Amherst’s Mission Statement, and Lessons for Today

(Matt DeButts)– In honor of yesterday’s Day of Dialogue, I want to share with you the final section of Amherst College’s Mission Statement. Here it is:

“Amherst College is committed to learning through close colloquy and to expanding the realm of knowledge through scholarly research and artistic creation at the highest level. Its graduates link learning with leadership—in service to the College, to their communities, and to the world beyond.”

I share this with you because the road to the Mission Statement, like the conversations on sexual respect, was not easy. That’s because students, professors and administrators had different visions for what this college should stand for. Some—let’s call them Group A—believed that Amherst students have an obligation to give back to the community. Others (Group B) believed that Amherst students should chart their own course, and that the College should not instruct its students to serve the community. To Group B, community service was a personal decision, not a collegiate obligation. It became clear that people at Amherst have different visions for what Amherst College is and should be. The committee found itself roiled in contention. They could not reach a consensus.

Eventually, the committee broke the impasse. They drafted the language reproduced above. Notice the peculiar phrasing: “It’s graduates link learning with leadership […] in service […] to their communities. . .” The committee had found a compromise. Group A got what it wanted: the Mission Statement celebrated engagement with the community. But Group B got what it wanted too. The phrasing is descriptive, not normative. That is to say, the Mission Statement describes what is already happening but does not claim what should happen. Amherst’s graduates serve their communities, yes, but that’s just an impartial fact—Amherst College has no opinion on the matter.

I’ve embarked on this historical tangent because its lesson is just as true today as it was five years ago. Amherst College students, professors, and administrators fundamentally disagree about what Amherst College is. Ninety-nine percent of the time, these disagreements remain hidden. But every so often, an issue arises that bring these questions out of hiding: the drafting of a Mission Statement, the prohibition of fraternities, or in this case, the treatment of sexual misconduct on campus. Everyone agrees that sexual misconduct is unacceptable. The trickier questions are the ones that follow: what do we want our culture to look like? How do we want students to interact with each other?

Every student, professor and administrator has a different answer to this question. For example, one person’s belief in free speech—even disrespectful speech—conflicts with another person’s belief in cultural sensitivity. These beliefs may never be reconciled, but with enough effort, they can coexist peacefully. Amherst students have different visions for Amherst College, and that’s not a bad thing. What’s bad is when we enforce our vision as the only vision. A day of dialogue helps us to recognize how our Amherst College differs from the Amherst College of our peers. The culture that results from these conversations—like the College’s Mission Statement—will better represent what we want this place to be.