President Martin’s Email Addresses Recent College Controversies

A ruling by the Judiciary Council (JC) that sanctioned the Amherst College Republicans (ACR) for transphobic comments in their GroupMe incited public concern from members of the administration last week. President Biddy Martin addressed the GroupMe incident as well as AAS and JC’s actions in a community-wide email on Wednesday, April 10 titled “Conflicts on Campus.”

After a complaint was filed to the Association of Amherst Students (AAS), the JC, a body within the AAS, announced in an email to students on April 8 that it found the ACR in violation of the AAS Constitution and would issue appropriate sanctions to the registered student organization (RSO). The AAS also condemned the ACR’s conduct in an email to the student body on April 9.

In her email, Martin criticized members of the ACR who used derogatory language to discuss the CLD and queer students and staff in their GroupMe.

“Republican students on campus have their own reasons for feeling marginalized and derided,” she wrote. “Too often these individuals are not afforded legitimacy or inclusion by those on the left who reduce members to an objectionable stereotype … That said, the mocking and derisive behavior of some members of the club is inexcusable, and has no place in our community.”

Martin expressed concern, however, about the JC’s sanctions on the ACR — an action she said “further escalat[ed] the situation.”

She and Chief Student Affairs Officer Karu Kozuma were particularly troubled by the JC’s assumption that it has “the authority to use the Student Code of Conduct as the basis for its actions. In fact, only the Office of Community Standards can adjudicate violations of the Code,” Martin wrote.

According to AAS President Silvia Sotolongo ’19, Martin’s concerns about the authority of the JC stem from miscommunication between the two administrative bodies.

The violation of the Code of Conduct was the reason the JC filed a report to the Office of Community Standards. The rest of the decisions — including requiring ACR executive board E-board members to step down, barring them from occupying any other E-board positions for the remainder of their time at Amherst, mandating sensitivity training for all RSOs and requiring ACR to publish a formal statement in The Student condemning the GroupMe comments — were made based on the AAS Constitution.

When the complaint came forward about the GroupMe messages, the AAS Senate voted to send it to the JC and publicly condemn the actions of the ACR members.

Sotolongo had not spoken with Martin prior to the email’s release. “I imagine her including that in her long list … to prevent any backlash from anybody else in the community who may have concerns,” she said.

“The [AAS] Senate specifically worked really hard to make it clear that we were condemning certain actions of the College Republicans and not as a whole trying to dismiss them,” Sotolongo added. “That either got lost in translation or Biddy didn’t see it that way, so she was trying to defend a position she thought we took that we didn’t really take. There was more nuance to the letter than maybe she was aware of. I wish we’d been able to talk more about what our intentions were and sort of what’s been going on that a lot of people aren’t saying.”

JC Chair Daniyal Ahmad Khan ’22 emphasized that there is no conflict between the administration and the JC. The JC has been meeting regularly with administrators to address any miscommunication. “There has absolutely been no unfair involvement,” he said. “Any confusion that came up due to the emails will be clarified. The JC will carry out its ruling.”

“We’ve been in constant contact with the administration recently because we believe that instead of us taking action, it should have been the administration doing it first,” he added.

In her email, Martin referred to Kozuma’s open letter, which was published as an op-ed on The Student website last week and highlighted other concerns in addition to the JC’s jurisdiction. The JC’s sanctions may have “ripple effects that are punitive of other students and student organizations that have no relation to the underlying incident you addressed in the measures,” Kozuma wrote.

He also questioned the basis on which decisions were made, hinting at the possibility of “some procedural anomalies,” and effectiveness of mandated sensitivity training.

“I like to think that Karu and Biddy and other administrators involved and have our best intentions in mind and want to help without overstepping,” Sotolongo said. “I think some of Karu’s concerns are valid in that they are concerns … He’s saying, ‘I’m unsure how you want to follow through with this’ as opposed to ‘You can’t do this.’”

It is unclear if ACR E-board members have agreed to step down. More than a week after the JC’s ruling, the AC Republicans have not submitted a statement to The Student per the JC’s orders. According to the AAS Constitution, if any RSO defies a ruling by the JC, the JC has the right to defund the group and change its status to one not recognized by AAS.

Martin’s email also touched on other events that have caused controversy in the last few weeks.

The first point of discussion was the swastika incident reported by The Student, which Martin condemned. The hate symbol, one used by Nazi Germany in its murder of and violence toward Jews — was drawn on the face of an unconscious student at a party last December and circulated on Snapchat by members of men’s lacrosse.

“When this atrocious symbol becomes visible, we have a responsibility to stop and reflect on what it means and what the symbol has been used to do,” she said. “We also have a responsibility to work against the hatred that the symbol represents.”

While she believes the Office of Student Affairs handled the matter appropriately, she wrote that “there can be reasonable differences of opinion on that matter.”

On the CLD, she affirmed her initial statements that the document should not have been sent out without proper vetting. “I do want to reiterate that there is a very serious need for improved understanding of the lived experiences of those who have been marginalized in our society,” she added. “Problems with the attempt to tell this story should not cause this important point to be lost.”

Finally, she addressed Sessions’ planned visit to the college on April 24. “At this time there has been no confirmation of this event and we have not entered into the necessary discussions that always occur, typically well in advance, about the terms and conditions required by such a visit,” she wrote, adding that the administration would keep the community informed.

Community members showed mixed reactions to Martin’s email. Some applauded her for addressing the numerous recent events on campus. Others felt it was too little, too late.

“I think it was good that Biddy addressed the issues and the email was written with good intentions but some points she made were counterproductive,” said Tejia Pavao ’21, one of the students who organized the Frost Library meeting mocked by ACR members in their GroupMe. “I also didn’t like that she put it all in one email because I feel like each topic touched on is important in different ways and can’t be appropriately addressed in an email with four other ‘campus issues.’”

Ethan Rosenthal ’19, a member of the Amherst Hillel E-board, said in a statement to The Student that “I personally think that Biddy’s message was pretty much the best I could have hoped for realistically. Of course, there is always more that can be said, but I’m happy.”

A day after Martin’s email, Professor of English Geoffrey Sanborn published an op-ed in The Student responding to Martin’s email and recounting his encounters with his father’s virulent racism.

Martin signed off her letter by encouraging the community to move away from the “back and forth of offensive and retaliatory actions at a distance.”

“We are all custodians not only of the educational opportunities this college offers, but also of the social environment we create while we’re here and the one to which we contribute when we leave. I accept my responsibility as chief custodian and, in that role, I ask for your help,” she wrote.

“I ask each of you to think about your responsibility for the larger good, and about the question of what kind of people and community we want to be,” she added. “I ask everyone to do your part to create the conditions that make it possible to think and to learn, not only about rights and wrongs, essential though those thoughts are, but also about how we create a liveable world in our relationships with one another.”