We Are All the Institution: Making Change Amid a Pandemic and Anti-Racist Movement

Every August, we all take part in the ritualistic dance of the back-to-school season. First-years explore the ins and outs of where they plan to spend the next four years. All students network their way through an underground market of free PDFs in order to (with varying degrees of success) avoid paying exorbitant sums for textbooks. Professors email their aspirations for their courses. 

This year, those same rituals are taking place but against a dramatically transformed backdrop. 

We enter the fall 2020 semester six months into a global pandemic that the United States has drastically failed to address and amid a national uprising demanding systemic racial justice and equality for Black lives. These conversations have already begun to shape the coming semester, making its way into our classes, our discussions with friends and everything in between. 

Though unfolding on a national scale, the intertwined implications of both crises seep into every corner of daily life and institutional organization at the college, which finds itself as a crossroads. We get to decide whether or not to take advantage of this moment of disruption to make overdue change. 

Within that choice lies some fundamental questions. As we re-enter Amherst, what is the college’s responsibility to us as an institution? What is our responsibility to one another as the individuals who shape that institution? How can we make this community work, where we have failed in the past? 

Part 1: The Fall Semester Plan

Just two days into the fall 2020 move-in period, on August 17, the Amherst College Police Department announced that the college had detected a positive COVID-19 case on campus. The news, though unfortunate, was not unexpected.

As we watch schools across the country already revert to online learning after failed attempts at in-person education, we must interrogate whether our own college’s back-to-school plan is structurally sound enough for students to thrive in the coming semester.

When it comes to student health and safety in the middle of a pandemic, the clear priority should be to ensure that Amherst community members stay COVID-free. 

However, maintaining student health in a pandemic is just as much a mental battle as a physical one. Amherst’s response to how students in isolation will be cared for includes medical protocols and a symptom questionnaire but does not properly address the mental health elephant in the room. 

Think of those students and staff members that were exposed to the coronavirus case at Amherst and are now enduring fourteen days of total isolation. They were moved to new rooms with just a suitcase-worth of their belongings. They cannot exit their rooms nor interact with anyone. Some of these students are first-years, transitioning to a completely new environment. 

Think of the staff members that must continue to cater to the habits of Amherst students, from dining to custodial work to everything in between, all the while risking their health in the midst of an ever-growing pandemic. Between March and now, two of the three coronavirus reported at the college have come from custodial staff — a testament to the fact caring after the Amherst communities should not only encompass ourselves as students, but all those around us. The college must prioritize the health and safety of its entire community, not just the students it collects tuition dollars from.

If any student is going to thrive this semester, the college must more proactively pay attention to mental health. That might mean virtually connecting students in isolation to bond over their shared experiences. It might look like new COVID-19-related stress support groups. In general, publicizing the Counseling Center’s services must not stop after first-year orientation — we should expect regular announcements, in the Daily Mammoth or otherwise, that let people know how to use them. 

As for academics, Amherst has made some accommodations. The college has encouraged students to take three courses this fall semester and has initiated a January term where students will have the opportunity to take another course if they feel so inclined. Anyone who is enrolled at the college during the 2020-2021 academic year is now able to graduate with 30 credits, as opposed to the original 32. 

But the college decided not to continue with the grading policies of the spring 2020 semester. This fall, despite the pandemic not being over, the grading policy will return to its pre-pandemic form where students have to opt into the Flexible Grading Option (FGO) before the Add/Drop deadline rather than have it apply to all classes universally. Reverting to the original FGO policy unfairly dismisses the fact that for many students, circumstances have not changed since spring 2020.

Proper financial support is another determining factor of whether an Amherst student can succeed this semester. As such, the need-blind financial aid policy will remain and remote students who qualify for need-based financial aid will also receive $4,500 for personal and living expenses. 

However, questions still linger about the college’s choices around tuition this year. In late June, Managing Sports Editor Camilo Toruño wrote an op-ed asking, “Why should we pay up to $58,890 for tuition when our education will definitely be different and likely be inferior to prior years?” 

It is a valid inquiry, especially when we look at how our rivals in Williamstown are handling tuition. While Amherst decided to keep its four percent tuition increase, Williams College has cut its comprehensive fee by fifteen percent, including an additional fifteen percent decrease for those on financial aid. 

