Amherst College Dropping 'Lord Jeff' As Mascot

Amherst College dropping Lord Jeffs as mascot

AMHERST — When Caryl-Rose Pofcher prepared to move to this town 12 years ago, she had only a vague understanding of who Lord Jeffery Amherst was.

When she landed here, she couldn't escape his name. It was on a coffeeshop, a dry cleaner, a bookstore and the tiny, historic liberal arts college that dominates one side of town.

So she did some research, and terms like "smallpox blankets" jumped out at her.

"It makes me a little uneasy, but I forget about it usually, until a tourist comes to town to stay with me," Pofcher said Wednesday as Rover, her English bulldog, tugged at his leash. "Then I remember it and cringe."

But Tuesday was a watershed moment for Pofcher and many of her like-minded neighbors, who said they welcomed the announcement that Amherst College was dropping "Lord Jeff" as its mascot after extensive student protest and debate.

"I'm proud of the students for thinking of this," Pofcher said. "They're taking action, doing it in a way that seems to be mannerful."

Amherst's dramatic decision comes as other schools, including Yale University, are embroiled in fierce campus debates over the symbolism of historic names and mascots.

Cullen Murphy, chairman of Amherst's board of trustees, said in a statement that the college has decided to nix Lord Jeff in its "official communications, its messaging and its symbolism." That also includes renaming the Lord Jeffery Inn, an iconic hotel on the campus.

Furor over the 18th century military man rose among the student body last year, centered on his alleged wartime suggestion to use smallpox against Native Americans.

"What is beyond dispute is that the symbolic figure of Lord Jeff has become a source of division among us today," Murphy wrote. He added that, according to a recent survey by the board, 85 percent of students and faculty said they "have an unfavorable view of Lord Jeff as a College symbol."

The decision to choose a replacement mascot, if at all, will fall to a "joint group" of current students and alumni, according to Murphy.

On campus, word spread quickly among the students, who have just returned for the spring semester.

"I'm glad to have this," said Sue Ghosh, a senior environmental studies major and a member of Amherst's women's tennis team. "I don't think the mascot represents what we students or student-athletes represent."

Ghosh said she came late to the idea of changing the mascot. Initially, she said, she saw it as a "dumb argument," one that wasn't worth stressing over.

"But as the movement came to the forefront, and I became more educated about how it affected some students, it was clear that it needed to be changed," she said. "I'm sure it'll be weird, as an athlete, not chanting 'Jeff' anymore, but that's not important.

"Our teams represent Amherst, not this man."

In New Haven, the Amherst decision was seen as a shot in the arm for a similar movement among Yale students.

Last fall, the Yale campus was rocked with marches, teach-ins and tense campus confrontations as students described racial inequities at Yale and made a number of demands of the administration, including a call for a change in the name of Calhoun College, a residence hall at Yale named for one of slavery's most ardent defenders, John C. Calhoun.

Adrien Gau, a junior who was active in the movement on campus last semester, said it was "really awesome" to hear about the Amherst decision to abolish Lord Jeff.

"While a mascot is very different from a residential college name," Gau said, "I think it can provide some more momentum toward the renaming of Calhoun. … I'm 100 percent sure it's weighing on the minds of [the] Yale administration in any case."

Katie Warshaw, a senior European studies major at Amherst, said the Lord Jeff decision is in line with the college's "growing diversity and respect for all cultures."

"It's not only good in getting rid of the name of a person who did terrible things, but it helps represent the true colors of Amherst," she said on the steps of the campus's Robert Frost Library. "Although a tradition formed around it, we're really named after the town."

And around town, many longtime residents echoed the satisfaction of the students.

Some, however, balked at the attention the college's decision was being given.

Michael Miller, who's lived in Amherst for 25 years, saw little use in getting upset about a man who's been dead for two centuries.

"People in the town should be focused on more important things, on things that are happening now," he said, such as unrest in the Middle East, domestic terror attacks and presidential politics.

"To me, that's what important, not the name of a college's mascot."

Matt Stamell, a three-decade resident of Amherst, acknowledges that there are other issues affecting the town. But he can't ignore the Lord Jeff departure.

"I think overall it's a good idea," he said as he grabbed his morning cup at Share Coffee, around the corner from Stamell String Instruments, his music store.

Stamell pointed to similar mascot swaps at other schools — Dartmouth College, St. John's University, Stanford University and even Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford — and the souring on the display of the Confederate flag.

"You can't satisfy everyone, but you can't avoid change, either," he said.

"Over the years, Amherst itself has become completely independent from that one man," he said. "Ultimately it's the college's mascot, not ours. They were the ones who needed to figure it out."

Don Courtemanche, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, agreed that the issue of the mascot has always been "a student issue."

"It really boils down to the simple argument that mascots are meant to unite, not tear apart," he said. "If only 15 percent of students are in favor of something, that's a problem."

Like Stamell, Courtemanche is in favor of preserving the town's name.

"Renaming Amherst would radically alter it," he said. "It has its own identity, and for many people here, it's just home."

Courant staff writer Kathleen Megan contributed to this story.

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