Claiming Williams 2019: What Does It Mean to Claim Williams?

Welcome. I’m honored to host my first Claiming Williams. This day is an important point in the year, thanks to the breadth of programming and community impact. The nature of the event was shaped by the day’s origins in student and community action, after some disruptive and upsetting bias incidents in 2008.

Claiming Williams has evolved since then. And of course the national environment is very different than it was eleven years ago, in some ways for the better, but in other ways not. All the indications are that we need Claiming Williams more today than ever. For that reason I also want to pause to thank the [BEAR] Bahr family, some of whom are here today, and who generously support Claiming Williams and our diversity and inclusion efforts. I also want to thank the Davis family, who have been so supportive of this work over the years.

When I first heard that this year’s theme was “how do you claim Williams?,” I assumed the emphasis was on the “you.” And it is certainly crucial for each of us to think about how we individually contribute to making Williams inclusive and finding space for ourselves within this wider community. But I have also done some thinking on the question of who is the “Williams” in this thematic framing.

Such questions are particularly of interest to me as an historian of minority communities in modern Europe. Scholars in my field have, for years, focused on the way modern liberal nation-states, like France, pushed minority populations to assimilate in exchange for political rights in the state.

Recent work, however, has recognized that the relationship was much more reciprocal. The minority groups I have studied—Jews, Muslims, and Armenians, for example—were actually important agents of change, who shaped the societies in which they lived, even while also being shaped by them. Yes, they assimilated. But in doing so they also brought cultural, linguistic, political, and religious traditions into the wider culture that forever shaped those societies.

This was not always a smooth and mutually respectful process. Sometimes changes happened gradually, sometimes they were more volatile. Complex institutions made of lots of different people are like that.

But we can apply this same idea to the question of “how do you claim Williams?” Like the nation-states I just described, Williams is constantly transforming by the new traditions and perspectives we bring to it, as the people who live in its dorms and people its classrooms and work on its campus. It is not just about “fitting in.” It is a constant cycle of exchange and transformation. We claim Williams, and at the same time Williams claims us. Students leave here changed, and the place you leave is changed by your having been here.

There’s another story I learned about recently that makes this same point. In the 1940s, the Air Force noticed an increase in accidents and mistakes with pilots losing control of their planes. After a lot of analysis they figured out the problem was not improper training or pilot error. it was that their cockpits were designed for the dimensions of the so-called “average pilot” back in the 1920s.

The Air Force reasonably decided they should update those “average” dimensions. So they measured more than 4,000 pilots on factors like leg length, the distance from their eye to their ear, thumb length, and on and on.

After they had redesigned their cockpits, they discovered that not one of the thousands of pilots perfectly fit the new setup. A space designed to an average did not fit any actual individual. Only after they redesigned cockpits to be adjustable did things work the way they were supposed to.

This strikes me as a useful analogy for Williams. When this college was founded, there were a lot of assumptions about who the typical college student was and what college should be. It wasn’t said this way at the time, but Williams was already “claimed”—just by a much more demographically limited population.

Over time, we started admitting and hiring people of more diverse backgrounds and identities. But we continued to assume that everyone would fit the old norm. It has taken time to realize that we need to adapt the institution to the people, in the same way nation-stated evolved to accommodate new populations, and the same way the Air Force changed their design approach.

At Williams our norms have changed and must change, as our community continues to evolve. One of the reasons I am here is to work with you to help bring about those changes in the healthiest way for all of us.

As you move through the day today, I urge you to think about the ways in which Williams has adapted, and can continue to do so, to the perspectives of all those who now “claim” it as their own. What is our role in fostering and supporting that change? How can we work together to ensure that all of us feel that Williams is ours to claim? No one of us can do this alone, Williams doesn’t belong to any one person. It takes all of us making contributions that add up to something much bigger. That’s the hopeful part for me—the part that keeps me going even when the changes are hard.

It’s what it means, in this day and age, to “claim Williams.” Not each of us claiming it for ourselves, but all of us claiming it for everyone. Thank you for being committed to that goal with me.