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Is Williams Welcoming and Supportive of Diversity?

One of the things of which the Williams administration is proud is our perennial high ranking in the US News & World Report list of Top Liberal Arts Colleges. And they should be. Despite problems with the methodology, it reflects our alma mater’s quality as an institution of higher education.

But what about lists that take into account diversity (read: welcoming to minorities)? Of course, I realize that these types of lists are unscientific at best, but if the US News & World Report list counts, shouldn’t these count too?

Black Enterprise has a list of Top Colleges & Universities for African Americans. Here, Williams has done much better than the following lists. Williams is ranked 14th (up from 24th in 2001 and 35th in 1999). Amherst is 30th (down from 20th in 2001) and Swarthmore is 33rd (down from 18th in 2001), with a few other liberal arts colleges in between. Their DayStar rating system seems to rely heavily on surveys.

Hispanic Magazine has a list of Top 25 Colleges and Universities
for Hispanics
. Williams is not in the top 25, while Amherst is 12th and Swarthmore is 5th. Their ratings seem to be based off of US News & World Reports, with modifications based on how many Hispanic students attend and graduate with a degree.

A. Magazine (now defunct) created a list of Top 25 Liberal Arts Colleges for Asian Americans back in 2000. Again, Williams is not in the top 25, while Amherst was 21st and Swarthmore was 8th. Their ranking was based off student surveys/comments and stats on incidents of ethnic slurs and offensive language or behaviors, physical assualts, and other social environmental qualities. Where they got these stats and how accurate are they, who knows?

It’s not a great showing, even allowing for the caveats. But in the end, are these things even useful? I’m sure at Williams, like every other place in this country, there is discrimination of some sort going on. I’m more concerned about whether there’s any systemic influence on people behavior, due to lax policy, culture, informal/unofficial administrative action, etc. It seems to me that Williams often talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. Right now there is discussion about a particular incident with vague promises to “do better”, but will anything be different in 5 years?

Just for fun, I looked into the corporations that consistently rank well on Fortune’s 50 Best Companies for Minorities. Most of them have these things in common:

Can Williams apply the same goals to its faculty? Should it?

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#1 Comment By (d)avid On September 20, 2004 @ 4:42 pm

I’ll offer a couple of quick thoughts on the different rankings, since survey work and rankings is part of what I do.

The Black Enterprise methodology seems MUCH better than the other two. Surveying african-american professionals in higher education provides information that is genuinely different from US News & World Report. They tried to target academic administrators who would know or have heard about the experiences of black students on other campuses. They would also know something of the quality of the institutions. The major threat to the validity of the study is the degree to which the administrators were randomly sampled and whether response rates are correlated with other factors.

In contrast, the Hispanic rankings is simply a composite of US News and the percent of graduates self-identifying as Hispanic. All this tells the reader is that Williams doesn’t have many latino students. There really isn’t any new information provided that one couldn’t look up on Yahoo or in Peterson’s Guide.

The A. Magazine survey could provide new information, but surveying your readers is an awful methodology. There is no random sampling and it is entirely dependent upon the subscription base. My guess is that since the magazine no longer exists, it did not feature a widespread subscription base. Thus, it is entirely possible that Williams is not in the ranking because no one at Williams subscribed to the magazine and responded to the survey (and the results from Amherst or Swarthmore could be based on a handfull of individuals). The description on the website linked is vague on the exact methodology.

Thus, I am not even sure that the Hispanic and Asian rankings tell us anything about Williams and the experience of minorities on campus. For that matter, the Black Enterprise survey tells us only that black professionals in the academy view Williams as a good place for young black students to receive an education — their perception might not be shared by students on campus.

#2 Comment By Jeff Zeeman On September 20, 2004 @ 5:47 pm

Perhaps as a white alum I don’t have a completely full perspective on these issues, but I was on the Committee on Diversity and Community and did work with the administration generally. I just don’t see how the college is not supportive of diversity. If you could give some examples, fine, pleae do so. There have been a few, idiosyncratic examples (the nigger and “KKK” incident, one of which was a thoughtless, but innocently-minded, mistake) in the last year, of problems, but there is just no way these can be imputed to an institutional level. I would argue that the opposite is true.

Williams has a Black Student Union, a Jewish Center, a Multicultural Center, and a Gender / Sexuality facility on campus, with staff to support programming in these facilities. Williams, especially when you consider it’s isolation, does an excellent job recruiting underepresented minorities — the last few years, the school has brought in frosh classes of between 7 and 10 percent black and 7 or 10 percent latino students, which compares favorably to any other top college, and far better than most of the top 25 liberal arts colleges. The school has a smaller asian contingent than some of its peers, but no one can argue that asians are underepresented minorities on college campuses. How does the school accomplish this? By, among other things, special summer science programs for minority students and free fly-in programs for stellar minority prospectives. Pretty much every major demand made by minority constituencies on campus, such as latino studies programs, has been supported by the administration.

