Administration Overhauls Party Policy to Student Frustrations

The college released changes to the Party Policy, a set of rules governing expectations of parties on campus, on Friday, Jan. 26. These include determining occupancy by venue, expecting party sponsors to manage attendance with staff assistance and requiring party sponsors to clean up the registered party space within one hour of the approved end time. The new party policy, announced in an email to students from Senior Associate Dean of Students Dean J. Gendron, takes effect for parties registered for and after Thursday, Feb. 1.

Much of the language in the policy has changed to emphasize the needs of the college. For example, the old policy stated that the registration process aimed “to reflect the wishes of those residents within the building while cooperatively respecting everyone’s living space.” Now, the updated section states that the process will also reflect “the college’s ability to effectively support logistics and safety.”

In his initial email to students, Gendron did not specify which aspects of the policy had changed but wrote that “[n]ew adjustments increase transparency and reduce pressures on party sponsors and residents of hosting halls.”

Policy Changes
Occupancy of “basic parties,” previously limited to 99 guests, will now be determined by venue size, and no more than one party per reservable room will be approved on the same date.

Exceeding occupancy may result in party termination. According to the party registration website, maximum occupancy ranges from 65 to 165 in the residence halls on the Triangle.

The updates also place more responsibility on party sponsors. While the old policy required one party sponsor per 50 expected guests, now one party sponsor is required per 20 expected guests.

The new policy writes that party sponsors are expected to “[m]anage safe attendance levels with assistance from staff” and clean up the registered party space “adequately immediately after the approved end time of the event.”

The previous policy made no mention of staff assistance and required party sponsors to clean up the registered party space by noon the following day for residential halls or by “the end of the night” for other public spaces.

Language was also changed to require party sponsors’ cooperation with both “professional staff” and the Amherst College Police Department instead of just ACPD.

Formerly, for party sponsors who failed to meet expectations, the policy stated that the first incident would result in a warning and a meeting with a Community Standards or Residential Life staff member, the second “may result in probation and/or an educational sanction” and the third “may result in escalated sanctions, housing relocation or removal from housing.”

Now, the first tier of measures will be utilized when the “failed expectation is very minor,” while “typically failing to meet the expectations outlined … will result in a probationary status and/or an educational sanction” as a second-tier punishment.

There was no specific definition of what constitutes a minor or major failed expectation.

The same warning and meeting appeared under Tier One in the old policy, but the college has specified in the new policy that the meeting will involve developing a plan to “avoid future problems.” Tier Two has additional repercussions, including possible restrictions on future registration or sponsorship.

In addition to the previous policy’s possible charges of “damages and fines” to the party sponsors when people responsible for damages cannot be identified, party sponsors now “may be charged for all damages and cleaning charges.”

Party sponsors can also now file Community Standards reports on the college website to report “extenuating circumstances.”

When the updates were released on Jan. 26, a policy change required party sponsors to meet with Student Affairs prior to party authorization to discuss guidelines and undergo training. Between 9 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 29 and 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 30, the language on the webpage changed without notice, now only stating that “[s]tudents are encouraged to meet with a professional.”

The Student also could not locate a copy of the old party policy online; it was sent by Director of Community Standards Corey Michalos and Gendron upon request.

Policy changes come after an email to students from the Office of Residential Life on Jan. 19 detailing a total of $14,855 in damages to common areas for all residential areas in Fall 2017.

Administrative Response to Student Backlash
Chief Student Affairs Officer Suzanne Coffey and Gendron sent a second email to the student body on Tuesday, Jan. 30 explaining the reasons behind the new policy in light of student backlash. They cited a “significant rise in harmful, disrespectful and dangerous conduct on campus that we believe has reached an alarming state” as the motive for moving quickly with the policy updates.

“[W]e apologize for surprising you and for failing to share our plans with the entire student body before acting,” they wrote. “Your frustration about that is understandable.”

According to their email, hospital transports related to intoxication in Fall 2017 exceeded those in the entire previous academic year, and Student Affairs received reports of vandalism and property destruction every weekend, in addition to reports of violence, sexual harassment, groping and assault.