To concerns like Toruño’s, Amherst has explained that the value lost this semester will be made up by the offering of a January term and other free resources. But paying college tuition is not just a terse exchange of money for resources — if it was, we would all attend an online university by choice. Amherst tuition is payment for an experience, one that is not safely available to any Amherst student this year. While no one blames the school for this experience being taken away, there is a definitive lack of flexibility in the administration’s attitude towards tuition this year, especially from a school with a multibillion-dollar endowment.

But whether students thrive this semester goes beyond logistics and administrative measures. Ultimately, it is individual interactions that create Amherst’s atmosphere. Diffusing a sense of compassion through the community in the months to come is more essential than ever. That might mean replacing pre-meeting small talk with honest check-ins about how things are going, or going out of your way to call students learning in isolation. We need to look out for each other just as much as the institution needs to look out for us.  Our lives and the lives of the individuals who surround us may literally depend on this.

Finally, the most important factor in deciding whether a student thrives this semester is the notion of success at Amherst as a whole. This semester is a unique opportunity to devise a more equitable definition of success — one that we could aspire to uphold even after the pandemic ends. 

The successful Amherst student should not be the one accumulating the highest number of resume-builders nor getting the highest grades. Given the disparity of everyone’s circumstances (which has always existed but is now more visible than ever), it is no time for materialistic notions of success. Instead, successful Amherst students should be the ones taking care of themselves and those around them. The ones who challenge themselves and the institutions around them. We owe it to ourselves and the Amherst communities that come after us to use this moment of disruption to redefine success at Amherst. Ultimately, that will be the ingredient that allows us all to thrive. 

Part 2: The Anti-Racism Plan

On Monday, August 3, the President’s Office released a response to the Reclaim Amherst Campaign and the ongoing national conversations about racial justice and equity for Black lives. The email begins with President Biddy Martin’s musings on the current moment and ends with a seventeen-point anti-racism action plan.  

On its surface, this plan feels like a step in the right direction. The college has pledged to diversify itself at all levels — administration, faculty and staff — and has tasked several committees and boards with monitoring these developments. It has laid out goals for lessening reliance on ACPD, increasing access to mental health care for students of color and providing anti-bias training and workshops to faculty and staff.

The announcement of the “Amherst Anti-Racism Plan” was met with optimistic hesitation. Black Amherst Speaks, an Instagram page dedicated to sharing the stories of Black Amherst community members, expressed in an August 6 post that they are appreciative of the college’s intent to provide better support for Black students and other marginalized communities. However, they also noted that, “With this statement from President Martin, nothing has changed at the college yet … Let it be known that these statements hold no weight until we see these points in practice.” These words correctly epitomize why no one should read President Martin’s email and feel satisfied. 

With these new initiatives, the college has given us a grand vision of what the future may look like, but until it acts on this plan, it is just that: a plan. It is not yet a solution. It is not yet change. Until we see each department and unit within the college execute their emailed intentions, we cannot be sure those good intentions will have any impact. 

As explained in “The Campaign to #ReclaimAmherst,” a movement jointly launched by Black Amherst Speaks and the Black Student Union (BSU), the college is good at making promises to change and has done so in the past. However, these promises have gone unrealized so frequently that, “today, we face old challenges that have yet to be addressed. Placating e-mails supplant substantive change,” as the #ReclaimAmherst document reads.

Feeling placated rather than recognized speaks to something deeper about the way Amherst College handles progress. It raises the question of why the college is actually making these changes. Is it out of genuine concern for the Amherst student experience? Or is it just publicity? 

Already, an August 21 post on the college’s Instagram page featuring an armed ACPD officer was met by students’ frustration as they explained in the comment section the need for an unarmed police department for the comfort and safety of Amherst’s students, especially students of color. The post was promptly deleted and then re-uploaded without the photo of the ACPD officer, adding concern of censorship to students’ initial frustration at the post. After a barrage of comments decrying this social media coverup, the college issued an apology for its decision, a demonstration of the power of a loud student body. Still, the college’s instinct to delete and re-upload a more acceptable picture rather than directly respond to student opposition suggests an administrative priority on PR over actually addressing student concerns. 

