By Jesse Pagliuca ’16
Volume XXXVII, Issue 1, February 21, 2014
On February 4, Amherst students received an email from Dean Jim Larimore resigning from his post as Dean of Students. Shortly following that, students learned that Suzanne Coffey would (effectively) replace Larimore, without a search for other candidates. Those emails provoked a chain of emotions from the student body at large. Many students cared enough to feel upset but not enough to seek the facts that might justify their anger. A wave of vague frustration swept through campus as students speculated about how the administration might change following Larimore’s departure. After a few days of meetings, small protests, and questions, however, this frustration gave way to cynical apathy. Below, I’ve outlined the five stages in student thinking that help account for this transition, in the hopes of showing how students might be more successful in having their voices heard on this and other matters.
Stage 1: Shock. Jim Larimore is gone? Just like that? Huh?
Students perceived Dean Larimore as a promising administrator who was willing to think outside the box. He was the college’s knight in shining armor (or Jeff in purple robe?) in an administration that many students feel they can’t connect with. Before his sudden departure, he implemented a party policy that met with near unanimous approval. Given Larimore’s relative success in bridging gaps between students and their administration, his decision to leave understandably left students scratching their heads.
Stage 2: Confusion. What does this all mean for the school? What are all these emails I’m getting? Why are they so long? I’ll just skim it.
After reading a vague email from Larimore with the subject line “informing you of a personal decision,” students had questions. Most pressingly: Why did Larimore really leave? What the hell is the “Head of Student Affairs?” Why Coffey?
Here are a few thoughts that might help answer these questions. According to Matt DeButts, “Biddy worried that an all-school email would make the situation seem more dire than it is (all-school emails being usually reserved for fairly grave topics).” After discussing the matter, Biddy and Matt jointly decided that the email should be sent to school leaders, while any interested students would be allowed to attend. The party policy will not change as a result of Larimore’s departure. It remains unclear how exactly the position “Chief Student Affairs Officer” differs from Larimore’s job title, which was “Dean of Students.”
Stage 3: Rampant speculation. They said that this happened, but I bet it really was because…
The motivations behind Larimore’s departure have sparked the most speculation. Almost no one believed he left simply because his administrative duties were too pressing. Some guessed that he clashed with Uvin, and Biddy sided with Uvin and forced his resignation. Others believed that he felt limited and bogged down by Biddy and the rest of the administration.
In an email response, Larimore clarified his reasons for leaving: “On a personal level, my Mom passed away just before Thanksgiving, and her passing caused me to step back and consider some big questions—like the degree to which my work was aligned with the kind of impact that I want to have in the world. And, as the father of two young children who will soon be in middle school and then high school, I have also been thinking a lot about work-life balance and the attention I want to be able to give my sons over the next few years. I suspect that none of this makes for an interesting story, but it is what it is.” Larimore’s candid response puts the speculation to rest. His reasons are personal, rather than political.
Stage 4: Righteous Indignation. Someone needs to pay for this! This is unfair! The administration sucks! (This stage usually lasts 12-24 hours.)
Many students were outraged, and for a variety of reasons. Some found Susan Coffey’s appointment reprehensible because there was no student involvement in the decision.
Biddy justified the lack of student engagement at a meeting with students by claiming that Coffey is a star administrator and that the school could not afford the time a search committee would take. In her words, “Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to consult. It’s infrequent, but this was one of those cases.” I’d call this a “wait and see” justification. We can only wait until Coffey has served some time before making an educated judgment.
Many students felt that Coffey should not have been appointed because her response to Professor Dumm’s article last year reinforced stereotypes about rape culture. Students attributed to her the position that successful student athletes with strong academic records and community ties could not possibly commit rape.
Here is Coffey’s response to those allegations (via email): “I DO NOT believe that high achievers, people who do community service, or successful/good guys, are incapable of rape. What I do believe is that those who commit rape come from every population. We must do more at Amherst (and in the culture at large) to address the issue of sexual assault!”
As time passed, students’ righteous indignation soon quelled, and a more mellow resentment took its place.
Stage 5: Indignant apathy. I don’t care enough to look deeply into this issue. Nonetheless, I know the administration is doing a poor job.
Despite the collective outrage the student body felt, only 30 or so students attended Biddy’s meeting. I asked many angry people to accompany me to the talk. Some said they had homework, some said it was too cold outside, and some responded, “No.” Most students seemed unwilling to make a small effort to hear Biddy’s side of the story. Instead, students seem satisfied carrying a vague sense of injustice directed at the administration and its policies.
This is not to say that nobody cares to fully understand the administration’s position. Some students have taken great care to find relevant information before making judgments. And when critical, their criticism is justified. But these students represent a minority. As many remain cynical and apathetic, students might balk even in cases when the administration makes sensible hiring decisions or policies. The school’s new drinking policy might exemplify just that. The administration is asking very little of students in return for a lot of freedom when it comes to hosting parties. I fear that, due to our apathy, we might squander this opportunity by disregarding reasonable policy measures and force the administration to reverse the new, more relaxed drinking policy.
Students are incredibly busy and don’t have to involve themselves in school politics. However, these students should not feel entitled to criticize the administration until the prudence of their opinions matches the volume of their voice.