“The costs for clean-up and repair keep rising in proportion to the increase in damage caused by a few individuals in our community,” the email stated. “The often odious cleaning and significant repair falls squarely in the lap of our dedicated custodial and facilities staff, who are subjected to sickening conditions. This behavior is beneath contempt.”

The college considered policies at 12 peer institutions, including those in the NESCAC, Swarthmore and Brown. At every one of these schools, Coffey and Gendron wrote, parties must be registered, and party sponsors are responsible for adherence to occupancy limits and alcohol laws and policies.

“While we understand that some of you disagree with the need for such policies and practices, we must take seriously our responsibility for student safety while simultaneously respecting students’ desires for appropriate degrees of freedom in organizing and enjoying parties,” the email wrote. “We have not yet found the right balance and cannot find it without your help … It is easier to take the route of blaming the administration for ‘infantilizing’ you. It is important for all of us to be honest, however.”

The email then addressed new measures in the policy and ended by inviting students to participate in a future Student Affairs survey regarding issues of student social and residential life.

Students React with Frustration
The Amherst Association of Students (AAS) President Aditi Krishnamurthy ’18 said she received no notice of the new policy and no outreach inviting her or the AAS to discuss updates. She expressed particular frustration with “the lack of transparency with the whole process” and changes that were “lackluster” and “not particularly clear.”

She also questioned how the college would enforce the new policies, such as the requirements for cleaning up within an hour of the registered end time. “Overall, I don’t think anyone is looking at this as a significant improvement,” she said.

In an email statement to The Student, AAS Senator Elias Schultz ’18 commended the Office of Community Standards and Michalos for having demonstrated intent to hear students’ concerns — Student Affairs held “moderately attended” community standards forums with students to discuss social life and issues from Nov. 29 through Dec. 12, according to Gendron in a separate interview.

Schultz said, however, that the decision-making process behind the policy updates neglected student voices. “These changes … put even more responsibility in the hands of sponsors, introduce more obstacles to successfully hosting an event, make social life more bureaucratic and introduce more administrative oversight to student life,” Schultz wrote.

The new policy will contribute to dissatisfaction with social life, he added, something that should concern the administration in “attracting new students and maintaining a respectful relationship with the current student body.”

Bryan Doniger ’18 said countering policy changes is difficult because the administration can point to the accrued damages to college property in the past year, but maintained that he does not advocate for the policy changes.

“I’m suspicious that the legal technique here is to shift a responsibility away from the school and onto individuals,” Doniger said. “The danger of it is it makes a number of assumptions about what it is to be a student … that we as students are not capable of learning to tend to and care for one another, to be in community with one another in ways that are mutually inclusive without a police logic that is punitively placed upon us.”

David Shin ’19, a resident of Seelye Dormitory who was charged for unaccounted dorm damage, said he was initially upset about having to cover its costs and felt the partygoers should be held accountable. “But when I saw the new policy and saw that they would just charge all unattributed damages to party sponsors, I couldn’t help but think that some of these parties rake up over a thousand dollars in dorm damage,” he said. “A lot of people don’t have that to cover dorm damages.”

The policy also does not include any procedures for helping party sponsors hold other partygoers accountable for fines, Shin said.

Though he called the changes “misguided,” Shin said he understands the administration’s actions. “If you’re raking up $15,000 in dorm damage … we’re definitely not acting like adults,” he said.

According to Krishnamurthy, the AAS is working to compile a list of alternate policies, such as employing student security to monitor parties, and will write them into another letter to the administration. The AAS is also considering contacting the Board of Trustees.

Coffey reached out to Krishnamurthy a few hours after her email on Tuesday and asked for assistance on how to best solicit feedback from students, suggesting small group meetings.

“The main piece of the note that people are frustrated by is the comparison with our peer institutions without acknowledging that our resident model is not comparable at other schools,” Krishnamurthy said, citing other schools’ opportunities for off-campus residential life. “I was happy to meet with her, but at this point I don’t think there’s any real purpose in selecting small groups … There really needs to be some face-to-face contact between the administration and all the students.”

Krishnamurthy responded to Coffey proposing a town hall instead and hopes to coordinate dates so all members of Coffey’s team can attend.

