The Unbearable Whiteness of Amherst College

Unfortunately, the demographics of the faculty haven't changed much since this picture was taken in 1908. (Detroit Publishing Company / Wikimedia Commons)

At the end of this past spring semester, the appearance of a baby moose in President Biddy Martin’s backyard inspired a student-led movement for the moose as the new school mascot. With over a thousand likes on its Facebook page, the Moose threatens to knock Lord Jeff off his pedestal. At a time when the percentage of white students at the College has reached at an all-time low, we can’t help but ask if the white man is losing his place at Amherst College.

Thankfully, a quick glance at the campus directory will completely extinguish this concern. Out of the 97 full professors (the highest rank of tenure) listed in the campus directory, all but eight are white. On top of that, according to tax data released by the College, the top five highest-paid members of the faculty—whose average compensation of $258,216 is more than twice that of the faculty as a whole—are all white men.

Highest Compensated Faculty (Source: Amherst College 2013 Form 990 Federal Tax Return)
Faculty Member Total Compensation
Austin Sarat, Professor of Political Science and LJST $339,465
Ronald Rosbottom, Professor of French and European Studies $247,426
John Cheney, Associate Dean of Faculty/Professor of Geology $243,769
Stanley Rabinowitz, Professor of Russian $236,382
Professor Frederick Griffiths, Associate Dean of Faculty/Professor of Classics and WAGS $224,037

The racial homogeneity of the faculty becomes much less severe as you go down the ranks, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean that we’ve been making nothing but progress when it comes to hiring a diverse group of professors. Although the College has significantly increased the number of Asian faculty members since 2007—there were nine Asian faculty members in 2007 and 19 in 2012— the number of Black faculty members actually decreased, falling from nine in 2007 to six in 2012, the latest year for which data is available. The number of Hispanic faculty members has remained unchanged since 2007.

This creates large gaps between the diversity of the student body and the faculty.  In 2012, only 35 of the College’s 209 professors identified as persons of color—less than 17 percent. In contrast, 44 percent of students identified themselves as persons of color. The disparity is especially acute for Black and Hispanic students—they each make up 13 percent of the student body, while Black and Hispanic professors each compose only 3 percent of the faculty. Amherst Faculty Ethnic MakeupStudent Body Demographics The staff is even whiter. According to a 2012 survey, only 12 percent of staff members identified as persons of color. And like a majestic mountain, the Amherst College staff is topped with snowy white. Every single one of the eleven senior administrators listed on the College website is white. This is actually a regression from recent years, when at least one member of the senior administration came from a minority background (Dean Larimore in 2013, Dean Boykin-East in 2012, and Dean Hart in 2010 and 2011).

Staff and faculty diversity have been historically relevant issues at Amherst. In 1991, after a wave of student sit-ins in the wake of the LA riots, the College appointed Hermenia Garner as its first full-time “Affirmative Action Officer,” charged with improving representation of minorities at the College. But after her retirement in 2002, nobody replaced her. In the past twelve years, at least four separate committees (a task-force convened in 2002, another one in 2006, then in 2009, and most recently this year) have recommended that the College hire a replacement, ideally with more power and jurisdiction. In fact, the draft report released in May by the Strategic Planning Committee on Diversity and Community recommended just that:

The diversity of the Amherst faculty and staff does not reflect the diversity of the student body. A [Chief Diversity Officer (CDO)] could provide support for all departments to develop diversity plans (through hiring, programming and training) and direct departments to networks and sources of information about how best to increase the diversity of their applicant pools. A CDO could also help departments develop and put into practice a statement of core values around diversity and community to be used as a point of reference in devising job descriptions, conducting job interviews and evaluating job performance.

The faculty voted in fall 2011 to move forward on hiring a Chief Diversity Officer, but several months later President Martin and Dean Call decided to call off the search, writing in an email to the College community:

Earlier in the semester, Dean Call and I proposed, and the faculty agreed, that we move forward on the search for a Chief Diversity Officer. Having gathered information about the challenges associated with that position at other institutions and having heard about the difficulties our peers have encountered in filling the position, we have paused to reconsider our options. […] I can imagine an academic administrator with a portfolio within which diversity would be a critical, but not the only responsibility.

So far, no such position has been created, and the College still lacks a replacement for a key employee who retired over a decade ago.

The College also has a “targeted employment policy” intended to promote diversity among faculty members by making it easier to hire individuals who “invigorate or enrich the racial, cultural, gender, and/or intellectual diversity of the faculty.” But there’s little evidence to suggest that departments frequently take advantage of this program when making new hires: Since 2000, only 29 percent of new faculty hires came from minority backgrounds, according to data shared with AC Voice by the Dean of the Faculty’s Office. At that rate, faculty diversity will match the student body approximately…never.

Obviously, it would be unproductive to posit some arbitrary ratio at which it would be “sufficiently” diverse, but a school which publicly advertises its diversity and commitment to social equality must be held to a higher standard. As AC Voice writer Sharline Dominguez makes clear in her most recent post, an institution dominated by members of one race inevitably leaves many students feeling marginalized and excluded.  White people holding a virtual monopoly on power is more or less the literal definition of white supremacy. If Amherst wishes to live up to its rhetoric about racial equality, it has do something about the sea of white faces that fill the overwhelming majority of positions of power at the College.