Seeing Double: Administrators Should Talk to Students

Seeing Double columnist Cole Graber-Mitchell ‘22 outlines why the administration needs to consult students before making certain decisions.

Administrators have the very difficult job of running a mini-city that caters to the needs of a particularly obstinate and hard-to-please group: students. I don’t envy that job, and I have a lot of respect for the people who choose it. But recently, the administration has only been making its job harder.

I’m talking about the increasing number of top-down decisions made with seemingly no input from students. When this happens, the decisions tend to be unworkable or under-developed. They cause students undue stress, create more problems than they solve, and ultimately lead to uproar. Frequently, the administration has to walk these decisions back.

For example, take the recent decision — now paused — to convert the Nicholls Biondi studio into a fitness space with “an elliptical, bikes, a treadmill, and free weights.” That studio, O’Connor Commons, and the basement of Marsh are the only three places on campus where student dance groups can rehearse: dancers need mirror walls to see themselves and special floors to prevent injury. The only other suitable spaces on campus are controlled by the Theater and Dance Department and no longer allow student reservations. So when the Office of Residential Life explained in an email that dance groups would lose one of their few rehearsal spaces, and the Office of Student Activities dutifully canceled all of the space’s reservations for the rest of the semester, dancers were rightfully pissed.

If the administration had taken a moment to ask students what they thought of the decision, maybe someone would have told them that dancers needed the space. Maybe someone would have explained that dance is how many students promote their well-being, the reason touted for the change. Even better, the administration could have asked what the space’s users thought of the change. Then they surely would have received feedback telling them that the space was, in fact, very important. I’m extraordinarily sympathetic to the administration’s intent, and I was looking forwards to using the equipment there. But their execution is the problem.

Another example comes from fall semester: the email we received on Nov. 22 detailing move-out, interterm move-in, and new rules for who could be on campus during winter break and interterm. In the email, the administration said for the first time that students had to move out by noon on Dec. 18 and that students planning to be on campus for interterm had to move in on Jan. 2. (In a town hall hosted by the Association for Amherst Students (AAS), Dean of Students and Interim Chief Student Affairs Officer Liz Agosto claimed that these dates had been communicated earlier, but a search of my email yields nothing before Nov. 22.)

First of all, this was far too late to inform students that they had to leave by Dec. 18. A month’s notice is not enough to buy plane tickets, which are cheapest about six weeks out. Many students had already bought tickets to leave on the 19th and 20th by the time of the announcement.

Secondly, and more importantly, it was ludicrous to ask students to arrive all on the same day for interterm. Like fall move-out, many students had already bought tickets. For me, arriving on Jan. 5 was hundreds of dollars cheaper. Moreover, the new policies utterly annihilated some students’ plans to arrive halfway through January to work on projects or go to nearby conferences. Before the pandemic, anyone could be on campus during winter break and interterm as long as they informed the administration of their plans.

If the administration had asked students about whether or not these dates and policies worked, someone would have explained the obvious problems with them. Instead, the administration decided they knew best. And the result was typical: the email wreaked havoc in students’ plans, stressing students out and causing them to waste money switching tickets. Then, after the Housing Operations Team was inundated with emails and did not respond to student concerns for weeks, the AAS sent an apoplectic letter to Dean Agosto explaining the policies’ problems. Eventually, the administration walked back their unworkable decision.

All of this is to say that students should be involved in college decisions. I’m not suggesting that the administration send out an all-school poll for every policy change. That would be absurd and irritating. But we can at least expect them to reach out to student stakeholders, like the dancers who had reserved Nicholls Biondi, before making changes that affect them. And for issues as important as interterm, administrators should talk to the AAS, which, for all my co-columnist’s ranting, contains a fairly representative collection of students.

This talking, and the listening that would hopefully follow, might make administrators’ jobs a little harder on the frontend. But the advantages on the backend — including better, more workable policies and buy-in from at least some students, who will help convince others — are worth it. Students are far more likely to comply with policies they helped set than those that seem arbitrary and tyrannical. And being involved in policy-making will help show students why some desirable policies are impossible, promoting compromise and a healthier administrative environment.

But students are more than strategically useful in policy-making. We live, eat, work, and play here; this is our home for the better part of four years. We should have a say in how it all works, as should staff and faculty.Unfortunately, perhaps due to the Covid-19 emergency, the administration seems loath to cooperate by default with students in college governance. Dean Agosto has committed to better communication from her office, but that isn’t enough. Students are plenty talked at. The problem is that we aren’t talked with.