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Maud on Campus Relations

An email from President Mandel this morning:

Williams students, faculty and staff,

I’m hearing from people throughout our community, representing a wide range of backgrounds and viewpoints, who are upset by some breakdowns in campus relations. Their perspectives are diverse: some are concerned about racism, others about a culture of open antagonism, and many about both of these and other issues, as well. The one thing many people seem to share is the sense that we have a problem at Williams.

I also see evidence of prejudice, insensitivity and disrespect. One recent example, not widely known, came late last week when someone tore down posters for a panel organized by Professor Joy James with two mothers from Chicago who were described in the poster as having lost their children to police violence, and who now organize for justice and love. There’s no conceivable justification for trying to undermine such an event. I’ve now learned that other posters and banners with political and social messages were also torn down or damaged this weekend. During a turbulent year especially, these acts seem symptomatic of bigger problems.

I’ve chosen recent examples, but the year has been punctuated by many concerning interactions for people of all kinds. My message today is not about apportioning blame. It’s about our overarching need to get back to a productive way of handling our differences.

The issues over which people are disagreeing right now are serious and valid. They’re also not just “Williams problems”: Campus attention to race relations is connected to national and global injustice. Conflicts over speech and speakers are roiling many schools. Work on affinity housing points to wider challenges with balancing integration and the right of free association. Tensions over how we disagree are characteristic of a societal problem with public discourse. A school like Williams absolutely should discuss these complex and important issues. When we do, conflicts will necessarily and even productively arise. Our goal shouldn’t be to avoid disagreement or dissent, but to develop ways of engaging in it without losing respect for each other as people.

I hope we can model this ideal in classrooms and dorm rooms, offices and alumni gatherings, joining in a campaign to improve our culture. Some people have expressed frustration that processes like Strategic Planning won’t make this happen quickly enough. I share the sense of urgency, but meaningful change often does take time: Time to make sure all points of view are surfaced, listened to and considered. Time to educate people on new ways of working and healthier ways of engaging with others. Time to figure out which investments will make the biggest, most sustainable impact on issues we care about. Organizations like Williams can do this deliberate work without sacrificing our ability to address more immediate challenges.

The way each of us acts affects the community as a whole. If we’re intolerant and harsh, it sets a norm for how we’ll be treated in return. To make Williams instead a place where everyone is valued, we’ll need to treat each other with respect when differences inevitably emerge. It’s up to each one of us, and all of us as a collective, to make it so.

Maud

This email is honestly fantastic. Thus far this year, Maud has been very controversy-averse (and I can’t blame her, in this environment), so it makes sense that she tries to appeal to all groups in this message. It is a shame that she does not refer directly to the CC meeting, but this would not be in her own interest.

That being said, it is doubtful that this message will accomplish much among the student body. Those who most need to internalize this message will assume they are not the ones being discussed. It would be wonderful if students could collectively hold each other more accountable henceforth.

This is a good move for administration. It may allow for administration to gradually become less tolerant of the abuse that has become typical of the more radical left groups on campus.

I’d love to hear what others think of Maud’s email.

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10 Comments To "Maud on Campus Relations"

#1 Comment By abl On April 22, 2019 @ 1:22 pm

I agree generally regarding the letter, even if I disagree with some of your more specific commentary. I’ve been pretty impressed with Maud so far.

I would love to see this spirit ported over to discussions in this blog, but I’m concerned that there are too many here who would prefer to sensationalize or to use Williams’ events as ammunition in their own personal crusade over [x].

#2 Comment By Dal On April 22, 2019 @ 2:03 pm

I’d be much less worried about a few notices getting torn down than, say, the absurd allegation (which was not refuted or addressed – and was hence basically accepted by the administration) that Williams is such a violent environment, Dr. Love and crew had to depart.

And if there is behavior coming from the administration or any student or staff member that is even remotely as violent in tone as the display we saw in the CC meeting video, I’d love to know what it is/was.

Also, is there a policy on removing protest litter after a reasonable period of time has passed? What’s with the perma junk festooning Paresky fireplace? It just stays up until graduation because everyone is too scared to touch it? Horrible look for the college.

