Professor Sam Crane insists that the students behind Uncomfortable Learning should (must?) register as an official Williams College student group. I used to agree. But maybe I am being naive? Since Sam seems (is?) diametrically opposed to the goals of Uncomfortable Learning, perhaps his “advice” is not worth taking.

Recall the excellent scholarship of Rutgers Professor Donna Murch ’91, a recent speaker at Williams. Murch documents that, in the long struggle for African American equality, many of the obstacles were “content neutral” — sort of like a requirement that student groups register. On the surface, something like a poll tax is not unfair. Everyone is subject to the same rules. In practice, however, the poll tax was both designed to disenfranchise African Americans and used by local officials to do so. Might the same be true of a registration requirement for student groups at Williams? You betcha!

First, we ought to dig into the history of this requirement. Where does it come from? (Also relevant are recent rules against soliciting funds from alumni.) Katie Flanagan ’14 kindly provides some of the history, but we need more details. Second, even if it is true that these regulations were not born in sin, there can be no doubt that Williams officials have tried to use these rules to stymie Uncomfortable Learning, just as Professor Crane has tried to do for weeks (months?).

That is, Williams officials have used these rules against students associated with Uncomfortable Learning in ways that the rules are rarely/never used against non-conservative students seeking to, for example, reserve a room.

Given that history, perhaps students are right not to register in just the same way that groups like the Black Panthers often refused to play by the rules of the society that they were challenging. A refusal to register is a form of protest. A refusal to register, to subject oneself to a set of rules that will be used by your enemies to hinder your goals, may be very smart.

Note Flanagan’s observation that “CC [College Council] would really only have jurisdiction over registered organizations.” If you doubt that College Council is very committed to your goals, then why would you register and, thereby, subject yourself to its whims?

Look at how much Uncomfortable Learning was able to accomplish in the last few years despite not being an official student group. Would it have been as successful if it had registered? I don’t know.

I still think that they should register, just as I think that they should not have disinvited Venker. But I also, with all due humility, recognize that they are much closer to the action than I am and that their judgments might be much better than mine.

If we have any former student leaders of Uncomfortable Learning among our readers, perhaps you could share your thoughts.

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