President and Chair of the Board of Trustees Respond to Alumni Divestment Letter

The President and Chair of the Board of Trustees respond to calls for divestment and reaffirm Amherst College’s commitment to open dialogue and intellectual responsibility.

Dear Concerned Alumni,

Thank you for your letter and the opportunity to respond.

Amherst College is committed to being an institution where there can be robust discussion about difficult issues, and we appreciate the many ways that alumni meaningfully contribute to this dialogue. We welcome hearing from you on any issue facing the college. In this specific instance, as in the nation and the world more generally, perspectives about the conflict in the Middle East vary widely among our students, faculty, staff, and alumni. There is significant disagreement about what actions the college can or should take in response to the horrific loss of Palestinian civilian life and the profound humanitarian toll that has resulted from Israel’s campaign in Gaza, which was launched in response to Hamas’ brutal attacks against Israeli civilians on Oct. 7.

Because we are an institution dedicated to education and to open inquiry, we strongly believe that actions taken or statements made by the leadership of the college should support campus dialogue rather than limit it. That principle has inspired our community’s collective response to what is transpiring in Gaza and Israel: gatherings of community members of all faiths and backgrounds, opportunities to hear from speakers from across the ideological spectrum, and countless discussions both inside the classroom and out. We believe that this constructive approach has yielded a breadth of dialogue that is fitting for the Amherst community, which feels especially important in the face of the strongly held views of many of our community members. In addition, the Trustees recently reviewed and affirmed the faculty statement on expressive and academic freedom as a way of signaling our commitment to supporting such dialogue.

With all of this in mind, we want to respond specifically to several of the points that you raised.

First, it is absolutely untrue that any student has been forced to leave campus or to be otherwise disciplined for expressing political views. Amherst College has not, does not, and will not discipline students for their political viewpoints.

We also strongly reject your claim of censorship. The college has been diligent and robust in supporting free expression about Israel’s military operation in Gaza, as we would with any important issue. We have welcomed to campus speakers whose appearances have been canceled or delayed at other colleges and universities, and their talks here have been well-attended by students of differing views. Free expression is a vital part of the educational experience, and there are innumerable opportunities for all of us to share our perspectives, from conversations in the classroom and at Val to organized events and discussions, editorials in The Amherst Student, peaceful demonstrations, and letters like the one you sent us.

Campus expression, however, is subject to long-standing policies and expectations designed to keep our students, faculty, and staff safe, prevent hate speech and abuse, and limit disruption to our academic mission. You, too, should be aware of these limitations, which would apply to similar conduct outside Amherst. Among those expectations is that college offices sending communications representing the institution must utilize editorial standards that allow all students to feel welcome and confident engaging with that office or resource.

Second, we wish to address your call for divestment, an idea the Board of Trustees formally considered in December after receiving a letter from concerned faculty members, which will be discussed at a faculty meeting next month.

The purpose of the endowment is to ensure that future generations of Amherst students have the same opportunities, including financial aid support, that we have all had. The college’s operating budget depends substantially upon the endowment (57 percent in the current year, the second highest among all colleges and universities). The college’s trustees have, throughout the years, given clear and consistent guidance that the threshold for divestment must, therefore, be extraordinarily high, reflecting a broad and clear consensus of the college community. This guidance reflects our shared responsibility to preserve the endowment as the primary means of support for our operating budget, our ability to hire and retain outstanding staff and faculty by offering competitive salaries, our leading financial aid program, and — importantly — as an instrument for ensuring the sustainability of the college for future generations of Amherst students.

In this case, divestment poses significant ethical and practical challenges and fails to meet that high threshold. As we noted above, there is no shared consensus across the college community that this is an action we should take; we believe that divestment action would both suggest that such a consensus exists and possibly stifle the continued scrutiny of the issues that we believe our campus should be discussing. From a practical perspective, nearly all of the college’s investment in equities is indirect, via asset managers whose decisions we do not control. Divestment, even if there was agreement about which specific investments would be unacceptable, is therefore not practically possible.

The trustees are firmly of the view that the endowment is not an appropriate or effective tool for foreign policy debate and deliberation, and the symbolic act of divestment — were it even possible — would have no measurable impact on the crisis in Gaza.

We respect your right to disagree with this position and to engage in active dissent as members of a community in which debate and dialogue are central. However, disrupting events hosted by the college, or its operation, is not in keeping with our principles of being a place where we allow each other to speak and also listen to one another — and as expressed in the statement of intellectual responsibility that all community members agree to when they arrive at Amherst. As students, we all benefited from these principles, and we continue to be beneficiaries as alumni.

We welcome alumni engagement in matters of national and international importance in ways that promote, rather than abandon, the values of the liberal arts education with its respect for civil discourse, difference of views, and a willingness to consider matters from multiple perspectives. Thank you for your continued engagement.

Michael A. Elliott, President
Andrew J. Nussbaum, Chair, Board of Trustees