Letter to the Editor: Reframing the Campus Safety Conversation

As tempers flare on campus and the rhetoric heats up, it’s easy to forget how far our community already has come in the debate about campus policing and the many constructive ideas that students and staff have floated. Faculty members have a responsibility now to help these deliberations move forward in a thoughtful, inclusive manner, and I hope we will rise to that challenge. 

We are indebted to the Black Student Union and their allies within the Association of Amherst Students for demanding that the college pay attention to the extent of the distress many students experience with respect to campus policing. They have asked that we take seriously the charge that current campus safety policies reproduce problematic practices in our wider society. That is the kind of tenacity and idealism in action that students, historically, have brought to many moments of political reckoning. It takes real courage but can inflict a serious psychological toll on students who speak out as well as those who feel conflicted about specific demands. 

President Biddy Martin has demonstrated sustained willingness to engage in dialogue with students on the subject of campus safety. Since the beginning of the fall semester, she has met regularly with the student anti-racism advisory group and has listened to what they have to say about how racial inequities play out on campus. Additionally, she has launched a number of initiatives in response to student ideas for bringing about change. But ultimately, students do not make college policy and Martin alone is not the college or the administration. An effective president relies on the support of both staff and faculty to help her and the trustees make informed policy changes they can defend legally and ethically, when the predictable external backlash against those changes erupts. 

In response to an administration request, Chief of Police and Director of Public Safety John Carter has produced his best estimate of changes his office could make within the parameters of the present system. In order to rethink the entire public safety process from the ground up, we will need to expand our listening and data-gathering processes beyond his initial efforts; to create opportunities for respectful deliberation with community members who hold differing views on the role of campus policing; to review the data that supports or contradicts the various claims made about campus safety; and to assess with care the potential benefits and unintended consequences of a range of possible alternatives. The president’s decision to hire an external consulting firm to help guide this effort is a constructive first step in this broader consultative process. 

In teach-ins and in some classes, individual faculty members have helped educate the community about the racial history of policing in America. Faculty also have a collective responsibility for faculty governance, which tasks professors to think and act in the interest of the entire community. In moments of crisis, especially, it’s important for faculty to bring the full extent of our training as critical thinkers to that task. Critical thinking is equal parts analysis, empathy and imagination. As a literary scholar, I get to dissect the historical, social and rhetorical components that make a text legible in a certain time and place. I use that knowledge to imagine myself into lives and circumstances that sometimes affirm but, in many instances, challenge my beliefs or even dismiss my experience . Eventually, that process moves me beyond the limits of both the text and my experience. It generates fresh insights, allowing me to imagine alternative ways of being in the world. I use similar strategies when I contribute to faculty governance.

As students turn their focus now to finishing the academic work of yet another exhausting pandemic semester, others need to step up to lead our community through this time of both distress and civic possibility. The students have laid down the charge. The administration has listened and is open to change. The Amherst College Police Department has provided what professional insight it can, within the limits of its current constitution. Staff in many other departments are working tirelessly behind the scenes to support students, staff and faculty as they grapple with these difficult issues. 

It’s up to the faculty now, in its collective role, without rancor, recrimination or ultimatums, to help the college imagine what alternative community safety practices could look like in the future. 

Many journalists, academics and public intellectuals have written thoughtfully about the distinction between abolition and reform and about the myriad positions between those two poles. Many change agents at the local and national level are experimenting with nuanced responses to the issue of community policing, tailoring their efforts to the specific needs of their colleges, towns and cities. The linked articles and reports from the Christian Science Monitor, Slate, The Town of Amherst and Yale Law School provide examples of the range of responses and approaches available to us. Our community has procedures in place that can help us make radical and meaningful change through informed deliberation that is collegial, inclusive, transparent and restorative. Let’s use them! 

Rhonda Cobham-Sander
Emily C. Jordan Folger Professor of English and Black Studies