Past Conflict
The AAS has previously voiced its displeasure with the way the college administration handles incidents regarding party policies. Members wrote a letter to President Biddy Martin, Coffey and Gendron on Dec. 10, addressing student frustrations regarding unannounced walkthroughs in select dormitories by administrators including Coffey and Michalos on the night of Dec. 9.

“A number of events (largely on the Triangle) were shut down in a manner inconsistent with other social weekends,” the AAS wrote in an email to students on Dec. 10. The email included the text of its letter to administrators and asked students who agreed “that it’s time for the administration to start treating us as equal members of this community” to sign the letter in support. More than 400 students signed the letter within 24 hours.

Krishnamurthy said she drafted the AAS letter with a few other senators, including Schultz, after witnessing Michalos shut down a party on Dec. 9 in the third-floor common room of Hitchcock House and receiving a number of student complaints regarding other walkthroughs.

Their main goal in writing the letter, she said, is to create a less antagonistic relationship with the administration.

“There is a difference between enforcing the rules consistently and safely in a way where students know what to expect and we can have a relationship with the administration as opposed to it being like, ‘We’re going to come sometimes! There are no real rules, but today there are rules!”’ Krishnamurthy said. “What this letter is saying is, ‘Sure, there are problems, and we want to solve problems with you … But this is not the way to do that.”’

“I will qualify all of this by saying that we do have rules in the Student Handbook,” she added. “It does say we can’t have hard alcohol in a common space. I’m not saying we should be allowed to run wild and free, but that rule is never regulated.”

Krishnamurthy was charged with $55 for dorm damage fees to Hitchcock even though she said she does not attend parties at the dorm on weekends. “I’m not happy about [dorm damages] either,” she said. “But rules need to be consistent.”

The consensus in the class of 2018, according to Krishnamurthy, is that the architectural problem needs to be addressed. After the demolition of the social dorms, she said, students could no longer gather with friends in private common spaces, which restricted social life to “big, organized groups of people, generally athletic teams, who have those numbers, who are able to dominate dorms on Hitchcock and the Triangle.”

There is no accountability, Schultz said, because “they’re partying in the living spaces of strangers.”

The AAS hopes to address this larger issue of space, Schultz said, but it requires mutually respectful communication between students and administrators — not “some really intense monitoring and the administration’s overreach,” he said.

According to Krishnamurthy, Coffey sent a brief reply to Krishnamurthy’s personal email account about a week after the letter was released. “We are currently discussing ideas for enhancing social life at the college in ways that will involve inviting into the conversation the members of our community who chose Amherst as a place to learn and grow,” Coffey wrote, using some of the language from the AAS letter.

Students who signed the letter were allowed to include comments, and more than one response mentioned desires to transfer.

Olivia Vayer ’18 questioned the motives behind the Dec. 9 walkthroughs. “There was a sense that the individuals doing walkthroughs were trying to get people in trouble rather than improve overall well-being by decreasing sexual predation/sexual violence and binge-drinking behavior,” Vayer wrote. “If the latter is truly their intention, how they approached the situation was certainly not effective, instead brewing student resentment and driving risky drinking behavior behind closed doors.”

Others asked for more open conversation.

“Although I do not actively engage in many aspects of the social life [at] Amherst, I am concerned with how the lack of dialogue between the administration and students creates unnecessary divisions in this community and encourages closeted behaviours,” Sarah Wishloff ’19 wrote.

“In my experience as a freshman non-athlete, inclusive parties are rare,” Rebecca Schrader ’21 wrote. “However, I don’t think its [sic] impossible to create open and safe party spaces, I think the administration and the student body needs to seriously reconsider the way social spaces are designed on campus.”

According to Krishnamurthy and Schultz, most of the feedback they’ve received from students is in agreement with the AAS letter.

No parties were evaluated for approval via the college’s registration system for the weekend of Jan. 26 and Jan. 27.

Martin could not be reached for comment. Though Coffey and Michalos initially intended to send a statement to The Student, they did not provide further comment after releasing their email to the student body on Tuesday afternoon.