Keeping in Touch With the Town (Without Touching)

The notion of the Amherst College bubble is not new. But this semester, amid a global pandemic, it has taken on an entirely new meaning. In past years, the Amherst bubble referenced (sometimes derisively) the idea that the Amherst College community insulates itself from the towns that surrounded it. Now, the Amherst bubble is no longer a figure of speech but rather a public health mandate. 

This new understanding of the Amherst bubble requires us to reexamine our relationship with the Town of Amherst and other surrounding areas. Namely, how do we navigate the safety and health obligations of physical distance from the town while continuing to engage economically and politically?

The last time town-gown relations were truly the center of campus conversation was after the publication of The Student’s article regarding pushback on an affordable housing project in the Town of Amherst. 

Since then, of course, the world has changed dramatically. But as a result, concerns about the college’s relationship with its neighbors have fallen out of the mainstream campus dialogue.

There is no question that the college community’s bandwidth is stretched pretty thin in the current moment. Students, faculty, staff and administrators alike are trying to figure out how to transition to a fundamentally different college experience. It might seem out of place to bring town-gown relations back into campus discussion, to add another thing to the college’s to-do list. 

But the view that our relationship with the town is a separate conversation from our other concerns speaks to the Amherst College mentality that the town is a separate world — which is simply not the case. 

The college administration and community at large must shift our thinking toward town-gown relations. It should not just be a temporary hot button issue — it must become an ongoing priority in crafting better institutional policy and fostering a more civic-minded school population. 

The college has already made some effort towards this — some professors have made it a point to promote Amherst Books as the place to purchase course materials, the Association of Amherst Students manages a student-town advisory board — but there is much more that could be done. 

One way Amherst can both enrich the town and the experiences of its student body is by making good on its goal of more culinary cooperation between the college and nearby restaurants. Getting meals catered by these businesses would help them (and the local economy) stay afloat while student customers are away. 

The decreased number of college students in the town this semester reduces one of the primary markets for Amherst small businesses. Though this might be a necessary evil in this moment, the college must strive to boost its economic support of the town in order to compensate for what has been lost. This would not be an act of charity but in fact, an investment in the college’s self-interest. The town-gown connection necessarily makes it so that a thriving town means a thriving college — and a thriving community at large. 

A policy that could keep the college consistently involved in town development would be a simple community service requirement for Amherst students. This has already been implemented successfully at several other institutions. 

For example, the Tulane Public Service graduation requirement, implemented in 2006 following Hurricane Katrina, stipulates that students must take one service-learning course before the end of their fifth semester and participate in one other public service project before graduation. As a result, Tulane has an average of 1,000 students a semester out helping the community. Fostering this type of sentiment in an institution also extends to other unforeseen places, as Tulane’s Law School later launched the first Pro Bono requirement in the country and faculty and staff participate in an annual day of service known as Wave of Green.

Closer to home, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass Amherst) is the major party involved in making the Town of Amherst a better place, admittedly in part because of its sheer size. UMass holds an annual day of service known as Mass Impact Day in which volunteers from over 20 on-campus organizations go out into the town to work with various organization and community partners, an event which adds hundreds of volunteers to the community.

Of course, compared to schools like UMass and Tulane, we are pulling from a significantly smaller pool of potential town volunteers. However, if anything is true about the Amherst College campus, it is that passionate students can generate change — or at the very least, active conversations about change.

So, it would not be out of reach to implement a similar day of community service from Amherst, even if it were only a day. It would help improve our relations with the town and change our reputation as the stand-offish neighbor within our local community and the Five College Consortium. But, to do so requires students to make this a priority.

While implementing a community service requirement might tamper with the open curriculum, other methods of incentivizing community involvement, such as offering more classes oriented toward our immediate neighbors in the towns of Amherst, Hadley, Holyoke and even Springfield would give students an easier way to familiarize themselves with the needs of the areas surrounding us. 

Another area students could get involved is in local government, particularly in Amherst itself. Though having a more geographically sprawled campus this semester may be seen as an obstacle to getting involved in local government, it is becoming even easier. Town meetings are now all virtual and easier than ever to attend, an opportunity that should be taken by the student body to increase our own awareness of the local town government and its constituents.

And of course, as the Editorial Board of The Student, we must examine our own role in perpetuating Amherst College insularity. In choosing to limit our coverage zone to the Amherst College community, we have unintentionally accepted the divide between college and town and neglected our responsibility to cover important events that will impact the Amherst community off campus. We recognize that the “community” we’ve pledged to serve spans well beyond the campus boundaries, and we commit to increasing our news coverage to all events that impact the lives of the student body, including those in town or otherwise off campus. As a part of this pledge, we also commit ourselves to open submissions to the Opinion section to community voices from outside of the college. 

Policies that connect Amherst College and the Town of Amherst were relevant before Covid-19 and will be important far after. It shouldn’t take an affordable housing controversy or a global pandemic in order for our community to start interrogating our role in town issues. We must start now and continue throughout the future.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 8; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 5)