An Open Letter on Social Clubs

Dear President Martin, Chief Student Affairs Officer Coffey, Dean of Students Vasquez and members of the administration:

On Tuesday, Nov. 4, students received an email from the Office of Student Affairs, signed by a coalition of nine students, inviting them to a “Social Club” Town Hall Meeting. At the meeting, while repeatedly citing the alarming statistic that 76 percent of Amherst students self-report loneliness, the committee of students proposed the creation of “selectively inclusive social clubs.” Though presented as merely propositional, committee members, under the auspices of Chief Student Affairs Officer Suzanne Coffey and Dean of Students Alex Vasquez, said that they wished to implement such social clubs as a pilot program during the spring semester. Responding to a question about the haste of implementation, Coffey said that the administration received criticism for acting too slowly and thus felt that it needed to do something. Due to these time restrictions, the core questions of the proposal — what it involves and its method of implementation — were not up for substantial debate. However, as students, we must be critical and consider their answers or lack thereof. It is with profound concern regarding those unanswered questions and a love for Amherst that we object to the current “social clubs” proposal.

The 1984 Board of Trustees resolution on fraternities, recently reaffirmed and strengthened by the current board, bans membership in any “fraternity, sorority or other social club, society, or organization (however denominated).” The language is clear: organizations for the express purpose of “social activity,” including “social clubs,” are banned. On these terms, the current proposed vision of the future is simply a desire to return to the past.

We believe that the problems that arose from the social space created by fraternities, many of which contributed to the board’s decision to reaffirm the 1984 ban on fraternities, will re-emerge with the proposed social clubs. At the very least, the proposal and the meetings and conversations which have ensued have entirely failed to convince us otherwise. Social institutions of this sort, whether called fraternities or social clubs, create and reinforce social hierarchy by means of exclusion. We have heard assurances that the social clubs will constitute a “free market” of social relations, that if we dislike one we can simply refuse to join; we find this argument wanting. Institutions freeze in place our social relationships and thus preclude our encountering new perspectives and forging new relationships across lines of culture, class and ideology. The social clubs may open a space for some to make themselves feel comfortable and develop bonds of trust, but this comfort comes at the expense of their own personal growth. In this way, this proposal makes us smaller, not bigger; it nurtures our current selves rather than opportunities to help us learn and mature.

Furthermore, fraternities, athletics and other institutions of this kind re-generate social forms which have historically been complicit in violence, misogyny and a culture of exclusion at Amherst. The ban on fraternities, driven by a period of several years during which fraternities were accused repeatedly and in various contexts of complicity with sexual assault and the perpetuation of rape culture, is not yet a year old. It is worth reinforcing, then, that the concern many of us shared with regard to fraternities and other similar social forms was never primarily that they were not enjoyable and even valuable for the people included in them. We do not doubt that, within their boundaries, genuine friendships were sometimes formed, genuine bonds of trust and moments of personal growth fostered. We have never doubted that privilege is usually fun for the privileged, that it increases quality of life in various ways, arguments we might make about the ways in which power hurts both the oppressor and the oppressed aside. Neither do we doubt that fraternities selectively diversified and occasionally participated in campus action against, for example, sexual violence. That is, to put it in the politest of terms, missing the point. We instead draw attention to those members of the community — especially women — excluded from and violated by members of these organizations. We emphasize the ways in which formal exclusion facilitates that violence.

The committee’s proposal ultimately calls for the reconstitution of exclusive social clubs. Its proponents claim that it “democratizes” social clubs by no longer merely offering such social institutions to varsity athletes and former fraternity members, but to campus members at large. The clubs seems to be, in light of the ban on fraternities, a means to prop up non-athletes to a social level equal to that of athletes (and to relieve the anxiety that the so-called athlete-non-athlete divide seems to consistently generate in our community, which deserves its own conversation). However, we ask you to step back and notice the familiarity of the language employed in the proposal and by representatives at the meetings, the ways in which it compulsively repeats the form of the fraternity by drawing on the desire for tradition to allow for the possibility of initiation criteria and gender-based exclusion.

Citing the 76 percent loneliness statistic, supporters claim that these social clubs will create another form of “community.” We reject the thought that any solution to the problems of Amherst students’ communities can be decided by any group less than the entire community of students in creative deliberation. We cannot accept the logic that, because we need a solution, any solution is better than no solution; such thinking is anathema to the kind of critical thought that we desperately need at this moment in Amherst’s history. We reject the idea being played out in this proposal that students are the objects, not the subjects, of any consideration of community at Amherst. We reject the thought that administrators know what is best for us, and hence should play this heavy-handed a role in deciding our future. Fiat by the administration or a select group of students can never succeed on its own terms, and neither is in keeping with Amherst’s spirit of learning and being.

We reject a vision for the future that is, in the final analysis, a yearning for an unjust past. This letter, written in the spirit of remembrance, constitutes a refusal to forget. We hope that our refusal cuts through the disorientation engendered by the four-year turnover specific to the institution of the university.

No committee of students, no matter how diverse, can speak for the entire student body. We recognize this in our own selves as well. Our advantage is in understanding our own inadequacy to coordinate, much less create, a solution to this problem on our own. The spirit of Amherst can only be realized in its students as we constitute a deliberative public, a community. You cannot, as much as you would like to, prod us into action. Let us speak in our own voices.

For this reason, we will make no recommendations as a group. We instead call for an immediate end to the pilot program. This is a pre-condition for the environment — in conversation at Valentine, in essays published in The Student and AC Voice, at the protests against Board of Trustees meetings — in which a true public discussion among all of us can proceed.

Ryan Arnold ’15
Lizzy Austad ’16
Tess Banta ’16
Jane Berrill ’16
Timothy Boateng ’14E
Dana Bolger ’14E
Rebecca Boorstein ’15
Grace Brotsker ’16
Kari-Elle Brown ’15
Catherine Bryars ’12
Ethan Corey ’15
Alex Diones ’14
Sonum Dixit ’13
Kyle Ferendo ’17E
Edward J. Kim ’15
Jeong Yeop (Terence) Kim ’14
Andrew Lindsay ’16
Yasmina Martin ’14
Laura Merchant ’15
Joe Park ’15
Kinjal Patel ’13
Lucas Rénique-Poole ’15
Samuel Rosenblum ’16
Siraj Sindhu ’17
Sunil Suckoo ’16
Sam Tang ’15
Julia Vrtilek ’15