AMHERST — Hampshire College students returned to classes Monday, unsure when or if the American flag will be raised again as the school commenced intense discussions about the decision to remove what its president has called a “disruptive symbol.”
“I think that personally it should stay down for a while. We’re not done processing it yet,” said Astrid Tilton, 18, a first-year student from Vineyard Haven. “I think we’ll know when to put the flag back up.”
Until that happens, the firestorm is likely to continue at the small liberal-arts school, adding to its outsize reputation as a place for attention-grabbing protest. On the main page of its website, in a nod to its nontraditional approach, the school urges viewers to “disrupt the status quo.”
The private college first admitted students in 1970 — alumni include actress Lupita Nyong’o, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, author Jon Krakauer, and actor Liev Schreiber — and is known for allowing students broad latitude in charting their academic paths.
Hampshire eschews traditional letter grades in favor of written evaluations, and the college does not accept SAT or ACT scores as part of its admission process.
Under pressure from students, Hampshire in 1977 became the first US college to divest its holdings from companies with interests in apartheid-era South Africa. The college followed with a fossil-fuel divestment policy in 2011.
With about 1,400 students, the college has been the scene of sit-ins, civil disruptions, and impassioned debate over the years. In April this year, several dozen students carrying mattresses blocked traffic to protest the school’s handling of sexual assaults.
The following month, the college’s commencement was marked by tension over student concerns about campus spending, race relations, and sexual assault. The elected student speaker began his address with a warning of “mild to heavy cursing.”
More recently, Hampshire became a lightning rod when it removed the flag Nov. 18, eight days after an unknown party had set it on fire.
Hampshire officials say they took down the flag as a way to deescalate tensions and promote dialogue amid an escalation of hate crimes across the country. That goal, however, created a backlash off campus.
Hundreds of protesters on Sunday called for the flag to be reinstated in a demonstration at the college. And Democratic state Representative John Velis, an Afghanistan veteran from Westfield, has said that its removal from the main flagpole has caused a disruption of its own.
Hampshire College president Jonathan Lash, who could not be reached Monday, said in a statement that he met some of the protesters and expressed “regret” that the flag had been burned. He also noted that Hampshire includes employees and students who have served or are serving in the US military.
Lash added that removing the flag was not meant to make a political statement, but rather to make room for a discussion of values.
Students interviewed Monday said the controversy has prompted discussions across campus about the meaning of the flag, what it stands for, and the ideals written into the US Constitution.
“It’s important that we don’t represent racism, sexism, or homophobia. It’s not so much about the flag, but what our government represents now,” Tilton said. “How do we represent freedom? Rather than letting one symbol represent us, we need to represent ourselves every day.”
First-year student Elysee Roberson-Schulz said she had conversations with her family over Thanksgiving, including one in which her father urged her to consider the feelings of people for whom the flag symbolizes the ultimate sacrifice in war.
“The whole college has not supported the flag-burning, but everyone on campus cares deeply about activism,” Roberson-Schulz said outside the student center.
Eric Seiler, also a first-year student, said he believes the incidents have been mischaracterized as the acts of people who hate this country, when he believes the opposite is true.
“I love this country. I love everything about it,” said Seiler, who is from North Carolina. “We’re trying to make this country a better place, this world a better place. We’re not anti-American.”
Louisa Lebwohl, a 24-year-old who graduated from Hampshire College in 2014 and worked on campus until last spring, said she does not think the flag had to come down in order to have worthwhile conversations about its symbolism.
Lebwohl said she wishes the college administration would set itself apart from the actions of the students.
“The biggest problem that Hampshire has is that the political diversity is basically nonexistent,” she said.
Faculty members also added their voices.
Aaron Berman, longtime professor of history at Hampshire, noted that the flag is a symbol of the quintessential American values of tolerance, inclusivity, equality, and fairness. Berman said he believes the controversy has prevented a full discussion about what he termed the competing and contrasting values that emerged in the presidential campaign.
“The real debate should be about what is the future of America, what are our values,” he said.