The outcry against this Instagram post was a call for deemphasizing the role of ACPD in student life — the picture was only a symbol and deleting it does not count as progress. 

A potentially more satisfying response from the college would be creating a more decisive separation between the positions of the ACPD Chief of Police and the Director of Public Safety. ACPD has delivered both announcements of the campus COVID cases on August 17 and August 24. The implication here is that the Chief of Police and Director of Public Safety are one and the same. But melding those two roles together is not representative of how some students, especially Black students or other students of color, actually experience the police. Safety and police are not necessarily synonymous and if the college wants to help rather than simply appease students, its institutions should reflect that. 

Structures of change that are motivated by the preservation of one’s public reputation are inherently reactive — action happens only after something jeopardizes one’s public image. And when policies are made to clean up a mess, rather than prevent it, we often end up addressing symptoms rather than fixing root problems. 

For example, one major area where the college’s plan fails is its attempt to promote racial justice education for students. While the college intends to enforce anti-bias training for faculty and staff, when it comes to students, all training and education around race seem to be optional, as they have always been. You have to opt-in to participate in the new lecture series and seminar called “The History of Anti-Black Racism in America.” You have to deliberately choose whether to take a Black Studies class. This is a serious oversight.

Optional education on race will likely self-sort for those community members who contribute less to racial injustice in the first place, while perpetual troublemakers will simply avoid the sessions entirely. It perpetuates a culture where racial justice education is not organically built-in but rather tacked on as an afterthought.  

If we can agree on anything, it is that the college has an obligation to educate its students. The anti-racism plan neglects this duty by treating racial justice education as optional and thus failing to teach students about the ways in which race impacts them and those around them. 

The reactive nature of Amherst’s anti-racist plan suggests that underlying institutional obstacles to reform still remain. The administrative changes in the plan certainly suggest a real desire to improve the Amherst College experience for students, faculty and staff of color on campus. But at the moment, the college is constantly on defense, responding to problems after they’ve already caused harm. 

If the Amherst Uprising of November 2015, #IntegrateAmherst, Black Amherst Speaks and #ReclaimAmherst have shown us anything, it is that the college is most responsive when it is under sustained pressure from its student body and alumni. 

If that is the case, the responsibility falls on all of us to hold the college accountable — and, as #ReclaimAmherst argues, that we ourselves comprise the institution. We must acknowledge that although the administration may have the power to form policies that promote racial justice and equity, faculty and staff have the power to enact those policies, and we, the students and alumni, have the power to change the culture itself. Its pages hold a stark reminder, that we are the institution.

We must interrogate the positions of power we, as individuals, all hold. Whether you’re a club leader, a sports captain or a role model in any capacity, you hold power that contributes to how each student experiences Amherst College. The onus should not fall on our Black peers alone to push the college to act. We all are required to carry the weight of anti-racism work on campus. 

At the end of the day, though the President’s Office sends the big administrative emails, it does not create our day-to-day experiences. As anyone can read on the @BlackAmherstSpeaks Instagram page, it is individuals that create a culture of marginalization and unequal opportunity. It’s the professor who made you feel out of place in a class that you thought was your passion. It’s the teammates or coaches who created an atmosphere of racism that made you dread the sport you once loved. These individual interactions are the ones that marginalize people of color on Amherst’s campus and others every day. It is thus necessary to question our individual positions of power and how we can use them to lift others up rather than hold them down. As #ReclaimAmherst eloquently puts it, “If these changes have not been made upon your entrance to our College on the hill, carry on, speak up, and reclaim what is yours.”

The semester ahead is inextricably linked to the current moment of disruption taking place on both the national and global scales. Moments like these, when the status quo is already in flux, allow us to reflect on our history and deliberately choose our future. And that future has a lot riding on it. It is not just about the quality of an Amherst life, but whether we get to have Amherst lives at all. As much as we may count on administrative policies to keep us healthy and promote racial equity, this change will ultimately have to be executed by each and every one of us. If we want this community to work, we, ourselves, must do the work.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 10; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 2)