population. Talent comes from everywhere, and should therefore be drawn from everywhere. This commitment, along with an abiding faith in the liberal arts, is one way to ensure that the College remains an acknowledged leader among its peers—that it maintains the position in relation to the larger society that it has long held. Equity, excellence, and effectiveness should be seen as one.

Since the 1990s, the student body has become far more diverse both in socioeconomic terms (some 24 percent of current students are Pell Grant recipients) and with respect to race and ethnicity. The College has also taken major steps to provide the financial aid that would make an Amherst education possible, including replacing loans with grants. Nearly 60 percent of students receive financial aid—assistance runs well up into the ranks of the middle class—and net tuition is among the lowest in the country among private colleges and universities of our kind.

In terms of racial and ethnic background, the changes are apparent to any visitor. Four decades ago, when I graduated, fewer than 10 percent of the incoming students were African-American, Latino, Asian-American, Native American, or of mixed heritage. Last year the corresponding figure was above 40 percent. (For reference, 44 percent of current American 18-year-olds fall into these categories.) The number of children of alumni coming to Amherst has also grown slightly, and they are themselves an increasingly diverse population—about 25 percent are students of color. Leaving these breakdowns aside, the diversity of backgrounds can be judged from a single marker—the number of different high schools that each entering class of 450 students comes from: nearly 400. Meanwhile, the academic records of those admitted to the College, no matter what metric or group you’re looking at, have become stronger year after year. Taken as a whole, it is a remarkable and positive story, and has been recognized as such—most recently in the award to the College of the $1 million Jack Kent Cooke prize, for its commitment to educational equity.

This evolution also presents challenges, one of the most important being the challenge to a sense of community. Fifty or sixty years ago, when the Amherst student body was all male, almost all white, and drawn from a much narrower band of social strata and secondary schools, the foundations of community were assumed to be more clearly present on orientation day—though even then, not for all students. The arrival of coeducation, in 1975, was the most consequential change in the College since its founding, and it took decades of subsequent effort by women and men to make adjustments in everything from attitudes to resources. That work continues.

More recently, the emphasis on racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity has enriched the mix once again. Here’s one reality that holds true for the overwhelming majority of our students, no matter who they are or where they come from: Amherst College is by far the most diverse community they have ever lived in. Given the nature of society outside, it is likely to be the most diverse community that most will ever live in. One way of summing up all this recent history is to say that the world in all its variety has come into the College. That’s the flip side of our motto—Terras Irradient, “Let them enlighten the world”—and it potentially gives the motto’s aspirations even more leverage and meaning.

Amherst’s ambition is a large one. A natural question to ask is: given the size of the challenge, should the College have waited to take it on until it had thought through every detail? The fact is, there was a great deal of planning, and the evolution started earlier and was more gradual than we may remember. But some kinds of change defy complete anticipation: that is their nature. Only a handful of colleges and universities have embarked down the road we’re on—signposts are few.

I raised this topic not long ago with a recent Amherst graduate who is African-American and is now at Harvard Law School. He told me that he had often discussed the same question with his Amherst classmates. Yes, he said, he understood the appeal of the “make sure we’re completely prepared” school of thought. And he understood the frustrations on campus and beyond as issues arise that need to be addressed. But, he continued, he himself was firmly in the “put a stake in the ground right now” camp. You can’t prepare for everything. And there are certain things you won’t understand until you’ve actually started living with your decision. Besides, he said, some changes are too important to put off—if you keep waiting until you’re “ready,” you’ll never take action at all. This has been particularly true when it comes to issues of race. Better to embark, then tack and adapt as needed. Isn’t that the story, he asked, of virtually every major inflection point in the country’s history? Or even parenthood? One of my trustee colleagues, made aware of this conversation, remembered an observation by John Henry Cardinal Newman: “Nothing would be done at all if one waited until it could be done so well that no one could find fault with it.”

The students in Frost had not come to the library with any thought of staying for several days. They also had not come with any intention of issuing a statement or formulating demands. A decision by some of them to do so emerged from the emotional vector of the moment, as more people arrived and more people spoke. The statement was drafted quickly and on the fly, and in the knowledge that President Martin would soon arrive. It was more notable for rhetoric than for substance. It was provocative—deliberately so—but in a way that gave offense to many, eliciting reactions as predictable as they were understandable. The statement did not advance the cause. Student leaders I’ve spoken with know all this—they in fact came to that conclusion pretty quickly. Call it a mistake, call it a misstep, call it intemperate or inadequate or something else, but the most important thing about any ill-considered move is the move that comes next.