I think that any problems in terms of race relations at Williams, are simply part of society at whole, which Williams, after all, is not divorced from — namely, a very, very small minority of campus individuals who might be insensitive or outright hostile, locals not affiliated with Williams or just passing through who utilize racial invective, segregation (very often self-segregation) of some minority students based on race, etc. But it’s not like latinos and blacks are dropping out from Williams in groves because of a hostile classroom or social environment. In fact, at least during my tenure at Williams, people would pussyfoot around racial issues in class out of fear of potentially offending anyone. Some comments I heard at Chicago Law School would NEVER be heard in a Williams classroom — in some cases, for better, but in others, for worse.

To imply that the larger institution has some sort of race problem or that the school does not do enough to attract and retain minorities are charges that I’ve heard leveled, but never seen supported in any way, shape or form. The fact is that the Williams administration, like those at most northeast, elite, liberal educational institutions, is incredibly sensitive to issues of race and works very hard to increase racial diversity on campus, including utilizing affirmative action in admissions.

What this professor did was undoubtedly awful; but it was one comment, perhaps said in a very heated moment without real thought or consideration, by a single individual — why does that suddenly mean that we need to worry about race issues throughout the entire institution? I am pretty confident that I never encountered a racist student in my four years at Williams, or for that matter, an alum; I can hardly say the same about my experience in society at large.

Again, this is an example of ONE confirmed racial slur on ONE occasion by ONE faculty member in how many years? If the word had been “kike” instead of “nigger”, I would not think Williams had an institutional anti-semitism problem. Hell, the school invited Conrad Mohammed to speak when I was in college, who expressed hatred for gays, jews, whites, and asians, but I don’t recall anyone suggesting that the school had an institutional race problem because of it.

#3 Comment By Loweeel On September 20, 2004 @ 6:05 pm

I think Jeff touches on the issue of why Williams is not more highly rated, and why it has more trouble than a college of its caliber should in attracting more minority students (and, relatedly, orthodox jews).

Simply put, I think that there’s definitely a inverse correlation between how isolated a school is and how likely it is to have strong minority student and faculty representation. I’m not commenting on or guessing as to the origin of this trend, I’m merely noticing its existance. Admitting more people, both faculty and students, than we do now won’t make all that much of a difference if Williams’ location is a strong disadvantage for certain groups of people.

Orthodox Jewish students (Israel Mirsky ’03 being the only modern Orthodox student at Williams during my 3 years there) have extreme difficulty going to a school as isolated as williams, due to the lack of daily kosher dining options and lack of other orthodox jewish students to form a minyan.

Having been at Columbia for 2 years after my 3 years at Williams really gave me some length to contrast and compare, and I really think that it’s Columbia’s urban location is the primary cause of its strong

I basically think that it’s a structural problem, one that can’t be solved without much larger disparities between minority and non-minority students that currently exist, that’s mostly dependent on Williams’ isolated location.

#4 Comment By David Kane ’88 On September 20, 2004 @ 10:01 pm

There is a great senior thesis to be written on this topic. For starters, you could survey seniors about their experience at Williams —Did they like it? How do they rate the teaching? Et cetera — and then see if the answers were correlated with race (or religion or anything else). If it turns out that Asian seniors, say, give very similar answers to their white counterparts, then you might conclude that Williams is “supporting” white and asian students equally well.

Of course, there are myriad ways, other than (perhaps) the amount of support given by the College, in which white students as a group differ from Asian students, but such a survey would at least provide some answers. Even better would be a comparison with a similar survey at a comparable school.

So, a really ambitious senior would find a buddies at Amherst and Swarthmore, and do a 3 way survey. I bet that the Multicultural Center would even provide funding for some nice roadtrips!

Don’t forget to use R when doing the analysis.

#5 Comment By Lee Altman ’93 On September 20, 2004 @ 10:33 pm

I’m with Loweeel on this one. I had quite a few minority friends at Williams, and some of them shared the opinion that the school was simply too isolated. Compared to Swarthmore or Amherst, Williams might as well be called “rural.”

When I read the recent Transcript article mentioning some incidents of Asian friends being harassed near Route 2, I remembered some very similar incidents from the early ’90s. In those cases, my friends felt the culprits were almost definitely local drunks joy-riding through town, not fellow Ephs.

When the nearest town is depressed North Adams (*very* depressed in the early ’90s), you are likely to see some serious friction between town and gown. Especially when the students are as affluent as those at Williams.

So we have an isolated college full of rich kids (
I’m with Loweeel on this one. I had quite a few minority friends at Williams, and some of them shared the opinion that the school was simply too isolated. Compared to Swarthmore or Amherst, Williams might as well be called “rural.”

When I read the recent Transcript article mentioning some incidents of Asian friends being harassed near Route 2, I remembered some very similar incidents from the early ’90s. In those cases, my friends felt the culprits were almost definitely local drunks joy-riding through town, not fellow Ephs.

