On Monday night, the Amherst College community received an email from the President’s Office with the subject line “COVID-19: Major Changes.” The contents of the email notified students that the college will be moving to remote classes after spring break and that by Monday March 16, students will have to leave campus unless they have successfully petitioned to stay.
This news was met with an onslaught of concerns, many of which were expressed in a follow-up Town Hall-style AAS meeting where Dean Liz Agosto, Chief Student Affairs Officer Karu Kozuma and Dean Dean Gendron fielded questions from the student body. The degree of collective anxiety among the student body was exemplified by the attendance of this meeting. As Student Body President Avery Farmer put it, the meeting was “our best-attended one.” Walking around campus after the initial release of the email, the unease, anger and frustration among students was palpable. Amidst the vast array of concerns, there seems to be one particularly resonant question that has gone unanswered: how did we get here?
No doubt, this question has not gone unasked. At the AAS meeting, one student expressed the “surprise” she experienced upon reading the email and voiced a sentiment that has surely been on many people’s mind — essentially, what exactly went into the decision-making process? And why does it feel like students are only finding out about these considerations after they have been unilaterally settled?
Kozuma’s response was less than satisfying. He explained that other colleges across the country (he cited examples like Stanford University and the University of Washington) have been taking drastic measures in response to the coronavirus threat and thus it has been expected that the college would follow suit. The logic thus seems to boil down to hopping on the bandwagon behind other major colleges. It is concerning, however, that these other colleges had reported direct cases of COVID-19 on their campuses or were in areas where governors had declared a state of emergency — and where deaths had been reported. Both of which are not currently applicable to the college and the local area.
Of course, students should give the administration the benefit of the doubt. The administration is composed of individuals that are qualified for the positions they hold. The process of making a decision with such weighty consequences included much more than a “They did it so we should too” sort of reasoning. We apprecaite the hours of thought and concern the administration has poured into this choice.
The problem is that the student body has no way of knowing any of the important details regarding this stunning decision because the entire decision-making process has been obscured from the eyes of students. The opacity with which the administration has come up with preventative measures against the spread of coronavirus is unacceptable. Communication seems to come in the form of life-rattling emails after the decision has been made rather than taking students through the process as the plan gets developed. It is unacceptable that emails are sent like bullets into students inboxes, forcing them to scramble to book flights home — some into already contaminated and dangerous locations — pack their belongings into storage and be forced to leave with no clue about their return.
The result? The student body ends up blind-sided at a decision that they feel is an impulsive and hasty overreaction born from fear rather than rationality (even if it isn’t).
Kozuma emphasized at the AAS meeting that “So far, students have not been a part of the process, but you’ve been at the center of it.” Again, this response leaves much to be desired, though it may be subtly telling. It is not enough for students to be in the minds of the administration. They need to be integrated as direct points of contact with each step of the process as the administrative officials learn more and decide on more.
Lacking communication is the foundational source of panic. When people are not consulted nor informed about decisions that hold major impacts for their lives, their responses will be emotional — and you’ll end up with the most well-attended AAS meeting of the year. The experience of having an administrative body make a unilateral decision about one’s future is unnerving, to say the least. As students, we do not expect the administration to have all of the answers. We only expect, that when the decision has effects on our own lives, that we are not the last to know.
Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 9; dissenting: 3; abstaining: 1)