This first statement issued by the students was widely read. Alumni, among others, responded quickly, and by the hundreds. Having received many of these messages, I know their range and tenor. Some people were mystified. Some were saddened. Many were angry, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, their long support for access and assistance, from which students of all backgrounds benefit, seemed to have gone unrecognized and unappreciated. A few responses were hostile in a way I won’t characterize.

Teachable moments, at their best, splay in many directions, just as classroom teaching does. The students at Frost weren’t using the words “teachable moment.” Indeed, part of what drove them was sheer fatigue from the effort of having to explain—having to stand in as representatives of some larger group. But to anyone listening, the students were teaching: giving voice to concerns that others did not see.

Alumni had lessons to offer. As a number of them pointed out, all human institutions have flaws, but some—like this one, they argued—were always striving, in fits and starts, toward something better. Bear in mind the moral backing and continual provision that have made improvements possible. Remember, too, that successful politics is pragmatic—better to seek common ground than to divide. And by the way, be careful about what ideas and statements you think a college should not “tolerate”: free expression is a core value in academe, and a core value of Amherst. Some alumni made the point that the world beyond the school is an imperfect and tough place—better get used to it. This is certainly true, but stamina, resilience, and courage are qualities that many Amherst students, particularly some of the ones speaking in the library, could give lessons in, better than most.

Perhaps the most important thing that students needed to hear came from President Martin, when she declined to accept their initial demands or their timetables. As she explained over the course of the weekend—in various venues, to groups large and small, in person and in writing—demands and timetables are not the hallmarks of a serious conversation. Among those in the library, a serious conversation was in fact continuing. The students began to think more carefully about their aims, their methods, their arguments, their audience. Over that weekend, encouraged by faculty and staff, they set out to understand the intricacies of subjects such as the College budget, the hiring process, the nature of governance. Ultimately the students drafted a revised statement and a set of proposals—not demands.

Those new documents, released in the days after the sit-in ended, were very different from the original document. They did not get a comparable audience—a second-day story rarely does—but they ought to have one. The students acknowledged that the initial demands had been drafted in haste and in heat; that ultimatums were unrealistic; that their proposals required “revision and thoughtfulness”; and that realizing legitimate goals was best achieved by collaboration. They endorsed the principle of free expression; they had never meant to question it, a point to which they gave special emphasis. They also invoked and embraced the ideal of an academic culture where students “think critically, learn from their mistakes, and further develop as leaders who will proudly represent Amherst well beyond graduation.” The list of goals ranged widely. It touched on hiring practices, admissions policies, funding for clubs, the complexities of financial aid, staffing in the Counseling Center, the Honor Code, diversity on athletic teams, the allocation of space, tutoring, and much else. These proposals and others are under review now. As noted, the hiring of more faculty and staff of color was already a priority.

At its regular January meeting, the trustees invited four of the student leaders of the sit-in to speak to the board about their ideas and concerns, their lives and their studies. It was late afternoon and already dark, a seasonal moment that for some reason seems to encourage discussion. The students recounted the history of the events in Frost, from their perspective, and then took up what they hoped to accomplish going forward. And they emphasized one point that, as I’ve thought about it in the months since then, seems particularly acute. Yes, they said, more faculty of color, more staff of color, more sensitivity, more communication—it’s all important. Greater diversity among faculty and staff is in fact urgent. But as one of the students explained, ordinary life at Amherst mainly occurs in “spaces the administration can’t reach.” Much of what needs to be done must be the responsibility of students themselves. It’s not a job you can outsource. And it’s hard. It’s hard in the moment, and even harder to sustain over time in a community where a quarter of the population turns over every year. The students expressed an eagerness to build, peer to peer, on the foundation they had laid.

A few months later, I spoke again to one of the students who had been at this meeting. I asked her about those hard-to-reach spaces. She told me a story. “Senior students,” she said, “have a bar night, where we go to places in town. Last night, while I was waiting in line, a student from another school made a racially insensitive remark. There were several people from Amherst in front of me. Initially I took the student to task—don’t talk to me that way. And a beat went by, and then the Amherst students joined in too. Several months ago I don’t think that would’ve happened. I think that a willingness to step up and take accountability for this community is something that I see a lot more of.”

