In Students We Trust

The Editorial Board questions the Board of Trustees’ authority in the recent campus safety decision, calling for the prioritization of student experience and a more collaborative process for making decisions regarding campus life.

Last Monday, President Biddy Martin emailed students, staff, and faculty relaying the Board of Trustees' decision regarding changes in the role of the Amherst College Police Department (ACPD) on campus. The email claims that the decision was made only after thorough consideration of a report provided by the Campus Safety Advisory Committee and that while the ultimate decision does deviate from some of the report's suggestions — for example, by having campus police carry weapons instead of storing them — it mostly aligns with the report’s recommendations.

However, Biddy’s email explains that the trustees were the primary decision-makers due to their “fiduciary responsibility for the institution.” Simply put, this means that the trustees are bound by their positions to make decisions that are in the best interest of the institution they represent.

The trustees, as the people most legally responsible for the management of the ACPD, may seem like the correct party to make this decision. But how can they be given executive control over ACPD, when ACPD's governance is so deeply intertwined with student life?

As an off-campus entity, the Board of Trustees is both literally and metaphorically separated from student life. All 25 members graduated over two decades ago, and while the board has recently made some progress in terms of diversity, it is still made up of a majority of rich white men and is deeply unrepresentative of the makeup of today’s student body. Therefore, the trustees’ thoughts on what Amherst students want and need are informed by very different experiences, beliefs, and values than those of current students. The Board of Trustees is clearly unfit to represent students in a decision-making capacity.

It seems absurd for this obviously out-of-touch body to make a decision about something as relevant to the daily lives of students as policing. Even more unsettling is the lack of transparency about how the trustees came to their conclusion. Because meeting minutes are unavailable for years after they take place, we have no insight into the conversations that led to their decision. Biddy’s email tells the student body that the trustees carefully considered the Advisory Committee’s report and collected detailed data, but cites no sources and links to no statements. It is possible that the trustees took each point of the report into full consideration, with conversation about available research on relevant issues, but it is equally possible that none of that happened.

The biggest flaw in the trustees’ ACPD decision, then, is the way it was carried out. Students were left uninformed and uninvolved in the trustees’ conversations, and were not treated as true collaborators in the decision-making process. It is imperative that the student body be given avenues to work with the trustees to inform their decisions of campus life in the modern day, which is understood by no one better than the students who live it. For instance, the University of Massachusetts elects one student from each of its five constituent campuses to its Board of Trustees to serve single-year terms, thereby making students a part of the decision-making process. Students and the trustees should work collaboratively as they bring different perspectives to the table and both hold stake in the decision: students because they live here, and the board because they must secure the interests of the college.

A college is first and foremost intended to serve its students. Thus, even when it is necessary for the Board of Trustees to approve decisions that technically fall under their broad responsibility to the well-being of the institution, the Editorial Board believes that they should prioritize the lived experiences of those of us who spend four years of our lives here. If the college is to be a home for students, those students must both be informed of the decision-making process and be given a voice in decisions. The college commits itself to making our four years at college as positive an experience as it can be, but without true self-governance, such an experience is impossible.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 17; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 0).