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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Fall 2002 > Letters


Politically homogeneous faculty

As Amherst begins its presidential search, an examination of the problems facing the College will guide us well toward those characteristics desirable in a new leader. Tom Gerety leaves Amherst in good financial stead and with a relatively peaceful campus, having quieted the uproars over faculty housing and athletic recruitment. With these issues addressed, the College's gravest fault becomes even more glaring: the dearth of intellectual diversity among the faculty. While the demographics of Amherst's student body mirror those of the nation in ideology and political bent, the privilege of self-selection in the faculty has produced a politically homogeneous professoriat. Amherst faces an intellectual crisis that, if left unaddressed, threatens to produce generations of liberal students who pass four years without serious challenge to their views, and conservative students who remain closeted or have their ideas addressed only in the form of dismissals. Opinions should be advocated and challenged in a vigorous debate, and no matter how good their intentions, when effectively 100 percent of the professors moderating and contributing to these debates are of a singular political mind, students suffer.

I was struck several times during my Amherst career by how brazenly some members of the faculty embrace the homogeneity they have brought to campus. Upon hearing that Hadley Arkes, Amherst's sole avowedly conservative professor, might leave for Princeton if the administration refused to outline a plan for achieving ideological diversity, one professor shocked me by responding, “Good. Let him go to Princeton with the others.” (It bears mention that Arkes is currently on leave in a visiting position at Princeton.) It is clear that many professors encourage the imbalance on campus, believing they are free to populate Amherst with faculty of like mind and opinion, while labeling as ideological zealots those who disagree with them. I was similarly aghast at the account of a conservative candidate for an appointment in the Political Science department, whose presentation to the faculty (a reprise of the book that won him Harvard University Press's award for best first book) was followed by a senior department member addressing him as “you people” and questioning “what planet” he was from that he could conjure such ideas. Clearly, intellectual diversity will continue to be neglected at Amherst if left to the will of the faculty. Change can come only at the hands of Trustees and a president who admit this problem's existence and move to remedy it.

Amherst must quickly and decisively address the current situation on campus, where recent figures (compiled by The Amherst Spectator, a campus magazine, from Town of Amherst voter rolls) reveal as few as one registered Republican among a faculty of 175. It should be obvious that some method of political screening has been employed, whether openly acknowledged or not, as such an extreme skew could not be the result of a random distribution. Many professors will take offense at the suggestion that political litmus tests have been involved here, since in their view they have hired those candidates they found most sensible. They likely would label as “political” or “ideological” any proposed remedy for this situation, yet they cannot deny the strength and homogeneity of their colleagues' political ideology. And, in reality, a remedy need not be grossly political. Amherst simply must commit itself to teach that which has been systematically screened out of the College's educational offerings. It has become accepted that faculty appointed in many of the humanities will embrace postmodernism and relativism, and shy away from natural law or philosophies based on self-evident truth. Currently Professor Arkes is the only faculty member to explore such a philosophy, doing so through the teachings of Lincoln and the founders. Is a singular voice for such important teaching enough for Amherst? And if Arkes were to leave, could we live with a College where not a single faculty member advances the philosophy of this country's founding? Certainly our esteemed Trustees must recognize this problem, but will they accept that the substance of the education Amherst provides is their concern? The president and Trustees must possess the authority to address an issue so crucial for Amherst, and one expects that crafting a remedy for this problem is not beyond their gumption or wit.

—J. Ashley Ebersole '01
New York, N.Y.

Haight-Ashbury pad

It was good to have news of Humphries House [“What's Cooking at the Zoo,” Summer Amherst]. Despite many changes, some things seemed familiar. Fifty years ago I partook of my (catered) Theta Xi initiation banquet in the “dining” room shown in the photo. Faculty parties were already a tradition
by then. We, too, did our own janitor work, though we paid those who performed these duties the going student wage.

Humphries residents even seem to be rediscovering fraternity values like community and shared responsibility. Fraternities weren't only about being exclusive and goofing off.

As a minor correction, Humphries House was remodeled, not constructed, in 1940 (not 1941). In 1924, Theta Xi's predecessor, Sigma Delta Rho, purchased a Queen Anne Victorian at 62 Snell Street. Some of the Victorian structure can still be seen in the center of the house. A wing was added in 1956, bringing the capacity to 37, compared to the 22 who live there today. We had two-, three- and four-man studies, and slept in large unheated rooms on the third floor. (I felt lucky to get a bed near the fire escape. The place was a fire trap.) The College converted the house to single rooms after taking ownership in the 1960s.

