After holding multiple open meetings with students, President Biddy Martin has announced that on Friday, November 2, all classes will be cancelled and all offices closed in order to properly address the recent events surrounding sexual respect on campus. On this day, the whole campus community will come together for “Speaking to Silence: Conversations on Community and Individual Responsibility,” a day of dialogue and reflection.
Though the closing of a campus is a rare occasion, this is not the first time Amherst College has been closed in order to engage in all-campus dialogue. In the spring of 1969, student grievances over College governance and coeducation, race relations, and responses to the Vietnam War led to plans to take over a College building. In response, an Ad Hoc committee of students and faculty requested a two-day suspension of classes they called a “Moratorium.”
After a proposal made by the English 98 Seminar, “English and Education,” this two-day break would provide discussion evaluating the College’s problems. On Friday, April 25, 1969, the Amherst College Faculty approved this suspension of two days (April 28 and 29) and stated their intent:
“The moratorium can be a constructive period of self-appraisal and provide the framework within which students, faculty, administration and staff can for the first time devote full energies in this way to the questions of education and Amherst College; however, this period will be fruitful only with full participation by all members of the college community. Open dialogue among all individuals and groups on campus, as well as widespread discussion of the questions that have been and will be raised, are the methods that will best ensure that the moratorium is more than an extended weekend or reprieve on work due, and it is from these discussions that the direction of the coming days can be taken. It is up to everyone to involve himself, and on this involvement rest the success of the moratorium.”
The campus gathered the morning of Monday, April 28, for a meeting on the Quad in front of Frost Library, during which anyone in the community could voice questions or concerns. After a break for lunch, the campus divided into smaller discussion groups to talk about the questions put forward that morning and any other issues they felt were important. In the evening, further gatherings for coffee and discussion were held in the fraternity houses. Participation by all members of the community was broad, even including a number of trustees.
Prior to the events, students were encouraged to submit whatever questions they would like to hear discussed on Monday, and any ideas for proposals they’d like to consider on Tuesday. Throughout Tuesday, meetings on special topics met to discuss the issues raised during the preceding day, including the budget, admission, the curriculum, college governance, financial aid, coeducation, and academic requirements. Any proposals for implementing reform were due by noon. The moratorium closed on Tuesday evening with a mass General Meeting moved from Johnson Chapel to the Coolidge Cage to accommodate the nearly 1,000 in attendance. About half of the Ad Hoc committee’s proposals were approved during a four-hour session lasting until 12:30am. While classes resumed on Wednesday morning, another mass meeting was held in the Cage that evening to take up unfinished business. A letter to President Nixon regarding the Vietnam War was read and approved, and May 14 was set aside as a second day of Moratorium to give proper consideration to Black problems at Amherst and in society.
The impulse behind the moratorium was a need for a more responsive College governmental structure including equal student and faculty representation. Political dissatisfaction with the general conduct of American society at the time (the war in Vietnam, racism, the distribution of wealth and power, the spoliation of the environment) led to dissatisfaction with the particular institutional policies of Amherst College (criteria for admissions, effect of administrative decisions about employment and investment, relations with the town and immediate neighborhood). This was accompanied by an educational impulse concerning the nature of learning itself, the relation between student and teacher, and the conduct of the educational process at Amherst. Students felt that the “business as usual” mode of conduct was diverting attention from the tough questions, and felt that those in power were unwilling to examine customary patterns of thought and action. There was also a general student sentiment that “These are four years of my life, and I should have some say, greater than is now possible, in what I do during these four years.”
In a sense, tomorrow’s Speaking to Silence meetings come from the same student impulse. The program consists of presentations and small group discussions from 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. with a closing gathering on Valentine Quad. This day of dialogue, though much shorter than the 1969 Moratorium, has a similar structure and impulse of reform. Yesterday the Dean of the Faculty, Gregory Call, sent out a campus-wide email with the following two questions to frame tomorrow’s conversations:
- How can individuals or groups go about taking responsibility for implementing change at Amherst?
- What are our next steps? What can we do to promote community on campus, either as individuals or as members of groups?
The need for conversation on this campus, though now coeducational and much more diverse, is not so different now than in 1969. Though now the impulse is less political or educational and much more social, It’s interesting to see that the need for reform in social structure and in student input on administrative decisions is still as much prevalent and relevant today as it was 43 years ago.
The finding aid for the Amherst College Moratoria Papers is available online.