Maybe part of the reason posters are getting torn down is because students are overloaded with tacky crap hanging everywhere.

#3 Comment By Current Student On April 22, 2019 @ 4:05 pm

Ambivalent about this email. Although I agree with Caleb that it’s not in Maud’s best interest to bring up the CC meeting on the 9th, etc. it still seems like she’s ducking the elephant in the room. Also, it took a while for this to come out. Finally, I’m still not sure if this is doubling as a response to the CARE Now letter sent to her with the twelve demands–if it is, again only a nod to that by saying that things take time.

On that note, could you post that document on here Caleb? I’m not sure people here know about it, at least not the detailed one sent to Maud (i.e. not the trustees letter).

#4 Comment By Williamstown Resident On April 22, 2019 @ 5:44 pm

Of course her response took a long time to come out. Do you realize how much analysis of every single word is required these days lest she inadvertently trigger some protected group? Frankly I’m surprised she was able to concoct this message as fast as she did given that it likely required review by legal, communications, etc.

#5 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On April 22, 2019 @ 9:55 pm

CS: Thanks for posting this! The more information we can post from the college, the better.

This e-mail is getting a big play in the alumni community, including a note/link to all alumni volunteers.

I also see evidence of prejudice

This is a serious accusation. Exactly what “evidence” of prejudice is Maud talking about? If the only evidence is some posters being taken down, then she should say that. If she has other evidence, she should make clear what it is.

I have my doubts!

First, there have been several hate hoaxes at Williams in the recent past. How does Maud know that the posters were taken down by people prejudiced against James?

Second, I am ready to concede that, if someone tour down a poster, then she was demonstrating “insensitivity and disrespect.” But prejudice is a different, and much more serious accusation. Words matter and I want my Williams president to write precisely.

Third, there is no evidence that posters about James’ event were specifically targeted. Note that”other posters and banners with political and social messages were also torn down or damaged this weekend.” Why would Maud pretend that she knows for a fact that prejudiced people targeted James when, in reality, all she knows is that lots of posters were torn down.

Fourth, just what is the process by which posters turn over? Does every poster stay up forever? Who takes down posters? My suspicion is that this has nothing to do with disrespect but, instead, that people — either custodial staff or people seeking space for new posters — take down posters all the time.

Fifth, does this e-mail cause minoritized (sic!) students to feel even worse than some of them already do? Maud is telling them that Williams is filled (?) with people who are prejudiced against them, who treat disrespectively and insensitively. Does that really describe most Eph interactions? 1%? 0.0001%?

Sixth, the clearest uncontested example of “prejudice, insensitivity and disrespect” at Williams in April was the 15 minute tirade at College Council. (Surely even abl would agree that these adjectives apply in that case?) I am certainly not surprised that Maud declined to mention that.

#6 Comment By abl On April 23, 2019 @ 12:19 am

One common contemporary critique made liberals and conservatives alike is a process critique: process is applied in facially legitimate, but actually discriminatory, ways. One currently salient process critique (made by the contemporary Right) is that which regards Israel. Criticisms directed towards Israel’s treatment of Palestinians may be individually legitimate, but if similar criticisms are not made as regularly or with as much eagerness regarding any of a number of equal or worse offenders of human rights, it implies that something else or additional, like antisemitism, is motivating the criticisms in question.

My sense is that it is this category of process critique that underlies, in part, the current complaints directed at CC. CC’s objections to funding requests brought by minority groups can be, on their face, technically legitimate and yet be discriminatory if similar objections are not made as frequently (or expressed as vociferously) towards non-minority groups. In fact, it is possible that the very design of a system of process can be such that the process itself favors one group (or set of groups) over another: it is easy to imagine, for example, how CC’s funding requirements might significantly favor or disfavor religious groups–which have a unique set of needs–without appearing to favor or disfavor religious groups. (MinCo groups likewise have a unique set of mostly shared needs that could be disadvantaged by neutral-seeming processes.)

