Dick Hubert, Amherst class of 1960, slid into my DMs about a year ago. “Tom Brody,” his email began. Dick introduced himself as a journalist and former Amherst trustee, and explained that he had come across one of my columns in The Student. Somehow, he had found my email address and was now offering to circulate my articles among his alumni friends. I admit I was surprised and a little baffled at the unexpected message, but I decided to see where things went.
Over the next few months, Dick and I began to exchange more and more emails. I sent him a variety of Student articles, and he replied with his own pieces about the need for elite schools to share their resources more equitably. I wrote to him with my perspective on modern campus life, and he told me about his own investigative journalism as a student, which had led the school to threaten him with expulsion. It soon became clear that despite our six-decade age gap, Dick and I had a shared interest in campus issues.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Among college students, it’s hard to escape the stereotype of the old, out-of-touch alumnus: a white man who resents any hint of change. But that’s an unfair generalization. When I worked in the Amherst Phonathon, I found that most alumni don’t cling to the idea of Amherst as they remember it, and can accept the need for constant evolution. Alumni aren’t a monolith. My friends who graduated last year are now alumni, and (horrifying though it may be) we’re all headed for the same fate. So enough with the stereotypes.
Students and alumni need each other. It’s no surprise that alumni can sometimes lack a clear picture of what’s happening on campus. Their main source of campus information is the glossy Amherst Magazine, a publication that depicts the campus as existing in the kind of photogenic paradise seen only in brochures. Alumni reunions take place on an empty campus, as though to reinforce the idea of Amherst as a static and ossified institution. Any student hoping to provide alumni with a more critical perspective through participation at alumni meetings must pass through a formidable array of red tape and receive permission from no fewer than four separate offices and departments. Unless we students make more effort to intervene, alumni will have little idea of today’s campus issues, and thus will remain instruments of the status quo.
Students, in turn, can tap into the power and influence of alumni. Every member of the Board of Trustees is an alum, and alumni donate more than $10 million a year to the school. The school’s rankings depend upon an active and supportive alumni network. You could argue that the administration cares a lot more about the opinion of an active alum (who will be involved in the college for their whole life) than a student (who will, in all likelihood, become disengaged after four years). Alumni also have huge professional networks. Dick Hubert, for example, has sent Amherst Student articles to a slew of the country’s best reporters, from local journalists to staff members of the New York Times.
Alumni have a lot of influence but aren’t able to learn about the priorities and concerns of the student body. Students, on the other hand, have a clear idea of the campus’ problems but lack organization and power. The two go together like first-years and FOMO.
The issue from my pieces that most energized Dick was financial aid. In 2020, my co-columnist and I wrote a series about how Amherst’s financial aid system sometimes fails in its mission and makes unrealistic promises. Dick and a posse of his associates from the Class of 1960 spent the summer of 2021 indefatigably urging President Martin to address the issue. I remember feeling shocked by how invested these alumni were in campus reform. Through innumerable cc’s and bcc’s, I watched from the sidelines as the alumni of the Class of 1960 engaged in a duel of words fought in endless chains of emails. In the end, the alumni won. The Amherst financial aid department changed its advertising, and a few months later, the college revamped its financial aid program, adopting several of the recommendations that the Seeing Double series had made. I can’t prove that the alumni had a direct role in the latter change, but they certainly didn’t hurt.
The point here is that Dick and company would never have been aware of problems at Amherst if students hadn’t reached out to them (that, or “Dick Hubert” is about the most elaborate email scam in the history of the world). However, I know that I can’t even begin to speak for every student or every problem on campus, and Dick certainly can’t speak for all alumni. That’s why I urge students to make more of an effort to discuss campus issues with alumni. We can do so through the alumni directory, or even at Homecoming weekend. I’d suggest looking for alumni whose careers and majors match the issues you are most concerned about. Dance groups worried about event spaces might look for performers. Language assistants who receive inadequate support from the school could reach out to Spanish or French majors. My co-columnist may even be able to pitch his gazebo fetish to real architects. The school encourages us to use the alumni network to learn about careers — why not use it to push for the change we want to see on campus?
It’s easy to poke fun at alumni for being homogenous and out of touch. We, as students, however, have the ability and responsibility to change that. If we reach out to alumni, we can inform them about the issues that concern the campus of today. And if we ourselves join an active alumni network after graduation, we can help future generations of Amherst students in the eternal fight for a better campus. If Dick Hubert can remain passionately invested in students’ concerns more than 60 years after graduation, I challenge every one of you to beat his record.