Old News: This Week in 1976

In a new series, Managing Features Editor Sonia Chajet Wides ’25 uses a random number generator to look back on this week in Amherst’s history, through the lens of The Student. This week, she peruses the March 4, 1976 issue, with headlines eerily similar to 2023.

Old News: This Week in 1976
Student representation on the Board of Trustees, a town housing shortage, and the disappearance of beloved snack bars are topics that weigh heavy on the minds of Amherst students, past and present. Photo courtesy of the Amherst College Archives.

Two hundred two years is quite a long time. Undoubtedly, we were all aware of the magnitude of Amherst College’s Bicentennial as we watched a majestic fireworks display over the Holyoke Range last year. But beyond the symbolic significance of the number, it can be hard to comprehend that the college, with all its complications, campus, and community, has been puttering along here in the Pioneer Valley every day between 1821 and now. In the hopes of making that history a little more tangible, and helping us understand the space we find ourselves in now, I’m beginning a new Features column: “Old News.”

Each week, I will use a random number generator to select a year between The Student’s founding in 1868 (155 years ago!) and 2010 — this end date is subject to change, but for now, I’d like to focus on the slightly more distant past. Then, I will find the issue from that year that was published closest to this week’s date of publication. I’ll summarize what was going on, according to The Student, and will highlight exceptional articles.

I’d like this column to give us snapshots of what the Amherst community was up to this week, however many years ago. My hope is that it will not only help us understand our college a little bit better, but also prompt us to think about the role of The Student in cataloging history. This format has its limitations — short articles can’t capture all the complexities of a situation, and I’m sure that there was a lot that went on that didn’t end up in The Student. But I hope to explore the role of a student newspaper as a historical record, including our own role today.

If any of these articles prompt thoughts or new perspectives about Amherst and the world then and now, send them in to me at bit.ly/amherstoldnews. Thoughts from anyone — students, staff, alumni, faculty — are welcome; I’d love to feature them. And if one of these topics piques your interest, you can look into it more, too! The Amherst College Archives in Frost’s A-Level are open to everyone.

This week’s year: 1976

My first random year generation proved to be incredibly serendipitous, as the pages of the March 4, 1976, edition of The Student are filled with topics quite similar to ones we are discussing now: student input on the Board of Trustees, the student activities fee being raised, the movement of a beloved snack bar, town housing shortages, and planning for spring break vacations. Plus: results of the presidential primary, International Women’s Day events, and a cigarette ban.

Debates on Student Input: The front page of The Student on March 4, 1976, is emblazoned with the word “NO!” This headline announced that the Committee of Six had voted “no,” 5-1, on the question of allowing students to serve on the Select Committee on the Curriculum. The same week, the Board of Trustees rejected a petition from 630 students calling for student membership on the Board of Trustees and student input on board member elections. The chairman of the board, George Shinn, said he had “no plans” to respond to the petition, saying it “seems to be an effort of The Amherst Student to create issues.” In an editorial, The Student’s editorial board responded that they were “appalled” by this decision and that “The Trustees owe it to students to meaningfully consider, and engage in a debate, the issues raised by the petition.”

Student Activities Fee Raised: The Student Allocations Committee (a precursor to the Budgetary Committee?) announced it would raise the following year’s student activities fee by “at least six dollars” for the first time in four years. (In case you missed it, President Michael Elliott’s email Tuesday announced a $15 increase in the Student Activities Fees for next year’s comprehensive fee.)

Cigarettes banned in (West) Val: A “news in brief” section announced that beginning March 8, 1976, there would be no smoking allowed in Valentine Dining Hall’s West Dining Room. The rationale: Many students are “bothered” by the smoke while eating, but are too “shy” to ask their peers to stop smoking. “The rule will be enforced only by peer pressure,” the article reads. “This is the most recent step taken at Amherst as part of a growing national movement to ban smoking in public places.” Administrators, worried that the decision would cause too much uproar, said they’d be willing to scale back the no-smoking zone to only “one bay of the Annex.”

Amherst Residents Demand Rent Control: The town of Amherst’s People United for Rent Control issued a statement: “Amherst has a severe housing shortage,” they wrote. The group joined in a statewide rally demanding rent control expansion.

International Women’s Day Plans: At 4:30 p.m. in the Red Room, the college held “A Panel Discussion comprised of Women Working and/or Living at Amherst College.” (The Board of Trustees had voted yes on coeducation in 1974, and Amherst’s first nine women graduates were set to receive their bachelor’s degrees that May.) The panel included a Valentine Dining Hall staff member, a librarian, faculty members, a nurse practitioner, a “faculty spouse,” and a student. At 10:00 a.m. at UMass Amherst, students could attend a speech on behalf of Assata Shakur, political prisoner. At 4:30 p.m.: A Women’s March beginning in Northampton.

Massachusetts Presidential Primary: “Amherst Votes Liberal,” reads the headline by Glenn Kesselhaut ’78. Amherst town’s presidential Democratic primary results, divided among 14 candidates, skewed heavily towards Democratic liberals Morris Udall and Fred Harris — more so than the statewide average. Jimmy Carter, who would become the nominee, only got 7 percent of Amherst’s vote; George Wallace, “campaigning on a platform keynoted by anti-busing and anti-abortion stands,” received 4 percent. In the Republican primary, Gerald Ford got 65 percent of Amherst’s vote; Ronald Reagan got 28 percent.

Replacing a Snack Bar: In 2023, Schwemm’s moved to the Science Center; in 1976, Valentine’s snack bar moved to Fayerweather. And this article details that the snack bar’s replacement was not 2023’s merch store, but a game room with a pool table in Val.

Floridian Spring Breaks: Tom Chaves ’79 reports that “college students everywhere are beginning to wonder how to head South for the least possible amount of money” and calls Florida the “Mecca of surfbound students.” Surrounding the article, ads abound for pre-planned and priced trips for students.

Other Events: “Black Reflections,” a “production of Black poetry, narrative, and dance,” ran as a collaboration between Black students at Mount Holyoke and Amherst. Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” was put on by the Amherst College Masquers.

What did these older articles make you think about? Did they give you any insight about Amherst and the world then? Now? Send your thoughts in at bit.ly/amherstoldnews. I’d love to feature reflections.