Regarding the New Dean(s) of Students
Issue   |   Wed, 02/05/2014 - 00:13

Surely we deserve to be annoyed at somebody. An obvious choice is Jim Larimore — after an exhaustive national search to find him, did he not realize the sort of job he was getting into? If he didn’t realize that becoming Dean of Students at Amherst after a number of very public failures at the College, would mean that he would have to institute changes in “organization, staffing and management,” then either we failed to mention that to him or he somehow failed to ask about the job description. To leave in the beginning of a semester without even completing a year leaves the sour taste of abandonment in the mouth.

That would be one way to interpret the scenario. Another possibility is that Jim Larimore was forced out or was not given the power/resources/etc. that he wanted or needed to complete the job. Perhaps Jim Larimore did not mesh well with President Martin or Peter Uvin, and continued stonewalling and infighting between them led to his demise. In that situation we can certainly be annoyed with Uvin and Martin, as Larimore had earned the trust of the student body in an exceptionally short period of time. Larimore was instrumental in getting a new party policy approved for the student body — in just six months.

Either way, we can never really be sure about what happened because no one will ever tell us the truth (or, if they do, we would not be able to believe either of them). The only thing we can be nearly certain of is that for the next two years (probably two and a half — is Suzanne Coffey going to step down in mid-February?), Suzanne Coffey is our new Chief Student Affairs Officer. Without even addressing the preposterousness of that title, it’s a way for us to get a new Dean of Students without referring to it by that name.

Yes, Suzanne Coffey is going to be an excellent administrator. The Dean of Students Office is a black hole of organization misguidance, which has swallowed up at least three Deans of Students in just my short time at Amherst. She will be able to reorganize and fix many of the structural issues with the Dean of Students Office that leave us vulnerable, both legally and morally. Over the next two years I have no doubt that many necessary changes will occur in the office and we will have an office that will be ready for our next Dean of Students. It will be great to be a member of Class of 2021.

But the next two years might be rough. The email from President Martin says that Suzanne Coffey “will lead the implementation of organizational, personnel and management changes,” implying that she will be dealing mostly inside the Dean of Students Office itself. It is notable, then, that responsiveness to student concerns and issues is not on the list of things that Suzanne Coffey will be dealing with. Again the name is also telling — no longer do we have a Dean of Students, but rather a Chief Student Affairs officer.

To fix this, I would like to propose adding a Dean of Students position in addition to the Chief Student Affairs Officer. Yes, the changes are necessary and it does not seem like we could have one person who could handle both fixing the Dean of Students Office and responsiveness to student concerns. We should have a Dean of Students to handle things like interacting with students, committee meetings, serving on the Committee on Discipline and general aspects of responsiveness to the student body. I hope that President Martin will take up this consideration over the coming weeks.

Because even if Suzanne Coffey had the time to deal with responsiveness, I do not think she is particularly talented at responding to student concerns. The efforts of the Athletic Department to prevent the forming of club soccer teams last year (and club sports teams in general) were significant enough to go beyond pure bureaucratic incompetence. As well, in the middle of a series of high-strung letters that were written to The Amherst Student about athletes and sexual assault, Suzanne Coffey wrote an op-ed that essentially suggested that people who perform socially worthy activities are less likely to commit sexual assault. That was bad, to say the least. But what was equally concerning is that when she felt attacked, Suzanne Coffey responded by attacking back (with a significant amount of vitriol). She did not ignore the attack. She did not act self-reflective. She did not respond to any of the criticisms with the possibility that she might be wrong and that she was interested in investigating the truth. When you are the Dean of Students (or whatever Suzanne Coffey is), you are almost constantly under attack from all sides. When Suzanne Coffey inevitably comes under attack as the Chief Student Affairs Officer, how do we expect her to respond then?

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