Turning from the general to the specific, I think that it’s fair to question Ephblog’s process in its coverage. What sort of critical coverage do the complaints of Black students generate versus the complaints of white students? How much credence is given to those complaints and how much proof is demanded before their legitimacy is questioned? What is the tone of the coverage? JCD, for example, pretty exclusively writes posts critical of African Americans, of liberals, and of Williams (writing few posts complementary of these groups, or critical of other groups like white students or conservative). Irrespective of whether his critiques are valid, it is plain that he intentionally or unintentionally makes them in a very directed manner.

David, I have heard you make numerous bold claims about numerous subjects about which you know little based on scant information. I have called you out on a number of these claims (including but not limited to the admissions context), and others routinely hold you to task elsewhere. Your questions regarding proof, above, are not all facially illegitimate. But you are demanding proof at a level well above the standard that you regularly operate–of Maud Mandel, of all people, who doubtlessly is far more informed than you are, and is unlikely to make baldly unfounded claims. This is particularly striking because the fairly cautious claims for which you now demand proof, besides being made by the President of the College, are substantiated by statistics collected and published in the Record, by multiple student testimonials, and by multiple faculty testimonials.

Process is a powerful tool, but it is not necessarily a neutral tool. Demands legitimate in one context can be discriminatory in another, and systems can be set up–even unintentionally–in ways that disfavors some groups over others. The fact that one wields process as a sword does not allow automatically grant the right to claim the higher ground. I think it’s worth all of us being a little more introspective about the way we conveniently (and inconsistently) rely on process when it allows us to confirm beliefs that we already held.

#7 Comment By New Eph Parent? On April 23, 2019 @ 8:09 pm

As a parent whose child will decide this week whether to accept Williams’ offer of admission, I’d like to be encouraged by this letter, but President Mandel’s appeal to mutual respect seems like an attempt to turn back the clock. Respect is appropriate when people of good will have differences of opinion; that’s the old liberal model that those of us in Maud’s generation grew up with. But what is its place when power, oppression and “discursive violence” are at stake? If someone’s views are oppressing or harming me, why should I extend them respect? Why should I even tolerate their membership in the community?

If discourse is understood as a communal journey toward the truth, it can be respectful. If it is understood as a struggle for power it will be “intolerant and harsh.” The tone this letter laments follows naturally from what is being taught in the classroom.

#8 Comment By anon On April 24, 2019 @ 1:59 pm

New-

I’d think carefully before giving up an early admit to Williams. Is there another school your child can get into that he or she wants more? For a good reason?

Williams is a small place. No doubt about that. All small elite schools have this issue.

I can understand if the person wants to go to a bigger university, such as HYP, Chicago, even Northeastern, etc- for a larger experience… but if your son or daughter wants a small rural school then Williams is #1.

It’s not like you won’t have to deal with this at Amherst, Middlebury, etc. etc. etc. Unlike such places, larger universities are, well, large enough to avoid the intimacy of having to deal with microaggressions.

But if you want small/ rural- choose Williams.

Think about it that way.

#9 Comment By a non On April 24, 2019 @ 2:33 pm

New Eph Parent —

I’ll second anon. Williams is not unique in this respect as compared with small elite colleges, and it’d be a mistake to choose Swarthmore, Pomona, Amherst, Middlebury, etc. over Williams because of these concerns. I actually think that Williams falls on the moderate and “everyone is generally agreeable” end for its peer schools, notwithstanding the often-misleading portrayal painted here on Ephblog.

Larger universities will generally have stronger radical elements (on both sides), but will also afford more space to avoid those groups of students if that’s what your child wants. That said, having attended and taught at a number of the most desirable/well-regarded large alternatives, I am firmly of the belief that your child is likely to get a materially better education at Williams (or Swarthmore or Pomona…).*

*The primary exception to this is if your child is firmly committed to a field–like engineering–not offered at Williams.

#10 Comment By Current Student On April 24, 2019 @ 11:11 pm

Come to Williams! (If your child wants to, of course). I’ll third anon and a non–there’s a great education to be had here, and although we students may complain about this or that, there’s a great group of people to be found here.