We Need Better Communication

As we transition out of stage 2 of quarantine during our second semester of hybrid learning, it may feel like the virus’s spread is successfully under control. Despite the thoroughness of Amherst’s guidelines and accountability measures, managing campus life amid a pandemic remains a delicate balancing act, especially when the measures need to be adaptive to changing situations on campus.

Last week, the college asked three international students to leave campus due to a violation of the Covid-19 policies during stage 2 of quarantine. In a letter responding to the incident which has accumulated over 200 student signatures, students contrasted this with the college’s reaction to rule violations by white students, particularly athletes. They have argued that Black and international students have been disproportionately punished for relatively less egregious offenses. Though the college promptly reversed this decision two days after it was released, this incident seems indicative of a broader communicational failing.  

While the Editorial Board supports the college’s efforts to be vigilant in maintaining a safe campus environment, it is clear that a lack of transparency about policy surrounding rule violations has resulted in a perception of bias and a lack of trust amongst students on campus. We urge the administration to address these concerns through the establishment of a more formal procedure for responding to different cases, giving students an understanding of which student actions will be met with which administration responses.

The central area of student complaint in regards to Amherst’s Covid-19 policy has been a lack of clear, formal regulation. Without a visible set of guidelines and punishments, students are forced to infer the college’s decision-making system solely on the basis of precedent. This leads to the understanding of a set of unspoken rules by the college community, followed by the student body though no formal declarations have been made. When the college transgresses these unspoken understandings, backlash is swift and powerful because the student body has no other way of understanding the decisions outside of the context of prior administrative actions. 

On February 25, days after the incident, Dean of Students Liz Agosto sent out an email in which she acknowledges the gaps in communication and clarifies the outcome corresponding to each type of violation and the process of evaluating reports. While such clarification in response to the backlash is helpful in preventing similar confusion in the future, we urge the college to provide formalized rules and inform the student body of crucial rule changes more proactively beyond passive responses to students’ outcry for openness.

While we can appreciate that decisions made on a case-by-case basis may seem to administrators like the best way to account for different student needs, the lack of visible standardization has made the decision-making process an enigma to a student body that just wants to do whatever is necessary to avoid being sent home. This is especially the case for international students, such as those who sparked the incident, as being told they had to leave campus is particularly difficult with their home countries sometimes oceans away and under strict Covid lockdowns, and for low-income students, many of whom lack safe home environments or the necessary space at home to participate in an Amherst education.

And while the administration may hope that keeping students in the dark about which violations will lead to dismissal will generate enough fear to make the student body loyal rule followers, it’s clear that it has frequently had the opposite effect — with students instead assuming that regardless of their violations the college would not go so far as to send them home. Even if it were the case that keeping the students in the dark were effective, a lack of formal responses makes it seem as though every violation will be met with the same action, when in reality it would be better to punish violations through a determination of the level of risk or danger they pose to the campus and the nearby community.

Working out these issues regarding communication and transparency will also help the administration enforce the regulations in a more equitable manner across student identities and different circumstances and address perceived inequities. Ultimately, we remain optimistic about Amherst’s ability to keep the community safe with more structure, openness and clarity.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 9; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 5)