Amherst College students express support for Board of Trustees’ decision

By Ben Keefe

 

(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

The Board of Trustees at Amherst College officially renounced the college’s affiliation with its former unofficial mascot Lord Jeffery last Tuesday.

A statement from the Board said the decision follows last month’s discussions, which included “a wide-ranging and intense conversation, one that ranged among many topics: historical understanding, tradition and community, past versus present.”

As reported by the Daily Collegian on Jan. 26, the Board’s decision to end the affiliation was not unanimous.

Lord Jeffery Amherst was a commander in the French and Indian War. The controversy surrounds his endorsement of the use of smallpox-infected blankets against Native Americans in the middle of the 18th century. Students protested the school’s affiliation with the commander as part of a larger movement to end racial discrimination on campus in November.

With the decision announced, Amherst students discuss their thoughts on ending the affiliation.

Julia Vann, a freshman math major at Amherst College, supports the Board of Trustees’ decision.

“I thought it was a really positive decision,” she said. “I think it shows that as a school we are ready to move forward and let go of the legacy of white supremacy that we’ve had at this school.”

Vann said the issue unified students.  “It unified the vast majority of the students,” she said. “A large percentage of students voted for Lord Jeff to go away.”

The Alumni Executive Committee polled alumni from the college, with 52.36 percent of those surveyed voting “unfavorably” on Lord Jeffery as the school’s unofficial mascot, according to the college’s website. Roughly 38 percent voted favorably while 10.06 percent voted as unsure of having no opinion.

“(A mascot) should be something everyone can rally behind and there were a lot of people that felt that they couldn’t rally behind the idea of Lord Jeff,” Vann said.  “We’re moving forward. We’re welcoming students from all backgrounds on this campus by getting rid of a mascot that specifically denounces people of a certain background.”

Nathan Ives, also an Amherst College freshman and a member of the men’s swimming and diving team, also supported the Board’s decision.

“I thought it was the right decision because, personally, even though I am an athlete, I don’t have a strong loyalty or anything to Lord Jeff,” Ives said.

He added that the change demonstrates the impact of student activism. “It goes to show that if enough people feel strongly enough about an issue, change can really come here at Amherst.”

Victoria Hewitt, an undeclared freshman at Amherst College, also supports the decision to end the school’s affiliation with Lord Jeffery.

“As a person of color, it made me uncomfortable, but I know that if I was a First Nations people…it would make me highly uncomfortable,” she said. “I would feel as though it was a personal affront against me.”

Hewitt added that the celebration on campus evoked mixed feelings. “People are happy but it’s almost like, should we be happy or is this what we should expect?”

“I think even though the Lord Jeff thing was kind of a disgrace to the institution I think what wasn’t a disgrace was the organization in (Robert Frost Library) last semester,” Hewitt said. “I think that is an example of people coming together in the name of a common goal and the name of common conviction. If anything, it showed me the goodness that is available at Amherst if you push for it.”

At Amherst College’s Robert Frost Library, three students coordinated a sit-in protesting campus racism in November. This was part of the larger movement called Amherst Uprising.

John Drabinski, professor of black studies at Amherst College, expressed his interpretation on Lord Jeffery’s action, saying, “It was what it was historically, but obviously just has no place in 2016, and the faculty and students have long been embarrassed by it so I think everybody is extremely happy that it changed.”

Drabinski said that the mascot controversy wasn’t a part of everyday conversation at Amherst College until the start of Amherst Uprising. He said it then “became a symbol of some fundamental indifference to the presence of racial injustice. That if we couldn’t change the mascot, how could we expect to change broader issues on campus?”

“I think it gave an example for students who care about racial justice to point and say, ‘This is something that needs to change, let’s start with that change and figure out how those kinds of changes can be implemented more broadly around curriculum, around admissions, financial aid, student life, faculty (and) demographics,’” Drabinski said. “It became a flash point to really focus energy on, and that’s a victory.”

Ben Keefe can be reached at [email protected]