On May 4, students sent a letter to the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI) calling on the college to fulfill its promises in centering diversity, equity, and inclusion in academics (DEI) by increasing student involvement and transparency in the facutly hiring process. Authored by several students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) departments, and addressed to Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer Angie Tissi-Gassoway, the letter garnered 117 signatures from students and alumni.
Reflecting on the promises made in August 2020’s Anti-Racism Plan, writers and signatories of the letter call for hiring processes to take students into more consideration. The letter describes current practices for hiring faculty of color as “performative,” as they believe hiring committees are not up to the task of considering the full scope of DEI.
Composed of three central demands, the letter states that the start of this conversation was in part inspired by “the recent lack of transparency around hiring processes within multiple departments.” The first demand calls on the President’s Office to review its past commitments to anti-racism and “critically assess whether corresponding institutional actions comprehensively account for non-tenure-track faculty positions.” The second asks that the college “recognize students’ belief that DEI work is instrumental to effective teaching and mentorship,” which includes establishing DEI as a “new criterion in the hiring process, rather than incorporating it as a mere part of the service pillar.” The third demand calls on the college to “standardize the practice of including students in the hiring and assessment of faculty across all academic departments.”
While the letter, which has been in the works for almost a month now, started within a group of passionate students in the chemistry department, it has since spread. “The changes we’re asking for are not aimed at the department itself. [They’re] aimed at the institution,” said Ji Chung ’22, an English and chemistry double major and co-writer of the letter.
Frida Hernandez ’24, a chemistry major and co-writer of the letter, emphasized that students should have input in the hiring process. “There are some departments on campus that actually genuinely want the students to like the professors that they’re hiring … but other departments don’t ask for any input,” she said. “What we were asking in the letter was for [the students’ role] to be more standardized across all of the college.”
Even when students provide input regarding hiring decisions, the role that it plays in the process remains unclear, Hernandez said. “Whether or not that feedback is taken into consideration when the hiring decision actually happens, we don’t really know.”
Chung described further: “We were starting to look into the [hiring] process to see at what point we can voice our opinions … [and asked,] ‘Is there already a created space for us?’”
The letter also criticizes the lack of transparency around faculty retention, a concern which Hernandez echoed. “Especially in recent years … the school has made some great changes and we have hired some great professors. I think the problem is we also lose so many of those professors when their visiting contract ends, and none of those professors are ever hired back for permanent position[s] … I don’t know why,” she said.
Chemistry, where almost all of the professors are white, the lack of diversity creates a large barrier for students of color. Chung added that this issue extends to the whole campus.
Looking ahead, Chung said that she hopes to see “a more unified response, a unified effort or way to organize DEI work on campus, because right now it’s a lot of individuals really, really passionately working on stuff.”
Ultimately, Hernandez wants the college to hire more faculty who are people of color, and do a better job of integrating student voices into hiring decisions.
Chung also hopes this letter will help people expand their perspective of the purpose of academics at the college. “If we agree as a chemistry department or as a STEM department or as Amherst College to prioritize support and community building, as opposed to research and publication and shoving knowledge into people’s heads, then I think we would have a much more successful academic community and get rid of a lot of … divides, whether racial or by discipline,” she said.
Correction, May 5, 2022: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that students sent the letter to the ODEI on April 22. The letter was actually sent on May 4, 2022.