Democracy and Amherst College


(Ethan Corey)– As the AAS elections draw near, all members of the College community should be thinking about the role of democracy at a liberal arts institution like Amherst College. What does democracy entail in context of a small liberal arts college? Why is it important? How can we make democracy work better for us? Of course, by democracy I don’t simply mean the AAS or related institutions; I mean the substantive inclusion of student voices in the decision-making process of the College, whether through the AAS, the College Council, and membership on key committees and task forces or simply through grassroots efforts and indirect pressure from the student body. Democracy should be an integral part of a liberal arts education; it creates a community of individuals mutually invested in each other’s futures and encourages students themselves to take responsibility for the problems of the College.

Amherst College has a paradoxical relationship with its students. On the one hand, we are told that we are adults, that we are responsible for our own actions, that we are the “best and brightest” of our generation. On the other hand, the vast majority of students are dependent on the college for food and housing; all students are subject to strict rules about parties, drugs and alcohol, and other issues; and most of the important decisions that affect our lives at the College are made with little to no student input. In many cases, students are expected to act like adults, even when they’re treated like children.

This contradiction rears its head whenever students attempt to speak out about College policies that they disagree with or even when they simply ask for inclusion in the decision-making process. When students suggest changes to the College’s alcohol policy or encourage the College to invest its endowment in an environmentally responsible fashion, they’re told that they don’t understand the complexity of the issues and that they should let the adults handle it. When students point out serious flaws in the College’s handling of sexual violence and misconduct and ask for student membership on important sexual misconduct–related committees, they’re rebuffed and told that the adults will handle it (at least until the College’s sexual assault crisis made the New York Times and students are protesting outside of the Lord Jeffery Inn).

The second example above illustrates the crucial importance of democracy at a school like ours. Survivors of sexual assault and other student activists had been pushing for changes in the College’s sexual misconduct policies and procedures for years without much success, because students were excluded from important decision-making bodies like the Title IX Committee or simply ignored by the people who make decisions. Students experienced the failures of the College’s policies firsthand, sometimes with devastating results, while administrators and staff denied that those problems even existed. Only when Dana Bolger and Angie Epifano came forward with their stories, creating a public relations nightmare for the College, did any substantive change begin to happen. Of course, had the College listened to students in the first place, none of that would have been necessary.

Democracy at Amherst College means recognizing that students know best when it comes to their needs and wants. Biddy doesn’t go to parties at the Socials (as far as I know); students do. Dean Boykin-East doesn’t have to eat Val food every day; students do.  Professor Sarat doesn’t have to struggle to meet his major requirements while still reaping the benefits of a diversified education; students do. As such, students should be leading efforts to make the College a better place for students. Students intimately know the College’s problems, and, having attended a number of town halls, I know that they have no shortage of ideas for solutions.

Over the course of this tumultuous year, the administration has taken several steps towards making the College more democratic, adding student representation to important committees and task forces, such as the Title IX Committee, the Sexual Misconduct Oversight Committee, and the Alcohol and Drug Task Force, and for that the College deserves credit—although even in these cases students only make up a small minority of the spots on the committee and often struggle to make their voices heard. By why stop there? Radically increasing democratic practices at the College would make Amherst a better place to live, learn, and grow. The school should encourage and empower students to take charge in our community.

Concretely, this means increasing student participation in the decision-making process: more student membership on important committees and task forces, more student representation in the College Council, more ‘days of dialogue,’ and more student control over student life—every dorm should have its own constitution and governing council that would plan activities and resolve internal problems. In addition, this means more transparency and communication from the administration: we need clarity about what policies the administration is enforcing (e.g. why nearly every party gets shut down within half an hour of starting); we need communication about what the College’s goals and priorities are; we need transparency in the College’s finances—does tuition really need to go up four to five percent every year, or are there ways to save money without sacrificing the things that make Amherst College great?

A truly democratic Amherst College would look to and empower each member of the College community to help solve our collective problems; every student, faculty member, staffer, and administrator would work together as equals to make this school a better place. Of course, there are many obstacles to making this a reality, and formal democracy does not necessarily entail actual democracy (one could hardly call the male-dominated AAS representative of the student body). Nevertheless, the first step would be to recognize that democracy is the only way to truly meet the needs of every member of the College community. It’s time to let the student body take control of the decisions that most affect their lives. It’s time for democracy at Amherst College.