AC Voice Appreciates: Student Activists

After data released by the College showed that stealing laptops and iPods led to more severe punishment than committing sexual assault, students protested outside of Valentine to demand harsher sanctions. Of course, now there is no way to know if the College listened, since it refuses to release data on sanctions for Honor Code violations. (Photo Courtesy of Dana Bolger)

Amherst has changed quite a bit since its founding as a Christian school for white men in 1821. Today, of course, we accept students from all backgrounds, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, religion or ability to pay. Indeed, Amherst has become a leader in racial and socioeconomic diversity: More than one in five students comes from low-income families, and students of color make up more than half the entire student population. What’s more, in recent years, Amherst has made substantial efforts to better serve the needs of all students—expanding the size and funding of the Multicultural Resource Center, the Queer Resource Center and the Women’s and Gender Center; revamping its sexual misconduct policy to comply with Title IX; and holding two Days of Dialogue to discuss issues of racial and gender discrimination on campus.

Given such a list of accolades, one might, like the New York Times credit the progressive ideals and hard work of Amherst’s administrative leaders—Biddy, Dean Parker, Tony Marx or Peter Uvin all might come to mind. The truth is, however, that none of the advances I mentioned above would have ever happened without the blood, sweat and tears of students willing to risk disciplinary action, ostracism, and their future careers for what they believed in. That’s why for AC Voice Appreciates week, I’d like to draw attention to some of the unsung heroes of Amherst history: student activists.

Here are just a few things we owe to student activists past and present:

The Black Studies Department, Black professors: In 1970, a group of Black students from the Five Colleges occupied Frost Library, Converse Hall, College Hall and Merrill Science Building to protest what they saw as a racist campus culture that ignored the needs and interests of non-white students. At the time, Amherst did not have a single Black professor, and its only class on African American history was co-taught by two white professors. For nearly a week, the students held the four buildings (even renaming Frost the “Malcolm X Memorial Library”), until the Amherst administration finally consented to their demands. In the aftermath of the occupation, the College hired its first Black professors and finally created a Black Studies department with an independent budget. Their occupation inspired several other occupations in later years, including an occupation of Converse in 1992 (featuring then-student Rick López, who now “occupies” Converse as Dean of New Students!), which led to the hiring of the College’s first full-time Affirmative Action Officer and expanded efforts to improve Amherst’s racial and socioeconomic diversity.

Divestment from South Africa: From 1948 until 1994, South Africa maintained a brutally repressive regime of racial apartheid, forcing the majority of its population to live in miserable squalor while a small racial elite prospered off the country’s rich mineral wealth. Until 1985, Amherst College directly supported this regime by investing a significant portion of its endowment in businesses that operated in the country. For nearly a decade before then, Amherst students had consistently protested at meetings of the Board of Trustees and presented various proposals to extricate the College’s endowment from complicity with apartheid. A recent post on the Frost Archives’ blog notes:

Following a packed open meeting held by the Board of Trustees and the South African Support Committee in February, the Board again took up the question of divestment in their spring and fall 1978 meetings, affirming their previous decision both times. Divestment was one of the major topics on campus in the academic year of 1977/78, it was front page news in a quarter of Amherst Student issues and by November 1978, President Ward was able to state regarding the previous two years, “there has not been a meeting of the board in that time when the investment in corporations doing business in South Africa has not been a matter for discussion.”

The Board finally relented in June 1985, providing strong precedent for future divestment campaigns and proving that (at least in theory) Amherst’s financial decisions should be guided by more than pure profit.

Carbon-Neutral Amherst: Speaking of divestment, student activists at the Green Amherst Project have spent the past three years pushing for divestment of a different kind: coal divestment. Annually, burning coal causes billions of dollars in public health damages and contributes nearly a third of total CO2 emissions worldwide. Given that we all like breathing/living on a planet that hasn’t been ruined by environmental catastrophe, I hope we can all agree that burning coal probably isn’t the best thing. While GAP still has yet to achieve its full objectives, they scored a huge victory last month when the Board of Trustees announced its support for a Climate Action Plan based around the following principles:

-Developing a strategy for Amherst to achieve a carbon-neutral footprint within a stipulated period of time.

-Continuing to decrease the College’s carbon footprint by building a second co-generation plant and exploring the options for alternative forms of energy, such as solar.

-Setting aside a portion of the endowment to create a significant pool for investment in major on-campus capital projects that would enhance clean-energy and energy-conservation efforts.

-Creating a revolving fund, replenished with money saved or earned, to support smaller clean-energy projects on campus suggested by members of the community.

-Supporting the investment required to make sustainability a defining feature of Amherst’s educational and community life.

While these principles are perhaps overly broad and vaguely worded, they still hold out the possibility of a greener future for Amherst College.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out the Frost Archives, which has a treasure trove of information on student activism, or this website, maintained by Amherst alum and anti-Arkes activist Walter Mersereau ’70.