Barrios-Beltran’s Lawsuit and the Cost of Reputation

A dangerous pattern of prioritizing response to media scrutiny over responding directly to our community members has developed. Amherst is both a small and intimate community, but a very exposed one as well, which often leaves us far too focused on how we are perceived from the outside. This makes it easy to forget the intimate nature of our community and only see the larger image of what Amherst College must appear to be. We forget the needs of the people surrounding us to the detriment of the environments where we work.

For example, a few weeks ago, a shocking story was reported at various news outlets regarding some former members of the Spanish department, specifically Dimaris Barrios-Beltran. Barrios-Beltran, a former Spanish language lecturer, is suing Amherst College and former Spanish professor Victoria Maillo. She claims that Maillo was pressuring Spanish Teaching Assistants to sleep with students in order to boost enrollment in the department’s classes. Barrios-Beltrain believes that her knowledge of Maillo’s pressure was a reason for her dismissal last June.

According to Barrios-Beltran, Maillo looked for “pretty faces” when hiring TA’s to boost enrollment. Additionally, one of the TA’s allegedly told her that, when she asked Maillo if she wanted her “to sleep with a different guy every night,” Maillo replied “that is what I brought you here for.” Other allegations against Maillo include that, in addition to her sexual harassment of the teaching assistants, Maillo claimed that Barrios-Beltran – originally from Puerto Rico – spoke “ghetto” Spanish and didn’t have control of her classroom.

Many have pointed out that most articles discussing this incident are reliant on Barrios-Beltran’s allegation.  Without hearing from the Spanish Teaching Assistants directly, the extent of Maillo’s harassment may be more or less than what Barrios-Beltran described. But what is clear was that Maillo – to whatever extent – created a toxic work environment. So toxic that Barrios-Beltran felt uncomfortable for herself and the TA’s.

Barrios-Beltran attempted to speak out about this environment, through filed complaints with Title IX and discussions with a dean and human resources, but was met with little to no response. The College was aware that this situation was occurring, but there seems to be little evidence that a serious investigation took place. Yes, Maillo is no longer at Amherst, likely because she was a relatively new and untenured faculty member. But if she was tenured, it’s likely she would still be in the classroom. Firing a tenured faculty member would have required the College to publicly address the situation. Considering that from Barrios-Beltran’s view, there was a lack of appropriate internal discussion of the situation, it’s unlikely the college would willingly have taken the issue into the public sphere.

Now that the topic has been unwillingly put into the open, there will be statements from Biddy and investigations and “action” in order to resolve this specific incident. Meanwhile, the next incident is already being hidden from view. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the college will wait for the story to fade away, and since it broke out over break, that’s a likely possibility. Either way, the larger problem will be ignored.

The culture created by this lack of adequate internal response – and the dissipation of this apathy as soon as the reputation of the college is at stake – allows the unhealthy aspects of the college’s work environments to remain ignored and hidden. They are only addressed after being “outed” by national media. We cannot be self-critical, and self-improving, because we are blind to the negative aspects of our community that have been rendered invisible. But even if we cannot see the specific reasons that these toxic environments exist in some parts of our institution, its affects are visible.

Over the last year, we’ve seen a plethora of departures from our Amherst community, departures which are disproportionally from people of color, including Head of the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC) and Chief Diversity Officer Mariana Cruz and much of the staff of the MRC, as well as Barrios-Beltran, the Spanish Teaching Assistants, and others. We can hire new people for these positions, as is being done with Mariana Cruz’s vacant position of Chief Diversity Officer, but these incoming staff and administrators will not stay if Amherst remains a place that tolerates and covers up toxic work environments. In the same way that having a diverse student body is not the same as having a healthy multicultural community, hiring more faculty and staff of color will never be enough if we do not fundamentally change the way Amherst College approaches the aspects of its sometimes toxic work environments.

In the wake of Amherst Uprising, we saw an outpour of support from faculty and administration. When we talked about support for faculty and staff of color, women of color, we were met with agreement and solidarity. But where was that support for Barrios-Beltran when she reached out for help? Or when she contacted a Dean, human resources, and even Title IX? How are the various mechanisms we have to combat these situations, Title IX, the Peer Advocates, etc. supposed to function if when people attempt to use these resources, they are met with silence? Or if there is such a lack of transparency that groups like the Peer Advocates don’t even know these situations are occurring?

There seems to be something deeply wrong about the way this institution runs. There is a continuous stream of people that are hurt, either by harmful action or inaction on the part of systems of our college. Whether that be the school failing to help Angie Epifano in 2012; or students with disabilities, as detailed by Nora Gayer; or the Latinx students of La Causa; or any number of the stories shared at November’s sit-in; or the Spanish Teaching Assistants who left in silence, or all the other members of our community that have come and gone, or are still here, who have either remained quiet or spoken out — only to find their words fall on deaf ears. These articles, easily found after looking through the archives of any campus publication, that detail our pain, that call for the college to do better, don’t seem to stop. Despite all the progress that has been made since Angie’s letter, it can often feel as if we’re still stuck in a culture of silence, surrounding issues of sexual harassment and otherwise.

The instinct in the face of such silence is to (rightfully) speak out, to try and attract the attention of the wider school community and sometimes beyond. But why should we have to threaten the public reputation of our school to enact change? Why are our individual voices not enough? Amherst Uprising has shown the amazing things we can do when we pull our voices together, but what we want in the end is for the same importance to be given to each of our voices on our own, so when a single student, staff, or faculty member talks with a dean, files a Title IX complaint, talks with a professor or administrator, they are given the same amount of attention and care as any incident or student movement on the national headlines. We have to stop letting our community’s ability to be self-critical remain dependent on how many news outlets are reporting on the latest scandal at Amherst. Maybe then, we’ll stop seeing people leave our community while we look away. Maybe then, I can be proud of my school like I was in Frost Library during Amherst Uprising. This time, for longer than a weekend.

We’ve seen a lot more of this radical compassion inspired by Amherst Uprising in recent months than in the years I’ve been at Amherst. Now, our job is to maintain this, to make it not the exception but the new status quo, and to make sure this compassion radiates not only among us students, but into the environments in which our faculty and staff work as well.

(Image courtesy of Above Summit Film)