Who’s Really Running Amherst College?
Contributing writer Phoebe Neilsen ’25 argues that the Board of Trustees is ill-equipped to make decisions on campus, calling for abolition of the board.
Last month, after years of student protests and calls for abolition, the Amherst College Board of Trustees voted to maintain a sworn, armed campus police department. This decision, while infuriating, is entirely unsurprising.
As President Martin said in her April 18 email, the Board of Trustees has fiduciary responsibility for the college, meaning that they are to act in the best interest of the institution. Martin framed their vote as “the best [decision] for our community at this point in time.” To this, I ask: how can we expect the Board of Trustees to act in the best interest of the college when most of them have built careers off of exploitation, manipulation, and violence?
With my accusations laid, it’s time to introduce some of the members of the Board of Trustees. Who better to start with than Andrew Nussbaum ’85, Chairman of the Corporation and partner with Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen, and Katz (WLRK)? A quick Google search reveals that WLRK partners make the highest profit out of any U.S.-based law firm. The firm, which specializes in corporate law, backs predatory and exploitative clients such as Bank of America, which has historically invested in destructive fuel pipelines such as Line 3 and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Moreover, WLRK has issued memos specifically aimed at combatting climate litigation, stating “The business community as a whole, needs to view [litigation around climate change] as a potential threat and take appropriate steps to combat it.”
Ironically, Nussbaum signed a statement last March encouraging Amherst community members to address climate change in their daily lives. But of course, he didn’t mean himself — how else could he justify working for a law firm complicit in environmental devastation?
Speaking of climate destruction, we can’t forget about David MacLennan ’81, the CEO of Cargill, which the NGO Mighty Earth named “the worst company in the world.” Aside from being the largest privately-held company in the United States, Cargill has an appalling history of deforestation, price fixing, destroying indigenous communities, selling contaminated meat, and buying products made by enslaved children across the world. Since becoming CEO in 2013, MacLennan has overseen the company as it has concealed huge price markups, sold palm oil farmed by children, invaded ancestral land in Papua New Guinea, contaminated an Illinois bay with hog waste, and started a nation-wide E. Coli outbreak.
Even the more benign-seeming members of the Board have built careers by increasing the wealth of the ultra-rich. Douglas Grissom, Simon Krinsky, Ted Beneski, David Novak, and Dwight Poler all work in private equity, one of the most predatory inventions to come out of late-stage capitalism. And moreover, seven board members have donated a total of over $500,000 to anti-choice individuals and organizations over the past 15 years.
It makes sense that a group made up of the ultra-wealthy would vote in favor of maintaining an armed police force, because the police have historically protected the very conditions which have allowed them to prosper. Since their inception, American police have protected capital at the expense of marginalized populations. Whether it be Southern slave owners using slave patrols to protect their private property or Northern business owners calling riot police to break up strikes, the police have always been a violent, racist, and exploitative institution.
During first-year orientation, I was told over and over that Amherst was a force for good in the world — that it had, for two centuries, been a place where young people of “exceptional potential” would equip themselves to solve problems of injustice and inequity in the world. The people making the decisions, however, tell vastly different stories. They tell us that you can profit off of destruction while claiming to be regenerative. They tell us that you can be a thief your whole life and never be caught.
This is the hypocrisy that lies at the heart of Amherst neoliberalism: The people who get to decide who gets criminalized on campus are themselves perpetrators of harm on massive scales. The issue isn’t just that the Board of Trustees isn’t diverse or is overly wealthy. The issue is that the board, a thoroughly nondemocratic institution, has a near-monopoly over how the college is run while being made up of people who have built careers off of economic, environmental, and physical violence.
We must abolish the Board of Trustees. It is exploitative, obscenely wealthy, and thoroughly non-democratic. The fact that 14 out of 20 members are elected by trustees themselves ensures that without abolition, the board will continue to self-propagate at the expense of marginalized students and the community at large.
Like all abolitionist projects, creating alternative systems requires collective imagination. I invite all students to ask themselves how their ideal Amherst would be run. I personally am inspired by democratic schooling models, where an elected council of current students, staff, and faculty are responsible for voting on institutional policy. An even bolder system would allow all members of the Amherst College community to vote on and create college policy. These changes would be accompanied by large-scale civic engagement programs built into the college’s curriculum promoting equal access to such political decisionmaking.
In the short term, it is crucial that we develop an action-oriented culture at Amherst which criticizes the oppressive structures which so many of us blindly accept. A good place to start is the “recommended readings” section of the Amherst Disorientation’s wordpress. Another homegrown resource is the blog “What’s Left at Amherst,” which is dedicated to preserving institutional memory of dissent at the college. And on-the-ground organizing is happening in various areas around the college! The Reproductive Justice Alliance and the Amherst Labor Alliance are two student organizations that have been doing great work around relevant issues.
At the moment, Amherst College is run by people who have built careers off of committing the most egregious human rights violations of our time. Imagining a better future may seem daunting, but the urgency of the situation requires it.
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