Creating a healthier campus culture

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 named 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.