The Problem of Complacency

Statistically speaking, last year was not a stellar year for the College’s admissions. Total applications dropped from 8,555 for the Class of 2016 to 7,927 for the class of 2017, representing a decline of 8.2 percent. The overall admit rate increased from 13.3 percent to 13.7 percent. As other colleges across the United States reported increased application numbers and higher selectivity (largely as a result of high school students applying to more schools), many students could not help but suspect that the turmoil and negative publicity that riled the College last year had damaged it permanently.

Yesterday, those fears may have been allayed. In the US News and World Report College Rankings 2014, published yesterday, Amherst remained comfortably ranked as the number two best liberal arts college in the nation. This should not come as a surprise. As a small liberal arts college, Amherst receives a much smaller applicant pool than larger universities. As a result, random fluctuations from year to year will be much more noticeable. Many of the issues that the College faced last year were not endemic to Amherst itself, but rather problems affecting all institutions. Despite whatever transient difficulties the College confronts, almost two hundred years of excellence can hardly be overturned in a single year. Many students may now feel relieved. They should not.

The temptation to take comfort in what is essentially a meaningless commercial publication breeds complacency. A complacency that the College cannot afford. It is always easier to believe that problems do not exist than to confront them. Despite how fallacious and irrational it may be, it is reassuring to believe that because the College’s rankings did not change, the College has not changed. It may very well be the case that revelations of the administrative mismanagement of sexual misconduct, or tensions and divisions over campus center changes, or misallocation of funds for the construction of a new science center really did not affect the College’s reputation, i.e., on how prospective students or the editors of US News may view Amherst. But they certainly changed how we should view ourselves. All problems faced by the College instigated a immediate, often impressive and visible, response by the students and administration. Yet, a year later, little beyond the superficial has changed, and in some respects, things have even regressed. A pattern arises: the College has always dealt with enduring problems with ephemeral solutions. But a flare of passion is not the flame of progress. If Amherst had fallen in its ranking, at least it would have reignited some spark and may have inspired some serious thought and action. The College’s repeated strong showing in the US News report, however, is really a curse in disguise, the blanket of complacency that extinguishes whatever embers may have remained.