When the nearest town is depressed North Adams (*very* depressed in the early ’90s), you are likely to see some serious friction between town and gown. Especially when the students are as affluent as those at Williams.

So we have an isolated college full of rich kids (<50% receive financial aid, with $38k tuition), neighboring a depressed, resentful blue-collar community... No matter how hard Williams may try to be open and diverse, those are some tough obstacles for minority recruitment.

#6 Comment By Lee Altman ’93 On September 20, 2004 @ 10:36 pm

Umm, how did my post get cut off.

So we have an isiolated college full of rich kids (less than 50% need financial aid, with $38k yearly expenses), neighboring a depressed, resentful blue-collar community…. No matter how open and diverse Williams may attempt to be, those are some tough obstacles for minority recruitment.

#7 Comment By (d)avid On September 20, 2004 @ 11:28 pm

My first year, a mixed race friend of mine complained about racism at Williams. I asked her what she meant, since she hadn’t told me of any incidents. She then complained that entrymates (and others) did not choose to sit with her at meals, invite her to go out on Friday and Saturday nights, or participate in small activities like ordering pizza. There was no arguing with her about the lack of inclusion, it was an objective fact.

I can vouch that my friend was funny, generous sweet, fun, and extremely hot. You’d think people would want to hang out with her, but they didn’t choose to. I’m sure it wasn’t conscious racism. Perhaps it wasn’t even racism. People like to associate with people with whom they have much in common. Maybe rich, white suburban kids (the majority of the student population) hung out with each other to the exclusion of minority classmates. Such a dynamic is not overtly racist, but it can leave minority students on campus feeling isolated (in part, because their objective reality might be isolated).

Once students feel socially isolated/excluded that can color the rest of their college experience. They are likely to be more sensitive to stray comments. Otherwise innocent actions might be viewed as slights. I don’t mean to imply that overt racism doesn’t occur, it might. I simply want to outline a dynamic by which white students might have trouble seeing why students of color feel uncomfortable at Willilams.

How does an administration combat such a dynamic? Well, many of the institutions that Zeeman listed above are a good start because they provide an organized support network. Recruiting more minorities to campus can also help. Hiring minority faculty members would also be a step in the right direction. Williams, like most good colleges, is pursuing all three of these policies (with varying degrees of success). Organized groups like sports teams, acapella groups, and WCFM might also help overcome feelings of exclusion. Past that … I’m sure there are smart people who have given it a lot of thought, but I can’t think of anything good off the top of my head.

I think Lowell is right that Williams’ isolation hurts. New York, Boston, and Philadelphia are cities where many minorities live and would be deemed friendly cities. At the very least, minority students would feel they fit into the city if not the school. I don’t think the actions of North Adams residents is the source of the race problems. I think Williams’ setting compounds any sense of isolation a student might feel.

I’m not saying that the dynamic I described above is felt by every student of color at Williams. I’m sure that many minority students go through Williams feeling included and content with their social lives. There are also plenty of white students who felt isolated at Williams. There are also many other facets of race and inclusion/exclusion at Williams. But I know at least two friends of mine described the experience of attending Williams in terms very similar to the dynamic I describe above. I’m not also not certain how much more the college can do to improve matters (though severely sanctioning professors who use racial slurs would seem to be one step).

#8 Comment By Comment On September 20, 2004 @ 11:41 pm

Everyone seems to take for granted that racial diversity benefits Williams. Numerous theories can be advanced to support the benefits of diversity. But has anyone studied whether there are any tangible demonstrated benefits to having diversity based on skin color? The reason I ask this question is because if diversity is of significant value, then wouldn’t it be of value at a historically black college? Yet few historically black colleges seem to worry about diversity.

#9 Comment By Jocelyn Shadforth ’88 On September 21, 2004 @ 12:49 am

So much, of course, depends on how we operationalize diversity. I had a high school friend, then attending Villanova, come visit for a few days in Fall 1985, and she couldn’t stop commenting on how refreshing it was to be on a campus that contrasted so sharply with “Vanillanova.” Then, upon graduation, I started grad school at Rutgers in poli sci, the same year that Sam Assefa left Williams to join the faculty at Rutgers. We were comparing notes on the transition and he spoke admiringly of how diverse the Rutgers student body was compared to that at Williams. I countered that, having grown up in NJ, it just seemed like a larger, older version of my high school. (90% of Rutgers students are from NJ.)

On the issue of faculty diversity, I think Williams is doing an amazing job given its isolation and the extraordinary competition among all wealthy, top-flight colleges for the very limited number of ethnic and racial minorities receiving PhDs every year. Remember that any isolation experienced by students still only lasts four years. For faculty members this isolation can extend over a lifetime and is one experienced by family members, etc.

And, no, I will not opine on the topic of ideological diversity among faculty.