‘Typical Amherst’: We got spirit, yes we do

At Amherst College, we don’t have iconic Football Saturdays. We wear purple no more than any other color. Any discussion of the Sabrina Statue – ostensibly one of our most hallowed traditions – will likely be followed by: “Who’s Sabrina?” Of the “over 100” student groups our school website proudly boasts, about half are ever active at a time. And at the few varsity-sporting events I attended last year, the Lord Jeff mascot traipsing around the field failed to inspire me with Amherst pride.

But I have been involved in conversations about consigning that same genocidal mascot to Amherst-past. Last year, I participated in organized focus groups on sexual respect. I discussed the problems inherent to our campus spaces with peers, professors, and administrators. I’ve sat through more ‘open meetings’ than I care to recall.

And isn’t that a kind of “school spirit,” too?

Two months ago, I attended one such meeting scheduled by the head of facilities to solicit student opinion on the future of the built environment at Amherst College. An email was sent to the couple hundred students living on campus for the summer, inviting us to join architects from the design firm Beyer Blinder & Belle (BBB) in discussing ideas for a reimagined, redesigned campus. Though it was a picturesque July evening, and despite the limited student population on campus, nearly every seat in Paino Lecture Hall was filled.

I was very impressed by the architects; they were prepared, articulate, and direct. With discrete timelines and informative visuals, they explained that by the time I graduate Amherst in 2015, I’ll see construction on the new Science Center begin, demolition of the Social Dorms continued, and renovations on the Powerhouse completed.

We then turned to the real meat of the meeting, and the project that BBB will be developing in the coming months and years. Rather than writing a “masterplan” for campus improvement, they are building a “framework.” Plans for actual construction on Amherst’s most problematic structures (Keefe and Frost, for example) will come later; their goal, for now, is to explore the possibilities and map the potentials of the existing campus, and what changes might – given the current arrangement of our residential halls, academic buildings, and outdoor landscape – be realized someday. What would Amherst look like if Merrill was gutted and redesigned as an all-purpose dining-hall, campus-center extravaganza? What if the Socials were replaced by apartment-style housing with kitchenettes, and new dorms were built near the football field and behind College Hall? Would adding more lawn furniture to the Quad, designating research space in the Bird Sanctuary, and incorporating roof access to residential halls better exploit the beauty of our natural surroundings? What about an on-campus playground?

BBB architects speak with Princeton University officials over a scale-model of the campus
BBB architects and Princeton University officials, standing over a scale-model of the institution, discuss a masterplan for campus improvement.

On these ideas, and many others, fifty-some impassioned voices clamored to be heard. A variety of opinions were espoused by my fellow students, and while I certainly didn’t agree with them all – for example, that the model of “Social Dorms” should be preserved following their demolition – everyone who spoke asked informed questions, offered novel ideas, and made concrete suggestions about solutions to Amherst’s space problem. The tone of the meeting and energy in the room were about as antithetical to “apathy” as it gets.

That familiar term – ‘Amherst Apathy’ – is often thrown around to vaguely describe a characteristic disinterest in political and social issues at The College. But like ‘Amherst Awkward,’ the phrase stems more from convenient alliteration than any actual campus dynamic. Rather, these terms are semantic scapegoats for the progressive sense of discontent with the status quo; the discussion surrounding the nomenclature of “Amherst Apathy” — together with the surge in campus advocacy over the past year — confirms an anything-but apathetic student body.

Whenever I discuss Amherst College with my friends from home, they are shocked (and then promptly bored) by how much I have to say about its institutional architecture, both physical and procedural. I could go on for hours about the how the Keefe renovations were insufficient, or how the delivery process of no-contact orders could be improved, or whether the Powerhouse is really the one-size-fits-all solution administrators think it is. Students at other universities simply do not have that kind of intimate, intellectual relationship with their schools.

In fact, when talking about our college, we sound like we’re referring to our annoying kid brother. Administration used victim-blaming language in its pre-Orientation alcohol survey? Oh, Amherst. Students complaining that there’s not enough study space on campus? Typical Amherst. Construction on the science center canceled? Damnit, Amherst, not again! But the fact that we use “Amherst” as a metonym for its physical presence, its administration, and the student body is indicative of the way we identify with the school. For us, there’s little distinction between Amherst-as-institution and Amherst-as-identity. More importantly, as Amherst students, we assume agency over that identity. We protest and collaborate, advocate and editorialize because, for whatever reason, we have a very personal stake in what Amherst represents to us and to the world at large.

During my high school tour of colleges, Amherst stuck out because of the campus’s physical beauty. I applied because I was inspired by the aesthetic of the Freshman Quad, the view over Memorial Hill, and the interior design of Chuck Pratt. When it comes to architecture, we have it pretty good. And yet, following the sexual respect crisis last fall, the conversation on Amherst’s ‘architecture problem’ blew up faster than you could say “social space!”

It’s not that we take our beautiful campus for granted. It’s that, at Amherst, we hold our school to the same high standards we’re held to as students. We expect the absolute best from it, and demand changes when it fails to meet our expectations. And we don’t just demand it for ourselves. Whether architectural, administrative, financial, or otherwise, we’re advocating for an improved quality of education that will be experienced by our peers, our successors, and our progeny. Most of the ideas suggested and discussed at the meeting would not be realized until well after all of us have graduated. It’s no surprise that Amherst College has one of the most active and engaged alumni networks in the nation. Our tuition is more than a bill paid for services rendered – it’s an investment in our education, the price of admission to a culture we actively subscribe to and an identity that we proudly share.

Maybe it’s by virtue of scale – Amherst is, relatively, a small place – but in general, students here have a pretty good understanding of campus politics. Everyone I encounter has an informed opinion on sexual respect, social space, and alcohol policy at Amherst College. If the past twelve months have shown us anything, it’s that Amherst Apathy is a myth.

Can’t “school spirit” be measured in transactions less tangible than Game Day attendance and university merchandise sales? What about the dynamic ebb and flow of never-quite-satisfied calls for an improved quality of student life?

That’s the Typical Amherst I know and love.



19,000,000: Dollars spent on the new science center before construction was halted*

450: max occupancy of the new Powerhouse social space, once complete

338: Beds that will be removed, and need to be replaced, following the demolition of Pond, Stone, Crossett, Coolidge, Plaza, and Waldorf dorms

9: Months until the Powerhouse is scheduled to open for student use

3: Students sitting on the Facilities Working Group, a group of Amherst faculty, staff, and trustees serving as a subcommittee of the college’s larger strategic planning team**

  • * “About $19 million have already been spent so far on the science center project, some of which is recoverable and the College will get back in the form of the work that has been done to figure out what we need in the sciences, but some of it we won’t.” – Biddy Martin, quoted by Alyssa Rothman ’15 in this May 2 article in The Student.
  • ** This past year, appointment of students to this group took place entirely out of the public eye. Given the campus-wide interest in the issues that fall under the jurisdiction of Facilities, it is absolutely necessary that, in the future, these student positions be filled via public application and review by the AAS Appointments Committee.