This will be one of the final AC Voice articles. In its 6 years on this campus, AC Voice (originally SheBomb.com) has been an outlet for students to discuss pressing social and political issues, for long-form investigations on athletics and administrative failure, and a handful of bombshell reports like the DKE Leaks.
AC Voice is not the first College publication to fall victim to declining readership and a lack of volunteer writers. Amherst Soul, a relatively recent start-up, shuttered in the past two years. The Indicator’s March issue was the first print issue from the publication in more than a year. Both The Student and The Indicator have bemoaned – in editorials or private messages – declining funding.
While it is undergoing a crisis that needs to be combatted, Amherst’s threatened media environment is in fact a symptom of a larger systemic issue plaguing the College. I’ve nicknamed it “malaise,” after President Jimmy Carter’s speech of the same name.
Over the course of formal and informal conversations with dozens of students and a half-dozen professors in the waning weeks of the school year, I began to peel back the layers of a complex but fundamental problem that disconnects students from the administration, faculty, and one another. What I offer in this piece is a partial diagnosis – I do not claim to have all the answers for the causes of this malaise, let alone to have any potential solutions. I do, however, think it is important to recognize the many ways in which the malaise affects students, faculty, staff, and administrators – the ways in which it breaks us down and alienates us from one another.
First, some context. At the height of the 1979 energy crisis, when Americans waited in line at gas stations for hours and truckers rioted in idyllic towns like Levittown, Pa., Jimmy Carter disappeared from the public eye. Scheduled to give a reassuring speech on July 4, he instead cancelled the speech and retreated to Camp David, prompting rumors of illness. In actuality, Carter was hard at work on a new speech that would address what he thought was the fundamental problem underlying American hardship: a crisis of confidence.
On July 15, he appeared on national television and diagnosed the nation with malaise – though he never actually used the term. “It’s clear that the true problems of our nation are much deeper – deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession,” he said. “I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.”
“The threat,” he continued, “is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”
The speech was an outstanding success – although it is rarely remembered as such. It was overshadowed by Carter’s firing of his cabinet just two days later, seen as confirmation that even if Carter was right – even if there was a systemic issue in which Americans were alienated from the institutions that governed their lives and from one another – he was not the man to solve that issue.
It is my view that Amherst has a similar malaise. In many ways, this is literal. Amherst students are by and large sad. The Student reported that 34-36 percent of the student body visited the Counseling Center, representing a doubling of 2014 numbers and far above the national average for adults 18 and over. This isn’t necessarily bad – it is good that students are seeking aid when they find themselves in dire straits. Nonetheless, it seems indicative of a broader mental health crisis on campus. As part of an informal conversation, a professor who has taught here for more than a decade said they had never seen the College this sad.
The malaise extends beyond the literal. Amherst’s crisis of confidence reaches into every facet of academic, social, and professional life. One part of it is our demographic issue – the College is, institutionally, structured almost identically to how it was decades ago. Yet the student body is more racially and socioeconomically diverse than ever before. This contradiction is felt keenly by students of color and poor students – it was this feeling, in part, that invigorated Amherst Uprising.
Another oft-cited structural fault is the athlete/non-athlete divide, which is exacerbated both by the racial and socioeconomic demographics of athletics (which at Amherst is disproportionately white and wealthy) and the fact that athletes make up 40 percent of the student body. However, the importance of demographics and athletics as causes of broader systemic issues is often overstated at Amhrest.
While the athlete/non-athlete divide and complicated racial and socioeconomic dynamics on campus make it difficult for Amherst students to bond with one another in a communal way, the greatest obstacle to such bonding is the lack of a positive identity. There is often little sense that Amherst students have a shared identity beyond happenstance placing them at the same college – it seems that we have nothing in common to celebrate or build towards.
In my first year here, one of the largest topics of campus discussion was about building a community. Social clubs, neighborhoods, and a handful of other housing and social schemes were cooked up to forge a common identity among Amherst students. Many were shot down – few liked the administration’s proposal of limiting housing options – and others were tried but failed.
In the wake of these attempts, even the mere notion of building a community has faded from campus life. We have, it seems, accepted that this is a lost cause. This implicit admission on the part of students, faculty, and administrators – that students in particular and faculty, staff, and administrators more broadly do not constitute a community – has furthered the alienation of students from one another.
Even those bodies meant to form community and bonding – most notably the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) – have failed to do so. Voting rates in AAS elections are reaching shocking lows, with only five seniors voting in the Class of 2018 senate elections this spring according to internal documents obtained by AC Voice. Only 71 juniors voted in their concurrent AAS elections, for that matter – hardly 20 percent of the class. Disengagement in recent years can also be seen in Senior Gift campaigns failing to meet the usual goal of 80 percent participation twice in the past three years.
While this interpersonal alienation at the student level is to me the worst symptom of Amherst’s malaise, there are others. The disconnect between students and faculty is shocking as well. This expresses itself sometimes in faculty obliviousness to student needs. Moments like the late 2015 forum on academic workload have helped reduce this alienation. For their part, students are largely unaware of what is going on with faculty behind the scenes – for example, few knew or know that the issue of reforming campus athletics has been the focus of two waves of fierce debates in faculty meetings in recent years.
Perhaps the greatest example of malaise beyond the lack of student community is the disconnect between students and the administration. Students rarely feel the administration is looking out for them. Students are regularly cynical and appear to generally believe that if it was forced to choose between student wellbeing and sizable alumni donations it would pick the latter.
The nature of the College is such that its priorities revolve around such monetary concerns – although this is so it can support students in the long term. Nonetheless, this leaves students feeling like they’re on their own, disconnected from faculty, from the administration, and from one another. I believe, as do most students, that the administration doesn’t want this state of affairs to continue. However, a radical reevaluation of administrative priorities is necessary if the malaise is to be truly combatted.
I stated near the start of this piece that this is a diagnosis, not a prescription. No one has all the answers to this complex issue that seems to be buried in the interrelations between the many people and institutions that make up Amherst College. I do hope, however, that identifying it as a systemic issue is the first step to changing it. The malaise, a crisis of confidence, the lack of a community – whatever one wants to call it – is a fact of life for most people on this campus.
Is it unique to Amherst College? I don’t have the experience to say. Certainly the broader political environment is to blame for some of this malaise, as are issues particular to higher education institutions and liberal arts colleges in particular. Regardless, the malaise does exist at Amherst, even if it persists in similar or different forms at other schools and in other environments.
This doesn’t mean the malaise can’t be solved. I have little to contribute to such solutions – they will require intensive study and interviews with large numbers of students, faculty, staff, and administrators.
Nonetheless, Amherst College is home to some of the brightest people in the world. It is a radical experiment in making education accessible. This experiment is struggling, but if anyone can solve it, the Amherst community can.
 The Indicator was unable to provide AC Voice with readership statistics for this article and The Student did not respond to a request for such information.