Amherst’s Institutional Obligation
Issue   |   Wed, 09/14/2016 - 01:02

The tension surrounding engaging difficult subjects in higher education has recently become the topic of much discussion, with commentary on the subject being delivered ad nauseam. Opinions range from belittling liberal institutions for supposedly casting out conservative ideas to intensely supporting students’ right to seek safe spaces. The discussion is a noble one, and one that will undoubtedly continue to be addressed. However, amidst the passionately charged discussion, there rests a frightening lack of comprehensive solutions.

As an institution, Amherst has the opportunity to continue the national conversation as it works to construct a thriving academic environment for students. The work has begun in small ways. For instance, the College has adapted orientation programming by including a new social justice LEAP program. Furthermore, students gathered in Frost last year to promote campus-wide dialogue on issues of racism in higher education. Students continued the conversation into this academic year. Yet, the College’s institutional voice generally seems silent on the national front, contrasting schools like The University of Chicago that dominate headlines by approaching safe spaces, trigger warnings and controversial campus speakers as a single concept. As many have seen on social media and on the news, institutions like these reject any sort of complication necessary to the discussion, single-handedly declaring notions of sensitivity on campus unnecessary.

Safe spaces, trigger warnings, controversial speakers and the like, deserve an explicit stance from our College, especially at a crucial time when the conversation is being immediately dismissed by other institutions. How can the College and its students value this conversation and defend safe spaces and trigger warnings from being immediately cut down? While there is no perfect example in our institutional history, one small bright spot might be found in an all-college email from this July. In response to the incidents of police brutality and attacks on police officers, President Martin addressed the entire campus community by email, first recognizing and naming the incidents and their complexities, and further writing: “the liberal arts have as their purpose the rejection of prejudice, hatred and violence in favor of knowledge, understanding and democratic process.” Although no email could ever fully address such a complex topic, the act of recognition alone is a powerful step in itself. Martin herself further writes on this subject, “That work is incomplete but ongoing. We can and will do better.”

The email begs the question: what shape will The College’s “work” take? How can our “work” on national issues move beyond simple recognition letters, and begin to take the form of true allyship? Amherst College students continually make themselves vulnerable to the institution — sharing intensely personal narratives at Amherst Uprising and throughout the year via campus publications and simple face-to-face conversations. Amherst students actively work to create spaces for dialogue. While the administration’s response to Amherst Uprising was encouraging in its apparent willingness to collaborate with students on campus solutions, how can the Amherst administration be more proactive and take the weight off of students’ shoulders before we reach these breaking points? How can the Amherst administration become a better advocate, activist and ally for the diverse community of students it has brought to this campus? The Editorial Board firmly believes in the power of student voice, but also believes that voice should never be co-opted and simply responded to only when reputations are at stake.

The mentality that bore the UChicago letter and the following broader national criticism of safe spaces essentially terminates conversation. Every institution is entitled to a position, but to outright reject safe spaces, without even defining the term, feels misguided, narrow-minded and irresponsibly sensationalizing. The Editorial Board seeks a conversation that can complicate the definition of a safe space — how can we make conversations open to all students, regardless of their background to participate in a dialogue? For many people, that is already the exact goal of a safe space, and a goal that most people can likely agree on. Currently the dominant media conversation has moved away from goals of any sort, and has simply become a back and forth centered around terms that every side interprets differently. Clear definitions are necessary for proper implementation, especially within our small but critical community. Amherst can set an example for other institutions by voicing our own definitions. Most critically, the Editorial Board supports solutions that make this dialogue explicit, shifting away from vague disapproval and, in doing so, advocating for a comprehensive intellectual discourse.