Our Obligation to Amherst

Let me put this question to you, Amherst: did you come to the College to buy an education or to collectively build one? I believe that this captures much of what is wrong at Amherst, of the disease that is driving the tension between the administration, Board of Trustees and students. This disease, this misunderstanding of what it is that we are fundamentally doing at the college, is pulling us further down year by year. Add to this the perception (and often reality) that student opinion counts for nothing in instituting real change and you get an atmosphere of angst, of buried anger and jaded frustration. This has to stop.

Last semester’s student-Board of Trustees meeting about banning fraternities was indicative of this fundamental disease. First, it was wholly unacceptable for the administration and trustees to think that saying “fraternities are old-fashioned” is a satisfactory justification for not even talking about whether they should be banned at all. I personally don’t know if fraternities are the right answer to our student life woes, but saying that (I believe the trustees and administration would agree) was wrong and a mistake.

Beyond this, however, I remember a student at the meeting relating that because her financial aid package was so comprehensive, she felt it difficult to criticize the Board of Trustees in any way. This rings true for me personally — it would take 60 years of work at my parents’ income for me to ever afford an Amherst education. Even now, I can just imagine my mother saying she never raised me to be a fool. Understandably, the board member said he didn’t want her or any student to feel that way, and that she should always try to come forward with concerns. But, wait a second, at what point did the students on financial aid become beholden to the “oh-so-gracious” Board of Trustees? If we truly believe in the message of this institution, in the educational experience it creates and the good that it does throughout the world, we are not just student and trustee, but members of a community in which there are mutual obligations. If we take this message seriously, Amherst is ours just as much as it is the board’s. From the moment students set foot on this campus, it should be clear to them that they are not just a subset, but the college itself.

I think this subtle difference, this misunderstanding of our relationship with one another, stems from conceptualizing the college in the wrong way. Perhaps this comes from our desperate need to keep up with the top-ranked Williams College. Perhaps this is part of a trend of increasing competitiveness for students among the top colleges and universities. Sadly, I believe Amherst’s senior staff have come to think of the college as a business place, where the “product’s” reputation is paramount.

Obviously, there is a great deal of complexity to sexual assault concerns on this campus, but I think this construing a community with a “product” is definitely evident in Angie Epifano’s story. Much of what she spoke about, of the college’s desperate attempt to preserve its reputation, stinks of an institution that has forgotten that it is the community, not its reputation that is most important. Angie was what mattered in that moment, and without this narrative of community she became just another subset of Amherst, whose interests could be traded off at our convenience. Angie the thing.

This disease lies behind so many of these tensions on campus that I am afraid that we will spend this year battling the symptoms, thinking we’ve made perfect progress, but soon enough another scandal will hit us and Amherst will sink, sink, sink. And why shouldn’t we let it die? After all, I’ve already got a job after graduation, you have your acceptance to graduate school, etc. Who cares? And for the sophomores and juniors, just bear through for another few years and you’ll have that too. But what about the freshmen? And what about, for those of us with siblings, our brothers and sisters in a few years? And how much will our degree be worth next to the Ivy Leagues’ if this school keeps corroding? I want to stress this, because it is absolutely essential — we are Amherst. As the school struggles, so too do we. Something needs to be done, and I think, if we are organized and productively angry, we can do it this year.

First, it’s time to stop talking for talking’s sake. This year is about pressuring the administration and we need to be committed to producing the thorough, workable solutions that they cannot easily refuse. The analysis we produce is fantastic, but it isn’t worth the paper we write it on if we can’t knuckle down and produce real policies.

Second, the AAS needs to cut the popularity contest. Let’s be straight here, can you remember what any candidate promised last election cycle? No? That’s because it wasn’t about the issues. I’m not saying the candidates running didn’t genuinely care, but I am saying popularity is far too big of a factor here. In the last election, I voted for someone mostly because he seemed to really care about Amherst. What particular policies he cared about, you ask? Beats me. We can’t do this now Amherst, not when so much is at stake.

On that note, I’m announcing my candidacy for president of the AAS. Yes, attacking popularity politics is an obvious election tactic. I’ll be the first to admit I probably won’t be popular enough to win the way candidates have in the past, but this election is fundamentally different. We aren’t just fighting for one project’s funding or a few useful policy changes. We are fighting over the message of Amherst. At the end of the day this college could very well be the type of place that sells degrees, and we could all just ignore the Board of Trustees and administration over our four years. That would be the beginning of a final slide, and soon all that makes this community great would be gone, starting with professors who actually care about their research and students. Amherst College: the educational vending machine of Western Massachusetts.

Last, I want to say two things: 1. I know this sounds “flaky” but there simply isn’t enough room in this article to address the specific changes I think need to be made to the AAS and Board of Trustees. Those institutions need to enable and engage students, not just represent them in name. That, as well as my experience addressing these types of issues (albeit on a much smaller scale) will be the subject of my next article. Second, the question must linger why I care so much about all this. Frankly, my future after Amherst seems pretty solid, so I don’t need the presidency for my resume. What I can’t stand is to sit by while a college I adore struggles and struggles to find its way. I remember sitting in class freshman year, thinking to myself, “Why can’t they just keep classes in Val, you know? Because then I’d actually never have to leave!” Thank you, professors — those classes have shaped me deeply, and I can’t imagine giving them up. We’ve all had experiences here we treasure, and I think we owe it to the college to fight, now, to make things right.