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“Lord Jeff” mascot/knickname likely to land in the dustbin of history

Amherst sports teams have long been known as the “Jeffs,” the “Lord Jeffs,” or the “LJs” in honor of Lord Jeffrey Amherst. Lord Jeffrey Amherst was the commander in chief of the British forces that conquered much of what is now Canada in the French and Indian War (1754-63) that preceded the Revolutionary War and drove the French out of the northern part of North America. During and after this war, a number of North American towns were named after Lord Amherst, including Amherst, Mass., Amherst, N.Y., Amherst, N.H., and Amherst, Nova Scotia, with the town of Amherst, Mass., being incorporated and named in 1759 during the height of Lord Amherst’s prominence. Amherst College was founded some 62 years later in 1821 and was named in honor of the town in which it was located, backdooring its way into an unplanned but long lasting affiliation with the Lord Jeffrey Amherst name.

Lord Amherst’s name has achieved ignominy in recent years as a result of a well-documented plan to use smallpox-infested blankets to infect Native Americans, who participated in a 1764 uprising against the British after the French and Indian War, and his written declaration in connection with developing those plans of a desire to “Extirpate this Execrable Race” in reference to Native Americans.

Amherst teams have long been known as the “Lord Jeffs” although Amherst, unlike most other NESCACs, does not have an official mascot. For a number of years, there has been a push back against the association between Amherst teams and Lord Amherst. The debate about the identity of Amherst’s mascot is now front and center in an ongoing larger debate or movement on the Amherst campus about racism and diversity that is known as Amherst Uprising. Similar campus debates are ongoing at other NESCACs, spawned by student-led protests at the University of Missouri and Yale based on allegations of institutional racism. NESCAC schools where these on-campus debates have been active in the past few weeks include: BowdoinColbyMiddlebury; TrinityTufts; and Wesleyan.

As part of this debate, Amherst students participated in a recent poll that showed overwhelming support for eliminating the “Lord Jeff” moniker for Amherst teams (83% in favor of elimination, with 89% of students responding to the survey). The next step in the process is a meeting of the Amherst Board of Trustees in January of 2016 where a final decision on the fate of the “Lord Jeff” name will be made. These developments indicate that Amherst will likely end the use of the “Lord Jeff” name in the not-too-distant future and pick a more conventional college mascot. The Amherst website has already stopped using the “Jeffs” knickname and is now referring to Amherst teams as the “Purple & White.”

Here are the key passages with regard to the fate of the Amherst mascot from a longer letter to the Amherst community from Amherst President Biddy Martin on November 20, which provide a sense of how far along these internal discussions have advanced:

Let me say something about the matter of the mascot. At the end of their special meeting on Monday, faculty decided to take an unofficial straw poll on the question of whether the College should keep or drop its use of the Lord Jeff as the unofficial mascot of the College. As some of you have read in The New York Times and other media outlets, every member of the faculty who attended the meeting voted to stop using the current mascot. Because this was not an official meeting of the faculty, the vote is also unofficial. This was not simply a response to student protests. The faculty at Amherst has been discussing the mascot among themselves for a long time.

This week the student government conducted a poll of students. The results were released this morning. 1,606 students, or 89% of the student body, took part. In response to the question, “Do you think Lord Jeffery Amherst should be removed as our unofficial mascot?,” 83% voted yes, 17% voted no.

The faculty and student votes come at a time when we have actively solicited the views of alumni. As part of the representative alumni survey that was done earlier this year, there was a question posed about the mascot. Responses to it broke down in the following way. One third felt that it should be kept; one third felt that it should go; and one third indicated that it did not much matter to them. I asked the Alumni Executive Committee just a few weeks ago to solicit additional input by involving more alumni and they have done that by arranging for an alumni forum on the College website. Recent events and media stories seem to have outstripped the process we had in mind in advance of a board discussion. For that I am sorry. On campus people have tried to deal with the divisiveness of the mascot as best they can. The Board of Trustees is going to take up the mascot issue at its January meeting. In the meantime, recent events have led the Alumni Executive Committee to continue seeking alumni views by adding a poll, which they will share via e-News with alumni later today.

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