Background on Hampshire College Flag Decision November 2016


Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash has been actively convening formal and informal meetings this month with members of our campus community -- students and employees -- as part of our announced campus dialogues about the flag.

On Sunday morning, November 27, preceding a public demonstration by veterans outside our campus, President Lash met with the VFW Amherst leaders organizing the demonstration.  President Lash acknowledged their right to demonstrate, and expressed his regret that a still unknown person or persons had burned the college's flag overnight before Veteran's Day, the incident is still under active investigation.  President Lash listened respectfully to the views of the veterans, and explained that the Hampshire College community includes a wide range of views including employees and students who have served or are currently serving in the US military. President Lash emphasized that by not flying a flag on our college's flagpole for the time being, the College is seeking to enable a discussion of values among all members of our campus, not make a political statement.  

Our primary mission is education, and we see this conversation on campus as an important learning opportunity for all of us on campus. Our hope is we can discuss the underlying issues that have been dividing our campus, and talk about what we value as a campus community.

Timeline of Events

The College removed the flag from the main flagpole at the center of campus for a period of time, during which Hampshire aims to discuss and confront deeply held beliefs about what the flag represents to the members of our campus community. Our goal is to give voice to the range of viewpoints on campus across cultures and find common ground. This is not a campus-wide ban as some media have mistakenly reported, campus members and offices are free to individually display their own flags. We’ve heard from members of our campus community that, for them and for many in our country, the flag is a powerful symbol of fear they’ve felt all their lives because they grew up in marginalized communities, never feeling safe. For others, the flag is a symbol of their highest aspirations for the country. These differences in viewpoints about the flag have been the focus of many discussions on campus here for more than a year. College staff and faculty have been leading facilitated discussions on campus around this issue since the election, President Lash was actively holding meetings on campus leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday, and discussions have continued the last week of November.

Nov 9, Wednesday

A group of Hampshire students lowered the campus flag in the evening, the day after the election, their reaction to the toxic tone of the months-long election and the escalating number of news reports from across the country over recent months and years of hate speech, harassment, and violence against people of color, immigrants, international citizens, and Muslims.

Nov 10, Thursday

The College allowed the flag to remain at half-staff to honor the students' expression and to facilitate a campus dialogue.

Sometime overnight the campus flag was burned. The College does not know who burned the flag, whether it was burned by one or more students or others. The incident is still under investigation by campus police.

Nov 11, Friday

The College flew a new flag at full staff in honor of Veterans Day.

Nov 12, Saturday

Hampshire’s Board of Trustees voted to fly flag at half-staff to facilitate a continued campus dialogue. (Full statement from the Board of Trustees issued to the campus, below.) Over the past year, Hampshire's Board of Trustees had adopted a policy of periodically flying the College’s U.S. flag at half-staff to mourn deaths from violence in the U.S. and around the world. This position by the Board was the result of discussions on campus beginning over a year ago after the Paris terrorist attack. (Full statement from President Jonathan Lash issued to campus on November 2015, below.) The College’s position: The general practice for private entities that choose to fly the U.S. flag is to follow the guidance promulgated by the executive branch in the Flag Code. Non-governmental and non-public institutions may supplement those federal guidelines and lower the flag on other occasions, for example to mark the death of a member of the local community or affecting the local community. The Flag Code gives latitude to civilians and civilian organizations provided that respect is shown to the flag.

Nov 18, Friday

Six days later, President Jonathan Lash sent an email to campus communicating the College’s regret at having flown the flag at half-staff at this time and causing unintentional distress, especially to veterans. He said: “Some have perceived the action of lowering the flag as a commentary on the results of the presidential election. This, unequivocally, was not our intent.” He acknowledged regretfully that the college had unintentionally caused distress and insult to veterans. In the same statement President Lash announced the College’s decision to stop flying the flag on the campus flagpole for a period of time in order to facilitate a campus dialogue and to help “focus our efforts on addressing racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and behaviors.”

(Full statement from President Jonathan Lash, below.)

Relevant Statements Sent to Campus
November 2015 - November 2016

Subject: Flag Update
Date: Fri, 18 Nov 2016
Submitted by: Jonathan Lash

Some months ago, the Hampshire College Board of Trustees adopted a policy of periodically flying the flag at half-staff to mourn deaths from violence around the world. Earlier this week, in the current environment of escalating hate-based violence, we made the decision to fly Hampshire’s U.S. flag at half-staff for a time while the community delved deeper into the meaning of the flag and its presence on our campus. This was meant as an expression of grief over the violent deaths being suffered in this country and globally, including the many U.S. service members who have lost their lives. Our intention was to create the space for meaningful and respectful dialogue across the multiplicity of perspectives represented in our community.

Unfortunately, our efforts to inclusively convey respect and sorrow have had the opposite effect. We have heard from many on our campus as well as from neighbors in the region that, by flying the flag at half-staff, we are actually causing hurt, distress, and insult. Our decision has been seen as disrespectful of the traditional expression of national mourning, and has been especially painful to our Hampshire colleagues who are veterans or families of veterans. Some have perceived the action of lowering the flag as a commentary on the results of the presidential election - this, unequivocally, was not our intent.

After some preliminary consultation with campus constituents (we understand much more is needed), we have decided that we will not fly the U.S. flag or any other flags at Hampshire for the time being. We hope this will enable us to instead focus our efforts on addressing racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and behaviors.

