Ideals Beyond the Brochure

Last Wednesday, on Nov. 13, The Student published a story about the Valley Community Development Corporation’s plan to build 28 affordable housing units at 132 Northampton Road. The Town of Amherst has identified the project as long overdue, investing $500,000 into the complex in July. Despite the necessity of affordable housing, the venture received resistance from town residents. A letter endorsed by 56 Amherst residents, 15 of whom work at Amherst College, called for a delay of the proposed affordable units.

The opposition by faculty and other community members prompted responses from the student body, especially considering the relatively significant population of low-income students here at the college. A 2017 study from The New York Times estimated that about 4.7 percent of Amherst students come from the bottom 20 percent of income brackets, one of the highest percentages in the NESCAC. Moreover, according to the college’s website, Amherst offered over $56 million in financial aid to about 57 percent of the student body last year.

Thus over the past week, the campus community has engaged in a dialogue about college affiliates’ obligation to represent the values typically attached to the college.

A follow-up letter from the Chair of Classics Rebecca Sinos provided a concrete dispute. She wrote, “The optimism that holds that no residents of the CDC residence would resort to substance abuse seems to me ill-considered and all-together unpersuasive.” She argued that the presence of needles from drug use near/on Amherst’s Pratt Field would pose a threat to the safety of residents. The Amherst Muckrake, a publication dedicated to college-specific satire, offered one interpretation of Sinos’ dissent in a post: “‘Anyone Who Needs Low-Income Housing is a Heroin Addict” Claims Classics Professor at College With Radically Progressive Financial Aid Program.” The post spurred conversations about the hypocrisy of the situation but also about the issue with denouncing someone who shared her opinion as a private citizen.

Just six days before The Student’s article was released, The New York Times wrote a feature on Amherst’s efforts to diversify its athletics program. The piece detailed the college’s efforts to attract underrepresented groups, including the Diversity Open House weekend during which the school provides an all-expenses-paid trip to over 100 prospective underrepresented minority students so they can experience Amherst firsthand. The article quotes President Biddy Martin saying, “What matters more than money to travel is the effort, the awareness and the commitment to diversity.” Coming from the president, this sentiment reflects a general ideal of the college, one sold to prospective families on the college’s website and other admissions materials.

The college’s outward commitment to diversity is thus no secret. However, what is the duty of its employees in upholding these values in their own lives? Contractually and legally, there is none. But morally, there is some. The faculty of the college makes implicit contributions to the culture of the school — which decides whether or not our values become actualized. If professors show up to work expected to make decisions with inclusion in mind but go home and advocate to keep their neighborhood homogenous, then an undeniable tension arises.

This does not mean that the faculty who signed this letter deserve to be demonized for their views. Human beings are inherently prone to contradiction. It is unrealistic to assume that people will practice what they preach 100 percent of the time. However, this human tendency simply explains; it does not excuse. When we find ourselves in an instance of hypocrisy, which is inevitable for anyone, it is necessary to face it.

This Editorial Board understands that the actions of Amherst College affiliates as private citizens should not be under relentless scrutiny — they deserve a work-home divide. But it is necessary to acknowledge that their actions at home do have an impact on the culture of the school. For students from low-income backgrounds, being taught by professors whom they now know might not want them as their neighbor creates a rift that ultimately impacts students’ relationships with their professors. It is only one of many consequences.

So what are the next steps? First, the college faculty who opposed the Valley CDC project engage in the current dialogue with the student body. As much as Amherst College advocates for socioeconomic diversity, it also champions diversity of opinion. No perspective should be demonized without the opportunity for explanation. Thus, these faculty members should explain their positions more openly and work to reconcile them with the values they are expected to subscribe to in their workplace. Secondly, they should try to make amends with students who have been hurt by their actions. It is critical that these professors do not let socioeconomic disparities on campus turn into harmful social divides.

Finally, the Editorial Board recommends that the relevant faculty consider changing their minds. Even though the town’s funding proposal ultimately passed, the pushback makes it harder for Valley CDC to diversify the socioeconomic landscape of Amherst. We can talk about the contradiction of these faculty members’ stance with the Amherst College admissions brochure, but at the end of the day, these 15 votes of resistance pose real obstacles to getting people off the streets and helping them exit the vicious cycle of systemic poverty. Conversation is a good first step, but it doesn’t tangibly do much for people who are not sure where they are going to sleep or eat for dinner. It’s cold enough outside — let’s not give homeless and low-income people the cold shoulder, too.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 12; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 1)