An Open Letter on Social Clubs
Issue   |   Wed, 11/19/2014 - 01:05

Dear President Martin, Chief Student Affairs Officer Coffey, Dean of Students Vasquez and members of the administration:

On Tuesday, Nov. 4, students received an email from the Office of Student Affairs, signed by a coalition of nine students, inviting them to a “Social Club” Town Hall Meeting. At the meeting, while repeatedly citing the alarming statistic that 76 percent of Amherst students self-report loneliness, the committee of students proposed the creation of “selectively inclusive social clubs.” Though presented as merely propositional, committee members, under the auspices of Chief Student Affairs Officer Suzanne Coffey and Dean of Students Alex Vasquez, said that they wished to implement such social clubs as a pilot program during the spring semester. Responding to a question about the haste of implementation, Coffey said that the administration received criticism for acting too slowly and thus felt that it needed to do something. Due to these time restrictions, the core questions of the proposal — what it involves and its method of implementation — were not up for substantial debate. However, as students, we must be critical and consider their answers or lack thereof. It is with profound concern regarding those unanswered questions and a love for Amherst that we object to the current “social clubs” proposal.

The 1984 Board of Trustees resolution on fraternities, recently reaffirmed and strengthened by the current board, bans membership in any “fraternity, sorority or other social club, society, or organization (however denominated).” The language is clear: organizations for the express purpose of “social activity,” including “social clubs,” are banned. On these terms, the current proposed vision of the future is simply a desire to return to the past.

We believe that the problems that arose from the social space created by fraternities, many of which contributed to the board’s decision to reaffirm the 1984 ban on fraternities, will re-emerge with the proposed social clubs. At the very least, the proposal and the meetings and conversations which have ensued have entirely failed to convince us otherwise. Social institutions of this sort, whether called fraternities or social clubs, create and reinforce social hierarchy by means of exclusion. We have heard assurances that the social clubs will constitute a “free market” of social relations, that if we dislike one we can simply refuse to join; we find this argument wanting. Institutions freeze in place our social relationships and thus preclude our encountering new perspectives and forging new relationships across lines of culture, class and ideology. The social clubs may open a space for some to make themselves feel comfortable and develop bonds of trust, but this comfort comes at the expense of their own personal growth. In this way, this proposal makes us smaller, not bigger; it nurtures our current selves rather than opportunities to help us learn and mature.

Furthermore, fraternities, athletics and other institutions of this kind re-generate social forms which have historically been complicit in violence, misogyny and a culture of exclusion at Amherst. The ban on fraternities, driven by a period of several years during which fraternities were accused repeatedly and in various contexts of complicity with sexual assault and the perpetuation of rape culture, is not yet a year old. It is worth reinforcing, then, that the concern many of us shared with regard to fraternities and other similar social forms was never primarily that they were not enjoyable and even valuable for the people included in them. We do not doubt that, within their boundaries, genuine friendships were sometimes formed, genuine bonds of trust and moments of personal growth fostered. We have never doubted that privilege is usually fun for the privileged, that it increases quality of life in various ways, arguments we might make about the ways in which power hurts both the oppressor and the oppressed aside. Neither do we doubt that fraternities selectively diversified and occasionally participated in campus action against, for example, sexual violence. That is, to put it in the politest of terms, missing the point. We instead draw attention to those members of the community — especially women — excluded from and violated by members of these organizations. We emphasize the ways in which formal exclusion facilitates that violence.

The committee’s proposal ultimately calls for the reconstitution of exclusive social clubs. Its proponents claim that it “democratizes” social clubs by no longer merely offering such social institutions to varsity athletes and former fraternity members, but to campus members at large. The clubs seems to be, in light of the ban on fraternities, a means to prop up non-athletes to a social level equal to that of athletes (and to relieve the anxiety that the so-called athlete-non-athlete divide seems to consistently generate in our community, which deserves its own conversation). However, we ask you to step back and notice the familiarity of the language employed in the proposal and by representatives at the meetings, the ways in which it compulsively repeats the form of the fraternity by drawing on the desire for tradition to allow for the possibility of initiation criteria and gender-based exclusion.