I ask our campus to join me in a commitment to living up to the ideals of our mission: to insist on diversity, inclusion, and equity from our leaders and in our communities; to constructively resist those who are opposing these values; and to actively and passionately work toward justice and positive change at Hampshire and in the world.

Jonathan Lash

Subject: Statement to the Hampshire College Community from the Board of Trustees on Our Decision To Fly the Flag at Half-Staff
Date: Sat, 12 Nov 2016 
Submitted by: Beth Ward

This historical moment in our nation demands meaningful and informed discourse. As the Board of Trustees of a college founded on the principles of furthering knowledge, justice, and positive change, we have the responsibility to encourage and model such conversations. We are committed to a campus climate in which honest dialogue is supported and all viewpoints can be respectfully voiced and heard in the search for common understanding. Hampshire is a mission-driven institution, and intellectual rigor, informed critique, multiple perspectives, inclusivity, and ethical citizenship are at the heart of our values.

The past several days have been painful for many members of the Hampshire community. The divisions and conflicts that consumed the nation during the presidential campaign, and that erupted following the election this week, are felt acutely at a personal and local level. On campus we have seen numerous expressions of pain, fear, anger, and vulnerability — understandable given news reports from across the country about acts of hostility and violence against people of color, immigrants, international citizens, and Muslims.

On Wednesday, members of the Hampshire community responded to the election results in a variety of ways. There were discussion groups and debates, poetry readings and meditations. As is often the case at times of public turmoil in the United States, the flag became a focal point for protest. Hampshire students, staff, and faculty from across the political spectrum spoke passionately and thoughtfully about what the flag means to them. A number of students gathered to call for the flag's removal, and to engage in dialogue about the flag’s meaning and their experience of it. Wednesday night, some took action to lower the flag; we saw in this an act of civil disobedience that expressed the views of some while allowing for continued and respectful dialogue. The College is a product of the national experience, and this includes the precious right to dissent.

Friday morning, to our distress, the Board learned that the flag had been burned overnight. We have heard from students, faculty, and staff, as well as members of the broader community, who were offended by the flag’s destruction — especially on Veteran’s Day. Several experienced it as an act of disrespect against people of color, who are disproportionately represented in the U.S. military.

For several years, members of the Hampshire community — including Board members — have been involved in discussions about the meanings of the U.S. flag. Flying the flag at half-staff is a time-honored way to convey mourning, and many have suggested that, in addition to those occasions specified under the U.S. Flag Code, our flag remain at half-staff as an expression of collective grief for the violent deaths that are occurring daily in this country and around the world. And, indeed, our campus has been directly affected on multiple occasions: among us are students and employees who have lost their homes in bombings, had family members murdered for their political convictions or because of the color of their skin, and who cannot safely return home due to war or threats to personal safety.

As fiduciaries of a vibrant learning community, the Board is committed to supporting spaces for multiple perspectives, nuanced dialogue, and mindful listening to flourish. One way to facilitate such space is for the flag to be experienced as inclusively as possible by all members of our community. After discussion among the trustees in tandem with some community participation, the Board has come to consensus to fly the flag at half-staff, both to acknowledge the grief and pain experienced by so many and to enable the full complexity of voices and experiences to be heard. This is an effort that will require time, trust, broad participation, and mutual respect; and while this is underway the flag will remain at half-staff. We have faith in our community’s ability to engage in this process of discernment with integrity, insight, and compassion.

Subject: President Lash’s Response to Open Letter
Date: Wed, 18 Nov 2015
Submitted by: Jonathan Lash

To the Hampshire College community:

I am writing to share with you my thoughts about the open letter written by Hampshire’s Faculty of Color, which I received yesterday morning. That letter quite rightly called us out for lowering the flag to recognize the death and suffering in Paris, but not in Beirut and so many other places where people are being killed and hurt, their lives upended on a daily basis by terrorist violence. I want to apologize again for our insensitivity and thoughtlessness. We were wrong.

Yesterday afternoon, Claudia Rankine read from her book Citizen, sharing poems, stories, and images about the pervasive racism in American society. I was profoundly moved and deeply disturbed by her portrayals of dehumanization, exclusion, and invisibility.

The open letter from Faculty of Color about the flag and Professor Rankine's reading about individual experiences powerfully connected the global and the personal for me. Together they brought home, even more strongly than before, the reality of how much people of color are forced to deal with others’ ignorance, micro-aggressions, and overt oppression and violence every day — and my own responsibility to counteract that whenever and wherever I can, both in myself and in my position as president of Hampshire.

In this historical moment we as a college must also recognize and respond to the unique experiences of international faculty, students, and staff who are Muslims and/or people of color. Every time there is an act of violence anywhere that is attributed to Islamic extremism, our colleagues and students suffer from the rising Islamophobia all around us. I can only begin to imagine how difficult it is to be from Lebanon or Syria or Nigeria — or so many other places — knowing that your family and community are in constant danger at home while on these shores you are threatened by escalating racism and discrimination. American society is deeply complicit in fostering such hatred. I want to say now — clearly and unequivocally — that Hampshire College stands with you and will not tolerate any prejudice. This campus must be a place where you are supported and safe.

Each of us, personally, must take responsibility for critical self-reflection and self-education around issues of racism, religious intolerance, xenophobia, and nationalism. We must continuously strive to examine our assumptions and confront our prejudices, holding ourselves accountable. We must also be willing to learn from each other and challenge each other, doing so from a stance of openness, respect, and humility that there is always more to learn and understand. I believe in the Hampshire community and our capacity to do this together, in common cause.

Jonathan Lash