March 27, 2020
Dear Community Members,
I have heard, and continue to hear, from a large number of students and alumni, with a wide range of perspectives on how we should move forward in addressing the problem of racial prejudice and hateful expression on campus. I am doing my best to listen and reflect, knowing how important it is that we can move forward as a community.
I was asked by the editors of The Amherst Student for my response to the letters from alumni and BSU. Here is the statement I shared with them. I want to be sure everyone has the chance to see it.
I hope you and your loved ones are safe and well.
Statement that appeared in The Amherst Student today:
I have been asked by the editors of The Student for my response to the letters from alumni and BSU about the problem of racial prejudice and hateful expression on campus. The statements and demands identify the gap between our goals for Amherst and the realities that too many students still face. The documents point out that we have not yet done all we can to create an environment that is truly inclusive and free from the harm of racism. We have had success in increasing educational opportunity and enrolling a student body that more nearly reflects the richness of difference in the world. We have focused on the work of inclusion, but we are not where we need to be. We know that it is not enough to bring talented students from many backgrounds together if the educational environment is not supportive of the success and flourishing of them all. Recent incidents and accounts of student and alumni experiences give abundant evidence of that fact. As you would expect, I am hearing from a large number of students and alumni, with a wide range of perspectives on how we should move forward. I am doing my best to listen and reflect, knowing how important it is that we can move forward as a community.
I share the belief articulated by BSU signatories that change requires attention to systemic matters that go beyond reactions to specific incidents. Reacting to troubling incidents is certainly important, but falls far short of what we actually want—to be part of an Amherst that is created and enjoyed equally by everyone who has come here, that is defined by mutual appreciation and respect.
The documents we have received emphasize a number of needed changes. There are three areas, in particular, that seem critical to more systemic change and have also been in discussion at the College. All of them involve a great deal of complexity, particularly in an academic environment. They include: 1) a robust policy and set of procedures for dealing with identity-based discrimination and/or harassment; 2) a bias-reporting protocol, which has been the focus of the Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion and, when implemented, will include features of the best available models; and 3) the development and use of restorative practices, where they are appropriate, to deal with conflict and violations. As to the first, we know from Title IX standards and procedures for gender-based discrimination that it is possible to develop policies and procedures aimed at preventing harm and holding those responsible to account. Experiences with Title IX also teach us that it is extremely important and difficult to get the policies and procedures right.
Student and alumni advocacy for restorative practices in the case of race-based offenses converges with work that is underway on training and eventual implementation of such practices. That work will be accelerated. I have asked Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Norm Jones and Chief Student Affairs Officer Karu Kozuma to take the lead in moving these three identity-based policies and/or practices forward from their current state to implementation, in consultation with appropriate administrative offices and with relevant faculty, staff, and student groups. I will ask Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein and the Committee of Six to organize meaningful discussions between students and faculty about the relationship between our commitment to “respect for persons,“ on the one hand, and “freedom of expression,“ on the other.
I suspect there will not always be agreement on the specifics of such policy and programmatic changes. Yet, there should be no disagreement about the need to ensure that Amherst is a truly open, welcoming, and inclusive community for everyone. One of Amherst’s great strengths is careful, critical thinking and vigorous exchange about important matters. The challenges that BSU and others have put to us are good evidence of that strength. The BSU petitioners demand that we “integrate Amherst.“ That will take us all, working together. We can take a number of necessary steps during this very difficult period so that more of what we need is in place in the fall. I am committed to ensuring that we take those steps for the benefit of the entire Amherst community.