That’s just an anecdote. It’s not a report card and it’s not an ending. Schools, like students, are works in progress. A liberal arts education is never finished. Neither is the task of building community, at Amherst or anyplace else. Many on campus have said that pointing out the elephant in the room has had the positive effect of easing tensions and encouraging open conversation. I hope that’s true, and believe it to be. But the nature of this elephant is that it will need pointing out again and again. And there will be other elephants, in other rooms.

Amherst has never lacked for fingers to do the pointing. Protests, demonstrations, and public displays of disaffection are nothing new at the College. They are woven into the culture of higher education in America, and have always had a special prominence at Amherst. On a train recently I ran into a former dean of the faculty who reminded me—a slight smile above his sober bow tie—that he had twice been ousted from his office in Converse Hall for a period of several days by protesting students; this was nearly 50 years ago, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. One result was the creation of the Department of Black Studies. As an aside, that department today is one of the most lively and rigorous at the College, with an intensive writing component that draws students from throughout the student body. I looked back recently at issues of the Amherst Student—our newspaper of record—to determine how many notable demonstrations had taken place at the College during the past half century. By my count there has been one, on average, every 18 months. The issues have been all over the map. The war in Vietnam, of course (more than once). Race relations on campus and nationwide (more than once). Sexual harassment (more than once; the first in 1989). Divestment from holdings in South Africa (more than once). Support for fraternities (more than once). Higher wages for College workers. Gay rights. The war in Iraq. Divestment from holdings in fossil fuels. The hiring of more faculty of color. It was hard not to stop and read the accounts of these events—like going through trunks in the attic. One revelation was that some of those who today have misgivings about the behavior of current students were themselves the cause of misgivings in days gone by.

There’s no single reason why these public displays are so deeply a part of the College’s culture. One part of the explanation is surely something that President Charles W. Cole put his finger on when he noted of students at Amherst—in a Janus-like remark that eases nimbly between praise and forbearance—that they had attained their “full intellectual powers” without having “their zest and enthusiasm dulled by experience.” He was referring to people who have just marked their 60th and (yes) 70th reunions. The fact that Amherst is a liberal arts college where students are expected to examine premises critically and to speak up loudly also has something to do with it. So does the fact that, as President John William Ward once put it, education at Amherst is not just a form of mastery—it’s a form of activity, one that presents a choice: either act on your ideals or change your mind. Our Congregationalist beginnings play a role, with their emphasis on collective action and continual attention to social ills. Then, too, there’s the simple fact of small size, which brings both intimacy and friction, and encourages the idea—which happens to be true—that the institution is not faceless and that people are prepared to listen. Put all of the above in a bundle and what you have is the ethos of this place.

The liberal arts are about emphasizing what we share as human beings. The irony, but also the gift, is that one of the things we share is the reality of difference. The challenge at a school such as Amherst, with its small and diverse population, is to create community and derive insight amid a world of difference. In training a spotlight on certain dimensions of the issue, the protest in Frost shed light on all the others, whether the differences involve athletics or field of study or country of origin—or, for that matter, the year you went to college.

There’s a passage from the novelist Marilynne Robinson that President Martin often quotes. It has to do with how the ethos of a college creates a multigenerational community in which people from an older generation come to see unrelated people from a younger one through a familial lens—as “kin” and as “heirs.” I remember once, in the early 1970s, at the end of a holiday break, telling my parents that I was heading back to school—that it was time to “get home.” Masks of indulgence could not hide a fleeting glint of hurt. I had forgotten about that episode until the conversation between trustees and students last January. One of the students, a young woman from the Bronx, said something that has stayed with me. I’ve cited it in many conversations and in letters to alumni and other friends. She had just returned from a fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Her countenance came alive as she recalled her experience there—a visible reflection of the thrill of discovery that a liberal arts education provides. She was also acutely conscious, in the Amherst environment, of the fact that “difference,” of whatever kind, was often not engaged with candidly or with the kind of moral imagination that proceeds from empathy. What she wanted above all, she said, was to be able to think of Amherst as “home.”

Home, in the aspirational sense, is a place that offers not only comfort but also a context for discomfort—emotionally, socially, intellectually. It offers a set of values—values that can be tested, but values nonetheless. It offers a space where you can be whatever you are, knowing that deeper bonds are durable. That sense of “home” is probably never achievable anywhere, but when this young woman used the word she put her finger on something elemental—something that Amherst must remember, because it is as essential to education as it is to life.