“Zoo” is an obvious send-up of “Xi,” but I never heard the house called that in the 1950s. My assumption was that “Alpha Theta Zoo” was hung on the house because the secluded location began to attract more and more nonconformists. As the Sixties advanced into the Seventies, ATX seemed to morph into a sort of counterculture theme house, merely going through the motions of being a fraternity. There were dirt, disorder, and reports of drugs. The common rooms were looted of their furniture. I was told that the grand piano was hacked to pieces as the highlight of a rock concert. All this baffled the older alumni, who continued to hold annual dinners at the house, award undergraduate prizes, and contribute towards house improvements. They didn't realize that the student idea of good living was no longer the English Country House but the Haight-Ashbury Crash Pad.

There is one more angle to the name. When the house lost its Theta Xi charter in 1957, many expected it to revert to Sigma Delta Rho. For various reasons, however, it seemed desirable to keep “Theta Xi” in the name. The house finally became “Alpha Theta Xi” rather than “Theta Xi Alpha” to advance it from last
to second place in the alphabetical list of fraternities. If not for that, “Xi” would have become the middle name or disappeared altogether, and “Zoo” might never have evolved. Would the Zoo by any other name still have been “The Zoo”? One can only wonder.

—Richard A. Dirks '55
Vero Beach, Fla.

Monikers at the Zoo

I was somewhat confounded by the discussion as to why Alpha Theta Xi was called the Zoo. It never occurred to me that the name was anything else but a moniker, well, for its inhabitants. The main article alludes to this; the transition from Xi to Zoo was irresistible.

All of the fraternities had their quirks. We were off off campus, separated by a gauntlet of faculty housing, and the only house “on the other side of the tracks” (are there still tracks?). The tap was always open, always in moderation. Occasionally a professor would stop by. While the ZÜ flag is very clever, German student Julie Wyman is correct in her discomfort that it doesn't read ZOO.

You may get letters to the contrary, even some deeper notional/historical research, but the fact remains.
Thank you. Thank you very much.

—George Fiencke
Alpha Theta Xi '66
Severn, Md.

Better plan at Bryn Mawr

Dividing Class Notes into two age groups may just be the most foolish action taken by the Fairest since the abolition of English 1-2.

Yes, there's a space problem. My wife's alma mater, Bryn Mawr, has a better solution: alumnae/i news appears for even-numbered classes in one issue, odd-numbered classes in the next. Emulating this practice would allow our class agents to go on using space expansively. It's true that we'd get the news of our peers' doings several months later than we do now, but I can't believe (unless I'm misled by living so many miles away) that those reports are very time-sensitive. (Classes approaching a major reunion year could be exempted from the odd/even principle.)

—Eric Van Tassel '61
Cambridgeshire, England


'66's unrelenting march to the front of the Class Notes was beginning to wear me down, but now, with '76 - '02 gone, I feel like a kid again. Thanks and please keep up all of your good work.

—David Morine '66
Great Falls, Va.

LUV's beginnings

It was with particular interest that I read the brief article on “The LUV machine” in the Summer 2002 issue of Amherst. After having experienced three successive nights at the end of my freshman year trying to obtain a room for my sophomore year, I felt there must be a better way. We proposed a major revision in the room selection process to Dean [of Students David] Drinkwater based on what I called the LUV [Living Unit Value]. The acronym was a play on the otherwise contentious process of choosing a room.

Even in 1976 we used the computer to randomize living units with equal value. The process involved punch cards, one for each student in the process. My memory is that Arthur Wynn '79 wrote the first program to prioritize and then randomize the groups. It took several hours to put all the information into the computer (this after punching the cards and grouping them by LU with spacer cards). It then took several more to generate the list. We reserved two nights on the college computer in the basement of Converse to be sure it was done correctly.

The selection process sounds essentially the same, with maps of the dorms posted in those days on the walls outside the dean's office with rooms crossed off by hand once a room was selected on similar maps inside the office. To eliminate people waiting long times, we set up a schedule of when a LU was required to be present (or lose their position). Three LUs were allowed in the office at a time, in hopes of speeding up the process, while reducing the presence of too many people.

As I approach my 25th reunion this Spring, it is interesting to see the system we designed, modernized, yet in place.

—William W. (“Buzz”) Adams '78
Boston, Mass.


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