Martin and Blake Speak at State of the College Address
Issue   |   Tue, 04/04/2017 - 23:50
Photo courtesy of Faith Wen '20
President Biddy Martin spoke in the first ever State of the College Address on Wednesday, March 28 in Johnson Chapel.

President Biddy Martin and Association of Amherst Student (AAS) President Karen Blake ’17 addressed an audience of faculty and students at the college’s first State of the College Address on Wednesday, March 28 in Johnson Chapel.

The event was planned and created by AAS Senator Sade Green ’20 as apart of her senate project, a requirement that each AAS Senator create an initiative to benefit the student body.

“I believe that these two things, communication and transparency, are essential to the ways in which we build community with one another because, in order to build community, we must engage in dialogue,” Green said in her opening remarks. “We must have conversations about the things that matter.”

Blake spoke first, beginning her address by describing the “magic” she felt as a prospective student before her first year and saying that she continues to feel it today when she looks out across Memorial Hill.

However, Blake continued, there were key areas for continued improvement at the college.

“The swiftness with which Amherst welcomed diversity in recent years has not simultaneously been supported through the creation of resources that sustain these diverse communities,” Blake said, citing microaggressions by faculty and the underfunding of student resource centers. To solve this disparity, Blake suggested creating increased opportunities for faculty diversity training and more generous allocations of funding towards resource centers. The AAS has already provided a subsidy of $2,000 per semester to resource centers to supplement their programs, Blake said.

Blake also said that she hoped the administration will improve communication with students about its initiatives.
“The Amherst administration has the best intentions and actively works to create meaningful and positive changes for students,” Blake said. “Unfortunately, not enough is done to reach out to students to make them a part of the decisionmaking process.”

Blake encouraged the administration to go beyond soliciting student feedback and include students in oversight of projects on campus. Blake applauded the administration for its swift reversal of the gender-based housing policy and said that the incident provides evidence that listening to students’ concerns is important for the school.

After Blake concluded her talk, Martin gave her speech, beginning by discussing why she took the position of college president nine years ago. One reason, she said, was “the diversity that Amherst had achieved in its student body.”

Martin said that she knew Amherst would challenge her. She described her upbringing as a first-generation student in rural Virginia, where women were not encouraged to pursue higher education. Attending the College of William and Mary gave Martin some insight into how it felt to attend a school with a different environment and expectations than her hometown, she said.

Like Blake, Martin also agreed that certain administrative changes were taking place slowly, but she said that the pace was not a detriment to the college but a safeguard against carelessness.

“[Institutions] move slowly in part because the democratic process requires shared decision-making ... and checks and balances in the system so that when any constituency or group or individual … demands this or that thing, it can’t simply be offered without consultation, without deliberation, without the weighting off trade offs [and] without considering the limits of resources,” Martin said.

However, the administration has sometimes made decisions it is not prepared for, Martin said, such as admitting women to the college in 1975.

“If Amherst had waited until it knew it was fully prepared to and anticipated all the needs that had to be met, it probably never would have done the right thing, or it would have done the right thing at a much later point,” she said.

Martin concluded with a list of positive changes in Amherst this year. The Office of Admission received a record number of visitors and applications, specifically international applications and applicants who are students of color. Additionally, the college has undergone extensive hiring, especially of new faculty members of color. She highlighted innovative learning initiatives, such as grants for faculty to take students on travel opportunities.

The campus is also decreasing its environmental footprint with the Greenway dormitories and new science center set to open in fall 2018, which Martin added will provide improved spaces for scientific learning and student gatherings.

“There are a lot of people on campus who have either criticize[d] the administration’s efficiency and inclusivity or simply have questions about its intentions,” said Abby Mesfin ‘20, who attended the address. “The State of the College Address gave students the perfect opportunity to ask those burning questions and allowed faculty to hear and address the real concerns of the students.”