By Daniel Diner '14
An athlete wanted help meeting new people. A sophomore wished that faculty and administrators at Amherst would “stop telling us that we’re special” and instead put the emphasis on working hard. A once-struggling student wanted to describe the support she’d found in a religious community on campus.
Some mechanisms have always existed for students to air their concerns and suggestions to the administration. But thanks to a new initiative, these three students and many more were able to take their opinions directly to the top.
Since October, President Biddy Martin has been setting aside time every week to meet with students in scheduled but casual conversation. The opportunity to meet with Martin in one of these office hours is available to any student, and for any reason. The Student Office Hours program allots 20-minute meeting slots that students reserve online in advance.
The idea for the program came when Strategic Planning Assistant Tania Dias '13 (formerly president of the Amherst Association of Students) was conducting summer research as part of her role as historian of the Women's and Gender Center. She was reading documents in College Archives when a 1991 issue of the now-defunct Amherst College Notes caught her eye. The paper announced that Peter Pouncey, Amherst’s 16th president, was starting to hold office hours for any student interested in speaking to him.
It occurred to Dias how useful a revitalization of this program would be. “I thought this was a really great, simple initiative to get student voices heard in a very transparent, very easy way,” Dias says. Having already gotten to know Martin through her positions with student government, Dias predicted (correctly) that the president would welcome the idea. “Biddy was really receptive. This idea is something that she embodies; she’s very down to earth, very approachable, very relaxed and very casual.”
The program’s popularity is evidence of its success: Every scheduled slot for the first semester is already filled. In a speech to parents over Family Weekend, Martin said that face-to-face meetings with students provide her a valuable perspective. “It takes a certain amount of courage and self-possession for students to bring forward [their thoughts] to the president of a college, and I think that I will continue to learn more than I would have learned otherwise by virtue of ... these office hours."
Watch President Martin talk about Student Office Hours in the video of her Family Weekend speech (the subject comes up seven and a half minutes in).
To sign up for an office hour next semester, students can fill out the form on the program's webpage. As scheduled slots for the rest of November and December are all filled, any student wanting to meet with the president this semester should send her an email.