May 10, 2021

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,

Last August in my letter outlining the College’s Anti-Racism Plan, I expressed my intent “to enlist the entire Amherst community in bolder efforts to make Amherst a truly equitable and inclusive place.”

We have made progress on key elements of that plan, which I outlined in quarterly updates in November 2020 and March 2021. I write today about two issues of concern to the community on which we are taking concrete action: insufficient resources devoted to student mental health and Amherst’s longstanding approach to public safety.  

First, we will immediately increase the number of full-time mental health counselors by three and take steps that will enable current staff to devote more hours to seeing students. These investments must be accompanied by a broader strategy to promote student well-being proactively. I have asked the Office of Student Affairs (OSA) to develop such a strategy and holistic approach for implementation in Fall 2021.

Second, we will adopt a new approach to public safety. The College has relied for a very long time on sworn police officers to provide a wide range of non-police-related services, with the result that students have encountered armed police in a variety of environments and circumstances, including residence halls, Val dining, and in social settings. For many, particularly Black and brown students, the presence of armed officers creates anxiety and distress. Citing the history of racism in policing in this country, as well as their own experiences with police prior to Amherst and on campus, the Black Student Union and the Association of Amherst Students have called for disarming and, more recently, for abolishing the campus police. 

In order to continue making progress toward inclusion and equity at Amherst, we must rethink and redesign public safety at the College. Whatever recommendations I bring to the Board of Trustees must be the outcome of a process that engages the whole community in deliberations about how our approach to public safety should change. Ultimately, however, decisions involving a significant change to campus police can only be made by the Board of Trustees on the basis of a recommendation from the senior leadership.

 

My first step in responding to student calls for change was to seek the views of Chief of Police John Carter, who has proposed decreasing the number of sworn police officers over time and developing an unarmed group of safety officers. Amherst College police are dedicated members of our community, and we are indebted to them for protecting the community from potentially grave risks and for their dedication to the students, faculty, and staff. It is necessary that we also involve other community members in our deliberations. In discussions I have had with the Dean of Students, Liz Agosto, and the Chief Student Affairs Officer, Karu Kozuma, a number of significant decisions have been made:

 

  • The number of campus police officers has been reduced by two over the past year and additional reductions through attrition will take place over the next few years. Work will be reorganized and police officers will be assigned primarily to administrative and investigative roles. They are already spending less time on patrol and are engaged less in the monitoring and enforcing of College rules and regulations.

  • There will be no armed police in residence halls, dining halls, or other student spaces as a routine matter. The police will only be called upon where their expertise and training are needed, such as for a report of a crime, an emergency—defined as a situation involving possible physical violence to self or others or any threat to life—or when other resources have been exhausted or are unavailable for a non-police-related call. This will become less likely than in the past because of the other staff and services we are putting in place.

  • When ACEMS is in service, police will not respond to medical calls unless there is a significant health risk and/or an ambulance is requested.

  • The Dispatch Center, which serves not only public safety, but also Student Affairs and after-hours facilities operations, will ensure that police officers are not dispatched for non-police-related calls unless all other resources have been exhausted or are unavailable.

  • The OSA will have primary responsibility for responding to students’ mental health needs. Police will respond only if OSA asks them to do so because of a significant threat to safety, or an ambulance is requested.

These are important first steps in rethinking the role of the Amherst College Police, but I have heard and appreciate the need to approach the conversation differently in order to ensure that all members of our community both have a voice in that conversation and feel equally safe and welcome on our campus. In the remainder of this letter, I will outline a process for informing and involving you in deliberations about what constitutes safety and how best to ensure it for everyone on campus. 

 

As I communicated to you earlier, I had originally imagined that focus group discussions would guide the process of involving the community in deliberations about how to ensure campus safety. I have come to believe that we need to engage in a broader process of consultation. I have asked an outside consulting firm, Cambridge Hill Partners, to work with us in devising a broadly consultative process of co-creating and re-creating Amherst College’s community safety structure. The work will be guided by an Advisory Committee made up of students, faculty, and staff.  I have asked the AAS to select student members, the Committee of Six to suggest faculty, and the Employee Council to choose staff members. Extending into the fall semester, this process is longer than the focus-group model I had originally imagined and communicated, but I believe the outcome will be more thoughtful, productive and, ultimately, effective, for our community. 

The Advisory Committee will be charged with generating options for a community safety model that will support the range of needs within our community and reflect our commitment to equity and inclusion. The committee will begin its work immediately and will present their findings to me and the senior leadership by mid-October 2021; we will then bring our recommendation to the Board for their consideration.

As part of their work, in collaboration with Cambridge Hill, the committee will be asked to:

  • Design a broadly consultative process that is transparent and inclusive of the entire community and draws on the work of our Center for Restorative Practices;

  • Conduct research on alternative community safety models, including those that exist and those that are now being developed at other academic institutions, and use that to inform an evaluation of our current model;

  • Examine the costs and gains of alternative approaches, including disarming the police;

  • Explore how members of our community think about safety, broadly defined, to include physical and mental well-being;

  • Understand the distinct needs and interests of faculty, students, and staff, across all categories of identity as they pertain to safety; and

  • Identify the role for police in the context of a redefined community safety.

These are critically important conversations for our community. I have come to appreciate the diversity of views in our community about public safety and the differences in the extent to which community members have had opportunities to consider these issues. While I cannot imagine that everyone will agree with the ultimate decisions, I can create an informative, inclusive, and transparent process for deliberating on these questions. I hope that this consultative process will result in the best outcome for Amherst’s students, faculty, and staff.

Sincerely,

Biddy