Taking Control of the Amherst Narrative

I think everyone in the Amherst community would agree that what is worse than having a little-known name is having a bad name. Now, explaining why Amherst is so great is hard, and in the highly competitive college admissions race it seems what we’ve been pitching is “things won’t get worse,” rather than “things are better than ever.” Amherst College is one of the best educational institutions in the world, but who would believe us now? This year we have a chance to act, to take control of this narrative. When we are done every member of our community should feel confident saying, “Amherst College is better than ever.”

My last article addressed what I believe to be the institution’s disease, but now I want to be explicit about what I think we need to do to address this. Some will ask if this article actually matters, since students have no actual power to change this attitude, but, of course, that’s the problem with the way our governing institutions work. To my critics I can currently only reply: trust the Board of Trustees and the administration; they’re nice people.

Amherst, I believe Board of Trustee decisions should always have involved voting students. Further, the AAS should always have had, as part of its essential purpose, their appointment and support. Let’s be clear: this isn’t just about the negative effects of not having such a structure in place, but why it is the right thing to do.

Again, let me pose a question to you: do members of the Amherst community have a legitimate right to play a meaningful part in the decisions affecting them? That there might even be debate over the answer to this question says so much about how we have drifted. What have we become in our quest to maintain our traditions and elite ranking? Would we have even seen this quiet malaise if the college were not under so much pressure?

At heart I am proposing that we refuse to simply react to the forces shoving the college in one direction or the other. It is time that Amherst College seizes the public narrative and defines itself both for internal cohesion and external branding. I don’t know what that final narrative will be, but I do know that it must be one of inclusion and real action. Amherst College students have been pushed away by the structure of the institutions which govern them, and are simply tired of talk for the sake of talk.

The gargantuan headache that the new science center became flushes out what is wrong with our institutions at the highest level. The Board of Trustees lost the college millions of dollars more or less destroying and rebuilding the road behind the Mead Art Museum. In my opinion, they made the right decision, and if students were on the board the very same thing would have happened. But guess what, Amherst? No student can say “we” lost all that money, because students had no actual vote.

Let’s take it down one step on the ladder of “representation.” The AAS constitution states that it is committed to “articulating student voices for action and change,” and that it shall “affect” the college’s policies and priorities. To put it frankly, that means the AAS is compelled, more or less, just to talk. That’s it. By implication, unless there is a scandal so impactful it actually changes admission rates, the administration and board actually don’t have to do anything but listen and nod along. Sound familiar?

I want to be fair here, however, and say that administration and board members have definitely tried to respond to students. But when it comes down to it, they don’t have to, something which is so obvious we can’t help but feel disinterested. That AAS elections “don’t really matter” is a sentiment students have related to me again and again. And what can the AAS reply? “Trust the board and administration”? “We absolutely swear they’ll listen”?

That some of the foremost young academics in the world spend all day criticizing systems and institutions on this campus is a burning irony that we need to confront honestly. There is no dearth of ability here. The problem is that we debate the question I raised at the beginning of this essay: do students have a legitimate right to play a meaningful part in the decisions which affect them? This is the war of words we must confront throughout this year and, I believe, the first step is rebuilding Amherst’s narrative.

But enough talk; let’s get some facts down. First, it’s not just going to be a magical board vote that establishes student positions. I’ve tried to enact reforms both in the nonprofit and business worlds, and I’ve suffered embarrassment, pushed away friends and felt about as emotionally exhausted as humanly possible. But suffering and shame are meaningless without learning, and I’ve gone out of my way to learn.

Let’s break one important illusion: there won’t be voting students at the end of this year. Business environments require consensus before important policy changes can be enacted, largely because the consequences of those actions need to be assessed and accounted for. Experience has taught me that business is not just about great ideas, but actual effects, and so this change will bounce around within the board and administration for perhaps two years. During my time as AAS president, if elected, I will assemble a team of students, senators, administrators, board members and any other relevant voices with the goal of assessing and accounting for the effects of enabling students to vote on board decisions. Our express aim will be to cut down on the time it takes for this to come to fruition.

I am under no illusions that such a team requires convincing people with diverse perspectives to agree on this idea, but I have already convinced several stakeholders in the Amherst community. That board decisions should involve voting students is an idea that has been bouncing around for some time, and there are models we can replicate, the University of Massachusetts being the most obvious. Further, we will seek advice from other reformed institutions, so that this process is no more protracted than it needs to be.

The AAS constitution should also be amended on the basis of thorough senate debate as to its exact wording. This is because the words we use will tell much of the future story of Amherst; they will likely inform future senates’ mindset, as well as that of the student body more broadly. More specifically, I believe a new committee will need to be established, one whose aim is to actively seek student opinion on matters upon which the board deliberates, as well as to comprehensively inform those students who cast votes on our behalf.

Finally, Amherst, I want to make the point that we’ve got an opportunity few institutions do. We have a chance to inspire potential applicants by clearly demonstrating that we are willing to confront our challenges not just because we have been forced to, but because we want to. My broader goal is that we, Amherst College, believe not just in our fantastic academics, but our truly great community. Let’s turn our energy from anger and apathy to building that community. I believe we can only do this is if we are frank about our institutions and frank about where we have gone wrong. I’ve said all that I can say, Amherst. My candidacy, however, has always been about the belief that talking just isn’t enough.

When we are done, all our applicants should toss and turn at night, not just because getting into Amherst would be great, but because they want to attend this college, and no other.