The public forum today started at 8:30 PM in Griffin Hall. Nancy Roseman, Dean of the College, began with remarks about how flesh-and-blood contact is far superior to the electronic kind, and joked that “blog” had become for her a four-letter word. She pointed out that we are a small community with an accessible administration, and asked what the administration needs to do to help minority students.

In a statement that may disappoint the most hot-tempered, Dean Roseman emphasized that we are primarily an educational institution, and that punishing someone is the least effective and interesting thing she could do. She repeated this point later, which leads me to believe that the administration will not take drastic measures against the offending student, if he is found.

She opened up the floor to student questions. A sampling: “What does diversity mean?” “Who in the administration is responsible for diversity?” “We discuss these issues, but it does not lead to a larger dialogue; nothing gets done until problems rear their ugly head sometimes.”

Dean Roseman responded (in paraphrase): All of us are responsible. We lack institutional memory, and we have to keep relearning these lessons. That’s why we want inherent institutional procedures – not just policies – that make tolerance part of the fabric of the institution. We (in the administration) are all busy with different things – teaching, travel, etc. We meet one and a half hours a week to do the business of the college. President Schapiro and I didn’t even know about Rondelle’s incident until the day after it happened. We often don’t know what’s going on. We would like to improve that. Perhaps we can hire more “faculty of color.”

(A student later objected to this by asking if anyone would want to work at Williams if s/he knew s/he was being hired primarily to address minority concerns and be the “faculty of color.”)

In response to a student question about incorporating “tolerance” into the honor code, Dean Roseman agreed that it was a good idea, and also suggested a “student bill of rights” that sets down what sort of environment a student may expect at Williams.

One student asked her opinion of a “zero-tolerance” policy towards students who discriminate or act violently. After asking the student repeatedly what he meant by “zero-tolerance”, Dean Roseman responded: “I think it’s a terrible idea…people are complicated, and punishment is not interesting or helpful.” She pointed out the absurdity of a zero-tolerance policy that kicks out a student for breaking a window, without taking into consideration other factors (e.g. perhaps the student was distraught because his mother had been diagnosed with cancer).

I asked whether we should see the racial incident as a sign of a greater systematic problem, or whether it was just an individual aberration (I favor the latter view); if it is not a systematic problem, there’s not a lot the administration can do to prevent one or two individuals failing community standards. Dean Roseman tended to agree with this view; she said that in a community of 2000 young people, you will always have a few that act in unacceptable ways – even if the vast majority are not racist.

This led to several students objecting; many held the idealistic view that we should keep trying to educate and change behavior, and others said it was absurd to think of the recent incident as an isolated one. As one student put it, “we don’t live in a vacuum,” and this is a sign of more widespread prejudice. Dean Roseman agreed that we should keep trying, but she is pessimistic that we’ll ever eliminate all prejudice.

At this point, some students discussed whether minority organizations segregate minorities from the rest of the campus. Others said that the entry system and sports teams often alienated minorities, and the minority organizations provide necessary support for such isolated students.

This led to a tangential discussions: students who are active leaders of minority groups complained that they are having to do too much. They are expected to represent their culture, argue their case for changes to Williams, and constantly defend themselves without help from the administration. This complaint was repeated by a number of such active students: being involved with minority organizations is very stressful and demanding, it’s “like taking an extra course,” and these organizations would like more administrative support. Some students claimed they would appreciate even “rhetorical support” for minority organizations so that they (the students) are not the only ones charged with explaining why, for example, a Latino/a Studies program is valid or useful. Some suggested hiring more Community Life Coordinators (CLCs) who would work closely with students.

The fact that so many chimed in on this point (about active students having to do too much for their minority org) makes me suspect that this was a talking-point that emerged at the MinCo meeting held earlier in the evening. The email sent out to various minority listservs to organize that earlier meeting said, in part:

“As with all discussions, it will be most productive if we – as those most affected by any decision taken here – know what we will say and why. We will be having a meeting at 7pm in Jenness in order to gather our thoughts on the issues and an appropriate campus response.”

Dean Roseman sympathized, and said that student leaders burning out is a historically common problem at Williams. I didn’t understand how any of this was really relevant to the actual issue we were discussing – that is, a racial attack. A cynic might say that some students were using the incident to highlight their own demands.

This talk of administrative involvement with student life led, with dreadful inevitability, to a discussion of cluster housing. Many students said they would appreciate faculty advisors who were closely affiliated with cluster houses; such advisors could organize discussions and provide support to students facing hardship. Personal interaction of this sort with an authority figure would be more productive than having to go the Dean’s Office for all issues.

I am ambiguous about calls for greater administrative involvement in student life. I don’t want a return to in loco parentis, but I think that the movement towards student autonomy may have destroyed a valuable part of the college experience – the sort of personal guidance that faculty advisors could provide.

CC co-president Jessica Howard suggested that the “Peoples & Cultures” curricular requirement is too easy to fulfill, and said the administration should take a look at expanding or reworking the curriculum to address diversity issues. I think this is a questionable idea. We do not have a core curriculum, because we respect student choices; additonal “PC” requirements would be an onerous waste of time, and would probably have little impact beyond the classroom.

Dean Roseman concluded the discussion with the following summary of the consensus:

1. Students demand greater support for minority organizations.
2. Students would like the administration to be more involved in student life. She said that the admin. would try to get out of Hopkins Hall more and interact with students on the ground.
3. We should make better use of First Days orientation programs to talk about diversity and tolerance, because we have the students as a captive audience then. (Relevant to this suggestion, one might want to read this EphBlog discussion, particularly Rondelle’s comment [#22] at the bottom of the page.)
4. We should keep having discussions like this to foster dialogue.

(Obviously, this post has been taken from my own imperfect recollection of what was said at the forum, and is biased by my own opinion. I’m sure I missed or misrepresented things. Please point out any thing you’d like to add, correct, or argue in the comments.)

Print  •  Email