There was debate last week about whether or not the monthly Williams faculty meetings are public. The truth seems to be that, for decades, they were but that, very recently, things have changed. Pathetic. If you believe in the virtues of academia, then you believe in openness and transparency. Although many meetings at Williams will, of course, need to remain private, any gathering of the full faculty should be public. Aren’t all my progressive friends supposed to believe in open meetings? Details below.

First, what is the policy now? Associate Dean of the Faculty John Gerry (a smart and stand-up Eph) provides this link to the Faculty Handbook.

Faculty Meetings

Faculty meetings are generally held one Wednesday a month during the academic year at 4:00 p.m. in Room 3, Griffin Hall. In addition to the faculty, representatives of several administrative offices attend these meetings, as do student representatives of the College Council, The Williams Record, and student members of those committees having business at the meetings. The formal power to convene faculty meetings is vested in the President and the Faculty Steering Committee, who jointly set the agenda for meetings, including regular reports from committees. The President normally presides over the meeting and is assisted by the Dean of the Faculty, who presides in the President’s absence, and by the Secretary. Materials relating to the agenda are sent to the faculty prior to each meeting, and summaries of actions taken are sent subsequently. At each meeting there is a question period during which members of the faculty are invited to address to the officers of administration and chairs of standing committees questions and comments about matters pertaining to their respective spheres of responsibility. Full minutes of each meeting are circulated to all department chairs and may be consulted by any voting member of the faculty.

Note that this says nothing about whether or not faculty meetings are public. Back in the 80’s, they were public. Anyone could attend (although few did). I remember Philosophy Professor Laszlo Versenyi — tweed jacket with elbow matches, gravelly voice with a marvelous Hungarian accent — gently mocking his fellow professors for their stupidity in thinking that divisional requirements would actually cause students with no interest in science to learn science.

Why could I attend a faculty meeting in 1987 while today’s students are barred?

Gerry writes:

I should add that the understanding is that Record editors attend for purposes of attaining background only, not to report on the meeting, and not to quote directly from the proceedings. They’re free, of course, to follow up later with meeting participants. It would not be appreciated by the faculty were students to attend meetings for the purposes of publishing the faculty’s comments or thoughts on College business. In fact, this practice would likely discourage the faculty from speaking freely. Please do not encourage any student who might have business at a Faculty Meeting to do this.

Gerry knows me too well! But where does this “understanding” come from? When did it start? Whose idea was it? If I were a current Eph interested in protecting the rights of students (say, a member of Gargoyle or College Council), I would go to the next meeting and dare them to kick me out. Then, I would take notes and blog about them.

Do you believe in freedom? Well, do you punk?

The notion that Williams faculty would feel inhibited from speaking freely is absurd.

Gerry is certainly correct about the current status. Record editor-in-chief Kevin Waite ’09 writes:

A seat is saved for me at every faculty meeting. I attend under the strict conditions that nothing there is on the record. I can, however, approach a faculty member in regards to something he or she said during the meeting to see if they’ll go on the record. We would never want to report on happenings without permission, knowing full well that the administration would likely bar us from future meetings if we did so. In fact, I’m pretty surprised to hear the Record used to report on meetings without permission.

Prepare to be surprised. Here is former Record editor-in-chief Mike Needham ’04:

I attended every faculty meeting for two years, except the end of one meeting each year when compensation is discussed. If they were off the record, I wasn’t ever told that. I can’t remember if I ever quoted directly from a meeting, I know I took notes and do not remember them being off the record, but generally there were better quotes to be gotten outside the meeting than what you’d get inside the meeting. I got 10x more value out of talking with profs afterwards about what wasn’t said in any particular meeting than by anything said in a faculty meeting.

If I were Waite, I would write on this story. When did the policy change? Who changed it? Are the faculty meetings at other schools public? And so on.

If students don’t defend the rights, honors, and privileges appertaining thereto — read that aloud in your best Frank Oakley impersonation — they will lose the freedoms they have.

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