The world’s issues have always been Williams’ issues. Our campus may be tucked away in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts, but the college and our people are continually shaped by broad social crosscurrents. Through our educational work, and our moral and political agency, we can influence that larger world in turn.
In an academic year unlike any other, our campus, like our world, already looks much different than it did a year ago. Meals once eaten in the dining halls are now taken to go; sports teams and student groups are often meeting online; roughly 25% of our students are learning remotely or taking a gap year; and well over half of our faculty are teaching remotely. Tents, once set out primarily for graduations and reunions, now have been repurposed as Covid testing sites, outdoor classrooms and eating spaces.
But the changes at Williams are more than physical or pedagogical. In parallel with the pandemic, we’re in the midst of an ongoing project to redefine how we build community. Here, again, the college has been shaped by broad societal crosscurrents. We’re thinking about inclusive education and racial equity during a time when Black Lives Matter and other movements are raising such issues nationally and when Covid-19 has laid bare, with brutal clarity, the ways that injustice, inequity and political and economic instability operate in our world today, often determining who lives and who dies or suffers.
The work of recent decades to expand our admission and hiring has been a crucial step in broadening Williams’ impact. Now we are shifting—sometimes proactively, sometimes urged by advocacy—into a period of intensive work to ensure that our campus is fully inclusive.
Williams’ mission is to prepare students for the world into which they will graduate: a world in which, by virtue of their education and credentials, they will likely enjoy significant influence. It is imperative that we provide them with the tools they need to become problem solvers who can take on complex issues that we and those before us have not yet solved. In that way, we all become contributors to the essential task of creating just and equitable societies.
A Williams education takes many forms, and we are weaving such work throughout our curriculum and co-curriculum. The Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion welcomed Dialogue Facilitator Drea Finley. Drea, whose office is at the Davis Center, teaches restorative practices that help people peaceably resolve conflicts and reach mutual understanding. You’ll find Drea’s exceptional poem “I Can’t Breathe” in the fall 2020 issue of Williams Magazine.
We’ve also hired an outstanding staff at the Davis Center with strengths in student support and inclusive pedagogy, including Director Eden-Renée Hayes, Assistant Director for Intergroup Relations and Inclusive Programming Aseel Abulhab ’15 and Program Coordinator Natalie Montoya-Barnes. The center itself, a hub for this important work and for many student and academic activities, is also undergoing a physical renovation that was paused when the pandemic and financial crisis hit in the spring.
The vibrancy of today’s Davis Center honors the family whose name it bears—and it’s a testament to the struggles they and so many have endured at Williams. In the Williams Magazine story “Struggle and Success,” Gordon Davis ’63 relates how his father, W. Allison Davis ’24, severed his connection with Williams after he was turned down for a faculty position because he was Black. He went on to hold a professorship at the University of Chicago for nearly 40 years, and his foundational work on the role of class and race in a child’s education and acculturation continues to be cited today. He made his peace with Williams just a year before his death in 1983.
Students and alumni have also struggled to “make their peace” with Williams. In the fall magazine, Nicole Alvarez ’22 writes about her own experience in “A Williams Professor Once Told Me ‘Don’t Use Your Poetry as a Soapbox.’” As activist Virginia Cumberbatch ’10 writes in the essay “Facing the Truth,” breaking this cycle of harm and healing “will require us to get into what the late Congressman John Lewis called ‘good trouble’ … to sacrifice convenience, disrupt comfort and shake ourselves from complacency or complicity in our individual lives and collective commitment.”
We’re shaking ourselves out of one form of complicity by continuing this year with our examination of the college’s past, including our historical relationship to chattel slavery and to the Native American peoples displaced by settler-colonists in this region, among other issues. You can read about one aspect of that work in Christine DeLucia’s essay “Resurrecting Vanishing Narratives.”
We’re also challenging ourselves to look ahead by thinking about more inclusive and supportive models for our residential life system: Can we intentionally guide students to engage with people different from themselves? And can we pair such efforts with other opportunities that let them more fully explore their own identities and interests?
This is the work of a great liberal arts school. There’s a particular ideal of living-learning at a place like Williams, where the lessons of the classroom are complemented—and sometimes complicated—by the experience of trying to put one’s ideas into practice. When we encourage personal and mutual responsibility in a pandemic, or explore issues of identity and push for a more inclusive campus, we combine the two aspects and provide students with both a theoretical and practical education.
That education shapes people to be thoughtful, searching and effective. In this issue, and in the words, ideas, experiences and actions of our students, staff, faculty and alumni, Williams comes alive.