BOSTON – These days, defining diversity seems to be the big issue on campus.
But at Amherst College in Massachusetts, they're doing more than talking about it. They're adding "diversity seats" to the 32-member Student Senate for groups that have been "historically silenced."
Five candidates representing different minority groups applied for the seats, including an international student, a homosexual, a conservative, a Latino and an Asian. All except one were chosen -- the conservative candidate.
Ted Hertzberg, the conservative student, says he deserved the seat for the same reasons the others did.
"Conservative students on the Amherst campus are a minority," he said. "Their views are suppressed. They're the subject of ridicule and sometimes violence."
Amherst, which has 1,600 students, has repeatedly been voted the top liberal arts college in the country by U.S. News and World Report. It's considered one of the most liberal of the liberal arts schools in the country.
Hertzberg said he never thought he could actually win on a campus where only two out of 160 professors are registered Republicans.
"What the Student Senate has done is symptomatic of the way diversity is defined on campus," he said. "People see diversity as a matter of race, as a matter of sexual preference, as a matter of origin. Students need to be recognized as individual people and judged on their merit."
Chris Sorrentino won the seat representing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. He doesn't see the need for a conservative seat.
"I know conservative students on campus and they talk politically with me and other people," said Sorrentino. "And I've never sensed tension or anything that would be considered a silencing of that voice."
But Hertzberg has won some allies like Student Senator Ali Hassan, who calls diversity seats undemocratic.
"I also find it kind of offensive because it assumes that here at Amherst people will not vote for someone if they're part of a minority," Hassan said.
He's started a petition and collected enough signatures to force a referendum in January on whether to do away with the seats entirely.
Regardless of the outcome, Amherst students say the debate has been good for campus. It's become a lesson in the definition of diversity and whether it's more than just skin deep.