Citing the 76 percent loneliness statistic, supporters claim that these social clubs will create another form of “community.” We reject the thought that any solution to the problems of Amherst students’ communities can be decided by any group less than the entire community of students in creative deliberation. We cannot accept the logic that, because we need a solution, any solution is better than no solution; such thinking is anathema to the kind of critical thought that we desperately need at this moment in Amherst’s history. We reject the idea being played out in this proposal that students are the objects, not the subjects, of any consideration of community at Amherst. We reject the thought that administrators know what is best for us, and hence should play this heavy-handed a role in deciding our future. Fiat by the administration or a select group of students can never succeed on its own terms, and neither is in keeping with Amherst’s spirit of learning and being.

We reject a vision for the future that is, in the final analysis, a yearning for an unjust past. This letter, written in the spirit of remembrance, constitutes a refusal to forget. We hope that our refusal cuts through the disorientation engendered by the four-year turnover specific to the institution of the university.

No committee of students, no matter how diverse, can speak for the entire student body. We recognize this in our own selves as well. Our advantage is in understanding our own inadequacy to coordinate, much less create, a solution to this problem on our own. The spirit of Amherst can only be realized in its students as we constitute a deliberative public, a community. You cannot, as much as you would like to, prod us into action. Let us speak in our own voices.

For this reason, we will make no recommendations as a group. We instead call for an immediate end to the pilot program. This is a pre-condition for the environment — in conversation at Valentine, in essays published in The Student and AC Voice, at the protests against Board of Trustees meetings — in which a true public discussion among all of us can proceed.

Ryan Arnold ’15
Lizzy Austad ’16
Tess Banta ’16
Jane Berrill ’16
Timothy Boateng ’14E
Dana Bolger ’14E
Rebecca Boorstein ’15
Grace Brotsker ’16
Kari-Elle Brown ’15
Catherine Bryars ’12
Ethan Corey ’15
Alex Diones ’14
Sonum Dixit ’13
Kyle Ferendo ’17E
Edward J. Kim ’15
Jeong Yeop (Terence) Kim ’14
Andrew Lindsay ’16
Yasmina Martin ’14
Laura Merchant ’15
Joe Park ’15
Kinjal Patel ’13
Lucas Rénique-Poole ’15
Samuel Rosenblum ’16
Siraj Sindhu ’17
Sunil Suckoo ’16
Sam Tang ’15
Julia Vrtilek ’15

AmherstWoman'15 (not verified) says:
Wed, 11/19/2014 - 02:24

Honestly, I understand the concerns about social clubs on campus. But it is quite frankly ridiculous to completely reject a solution by a committee of diverse (as you all admit) students on the basis that the ENTIRE student body needs to come up with a solution. Is that practical or realistic? It's infuriating to think that nearly every idea that could possibly be proposed will be rejected by these contributing writers because they don't feel like the entire student body has agreed to them or taken part in creating this perfect and ideal solution (that will likely never happen). Many of the names on this list have participated in committees or groups on this campus that made decisions on behalf of the entire student body. Just because you don't agree with social clubs doesn't mean that you can 'call for an immediate end to the pilot program' or say that you refuse to be pushed into action. Is that a joke?? You don't have a solution. Yet you criticize the work of your fellow students that are sincerely trying to make their own experiences and the experience of others better?? I'm all for being CONSTRUCTIVE and PRODUCTIVE about making change. But this letter is just a complete REJECTION and DISMISSAL. How, seriously, how can we make positive change to make lives better when we have language like this? I completely understand hesitations about social clubs and how they can be exclusive and can likely lead to fraternity like organizations, but their is no conclusion to this letter--there is no indication of cooperation or proposal. It is just a dismissal--I'm sorry but who do you think you are? It seems as though the entire fate of the Amherst College community rests on the shoulders of the loudest and those who are most likely to write an article about their frustrations. Some of the writers aren't even students here anymore, which is baffling to me since the social clubs or lack thereof don't actually affect them. Students are pretty miserable at Amherst and I personally think we need change. Perhaps it isn't the social clubs, but as a senior who is graduating, I understand the need to find a solution relatively soon. Change should happen so that those enacting that change can benefit from it. We are only at this college for four years and it would be nice to be happy during that time rather than use that time to reject sincere proposals to better student life at Amherst. I would gladly support a letter that proposed changes to what's now being called social clubs or a new proposal or even one that slightly left room for a positive outlook on making Amherst lives better. However, this letter ends with a refusal to participate in bettering Amherst. It's quite shocking. I really am just surprised that a group of students would come together and argue that the entire student body, EVERY student, would need to participate in deciding on how to proceed in making students less lonely. When has that EVER happened in the history of Amherst? That likely will never I don't really know what this group suggests that we do since they haven't said what to do...

