College Comments on Generous Budget of Bicentennial Party

The college has not disclosed its spending on the Oct. 15 Bicentennial Party, which featured several extravagant amusements, from a ferris wheel to a performance by Grammy award-winning artist Common. The Student investigated the motivation behind the celebration, as well as the source of the funds.

Grammy Award-winning artist Common performs at the Bicentennial Party. The extravagance of the Oct. 15 festivities led students to question the amount the college spent on the event. Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

The college’s spending on its Oct. 15 Bicentennial Party has not been disclosed, remaining a question among students. The lavish celebration included a variety of crowd-pleasers, from a ferris wheel to a performance by Grammy award-winning artist Common. The Student investigated the planning of the celebration, in an effort to illuminate the motivation behind the spending, as well as the source of the funds.

According to Chief Communications Officer Sandy Genelius, the college began preparations for the Bicentennial nearly three years ago, viewing it as “a natural opportunity for the community to not only reflect on the college’s history — warts and all — but also to look forward to what the college still can be and to build community.”

The Bicentennial Advising Committee — which included students, faculty, trustees, staff, and alumni — was charged with reviewing project proposals submitted by members of the community. These proposals were initially solicited from Amherst community members in 2019. The form where proposals were to be submitted included the following note: “There will be some College funding available for Bicentennial-related projects, but it will be limited,” and asked applicants to describe existing funds “available to use for this project.” The college declined to comment on how much money was initially earmarked for the Bicentennial initiatives overall, or where that money came from.

In addition to these community suggestions, the committee also took into account “information from many peer institutions” who were celebrating similar milestones, said Genelius. A smaller steering committee then recommended certain proposals to President Biddy Martin.

The initial committee goals included building pride, commemorating Amherst’s 200-year history, and “articulat[ing] and celebrat[ing] the importance of the liberal arts.” Guiding principles included planning a variety of events, incorporating art, and “not gloss[ing] over moments of conflict in the college’s history.”

The structuring of the budget changed along with the plans for the Bicentennial when the pandemic began.

The launch for the Bicentennial was originally scheduled to begin with Commencement 2020 and end in the fall of 2021. The pandemic put a wrench in those plans, and virtually all of the planned events were cancelled or changed to be virtual. “As the pandemic continued to affect in-person events, we concentrated effort on other outlets for marking the event: the Bicentennial website and social media channels,” Genelius said. Virtual initiatives included an interactive timeline, essays, archives, and an anniversary event of the Amherst Uprising.

Bridget Carmichael ’22E, who joined the Bicentennial Committee in fall 2019, noted that students on the committee “were told not to have any financial restrictions in terms of our project ideas.” However, she could not speak to the budget after Covid hit: “We had continued meetings, and then they just completely cut us off cold turkey. And then we never heard from them again.”

As Covid restrictions began to loosen, the committee looked to a singular in-person event to culminate the programming and celebrate the Bicentennial in a “celebratory” way, which came in the form of Oct. 15th’s Bicentennial Party.

Despite student curiosity, the college declined to share a specific number for the Bicentennial Celebration’s budget. “Because they felt no obligation to share the budget, we are left to guess how much it must have cost — and if their silence says anything, it says that they spent far too much money,” said Edmund Kennedy ’23E.

In a statement to The Student, Genelius and interim Chief Financial Officer Tom Dwyer described the party as “not identified as one of the needs and priorities of the College’s budget expenditures because of its small size… and the fact that it is a one-time, as opposed to an ongoing, budget expense.” Genelius wrote that “the budget was generally consistent with a variety of similarly conceived campus events,” such as Fall Fest. Like with Fall Fest, Dining Services handled much of the catering for the Bicentennial Celebration. The celebration also included food from Daddy’s Fried Dough, Giggles, Wildwood BBQ, and Mom On the Go. Grammy-award winning artist Common’s performance and the elaborate music-accompanied fireworks show were additional expenses as compared to Fall Fest.

Genelius and Dwyer said that the funds for the celebration came from “a combination of regular event budgets and designated gift accounts,” highlighting the fact that there were leftover funds for events due to the lack of in-person events such as FallFest and WinterFest during the pandemic. Genelius and Dwyer emphasized the college’s “solid financial footing” in their statement, and the “very strong” endowment return from FY21, factors also cited in the recent announcement of financial aid expansion.

Following the celebration, students expressed concerns about the optics of the party during a week in which other conversations around budgeting, such as the payment of Dining Services staff and the work of the Counseling Center, were occurring.

“While it was a fun party, I can't help but be bothered that they were willing to spend an exorbitant amount of money on a party but drag their feet with paying workers, both in Valentine dining hall and student orientation leaders, what they are owed,” said Kennedy. “Their priorities are in the wrong order … My recommendation for the Tricentennial: pay your workers better instead of having one night of ‘fun.’”

Carmichael was told that the festival was meant in part to celebrate the class of 2021, but once the pandemic forced the Bicentennial into the fall, “there was no student input in terms of Bicentennial planning.”

Not every student felt as if the budget was too much. “I personally think it was probably pretty high,” said Fritz Lalley ’25. “But for the 200th anniversary of an institution, price is no obstacle. And I’m assuming that’s the way they were looking at it.”

Primarily, some students were concerned with the lack of financial transparency, and confusion around budgeting in general. “This administration and administrations in the future need to get used to being more transparent with how they are spending the money,” Kennedy stated.

Lalley expressed similar sentiments. “I probably should have a right to that sort of information, being that I’m a student here,” he added, though he also acknowledged that it would “make the administration’s jobs harder” to share information consistently.