Anon (not verified) says:
Wed, 11/19/2014 - 08:51

If these clubs were all co-Ed, would this group be more amenable to them? I myself am not sure about theses clubs, and one of the main reasons is the single gender aspect.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Wed, 11/19/2014 - 14:23

I respectfully disagree with the opinions of the individuals that signed this article.

To those involved with writing this article: Have you considered the example of the Marsh Arts House as a model for the "Social Clubs?" From my point of view, the idea of Social Clubs appears somewhat similar to the system that Marsh currently uses. They allow students with similar interests to group together, through an application process, then provide events and try to foster a broader sense of community. I haven't lived in Marsh, but from what I've heard and experienced (mainly through the events put on by the House) it's a very positive and welcoming environment.

I understand Social Clubs evolved as an idea after the abolition of fraternities, and that evolution complicates the context in which they exist. Looking purely at the idea, though, what makes this current proposal so much different from a community like Marsh? The Social Clubs wouldn't have school-sponsored housing, of course, but I'm failing to see much of a difference. If Marsh has succeeded in fostering a positive sense of community at Amherst, why couldn't these Social Clubs do the same?

Albert Bard (not verified) says:
Sat, 11/22/2014 - 16:33

The letter’s signatories have missed the real story here, which is this: Rather than consulting Amherst faculty, students and alumni and doing the hard intellectual work that the College’s situation requires, President Martin purchased from outside consultants—so far unnamed publicly—a canned, off-the-shelf generic template for liberal arts college residential life based on now discredited arrangements imposed at Colby and Middlebury more than a decade ago. This report prescribed a ban on student and alumni sponsored fraternities and the imposition of Dean of Students-office controlled local societies in their place. The external consultants made no accounting for Amherst’s open curriculum or failed history of local societies (the Deme system that succeeded the abolition of on-campus co-ed fraternities in 1984). Any campus-wide assessment of the local “Societies” proposal—which Biddy herself first floated, in a private meeting with fraternity leaders, should begin with a full disclosure—or a leaking to the Student by faculty members alarmed at the athletic director’s apotheosis as “chief student affairs officer”—of this external consultants’ report. Here is a charge for Ethan Corey and other would-be Amherst muckrakers: Why was this outsourced? Who were the consultants, and what did Biddy pay them? What are their academic credentials? Do the consultants have the professional standing to prescribe, or even recommend, a new residential arrangement for an institution of Amherst’s historical stature, let alone an Amherst that is now losing more cross-admitted students to Ivy League schools than it did when on-campus fraternities were abolished in 1984? Why did the outside consultants look to Colby and Middlebury as models for Amherst, rather than (say) Pomona or Hamilton, let alone Brown, Cornell and Stanford, with their non-monolithic mix of residential colleges, national fraternities and sororities and other student-autonomous residential arrangements? Was it really worth abandoning Amherst’s most cherished institutional core value--student self-government--to give the athletic director (however now denominated) absolute discretion to determine what “fraternity-like organizations” are forbidden (apparently Chi Psi and DKE) and what are not (apparently local “Societies”)? Are Amherst faculty members really so dumbstruck by the “Title Nine Culture” that they cannot dissent on this settlement and reverse the privileging of intercollegiate athletics over the open curriculum and student self-government? Martin and Coffey have been trying, since the night of the Trustees’ Johnson Chapel debauch, to co-opt former fraternity members to take the lead in launching the Societies and thereby abandon their struggle to preserve freedom of association and social self-determination for Amherst undergraduates. But local Societies seem less likely to perpetuate the positive aspects of fraternities (which in recent years were the only Amherst organizations to realize true diversity in their memberships) than to devolve into alter egos for varsity athletic teams, as their counterpart Societies at Colby and Middlebury quickly did. Does Amherst really need another “Penalty Box” on campus?

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