More kerfuffles at Williams College

February 7, 2019 • 12:00 pm

Gather ye around, and hear my prediction: Williams College, in Williamstown Massachusetts, widely regarded as the best small liberal-arts school in America, is on its way to becoming the Evergreen State College of the East.  It is becoming hyper-woke in the same way that Evergreen State did before it imploded, with Evergreen’s enrollment and budget dropping precipitously.  I may be wrong about Williams, but remember this prediction in two years.

I’ve already posted several times about Williams’s ongoing debate about free speech, and about how many students and faculty (including the student newspaper), are urging “nuance”—the balancing of free speech against “hate speech”. (I doubt that Williams has much hate speech; see below.) This is the same kind of invidious “balance” that sounds oh so reasonable but is a good way to censor speech you don’t like; and it’s the same kind of balance that, as I wrote this morning, British “hate speech” law tries to strike.

What’s happening at Williams is that several professors have asked for the College to adopt policy embodying the Chicago Principles of nearly untrammeled free speech (over 50 colleges have already adopted them). There followed pushback by students and faculty who don’t like the notion of free speech. Now the college President, Maud Mandel, has constituted a committee to examine the question and suggest policy. The way the committee was constituted concerns me, and I predict that it will not arrive at any consensus about freedom of speech, or, if it does, the consensus will involve restricting speech.

Here are two excerpts about the committee from the student newspaper, the Williams Record. First, who was appointed to be on it?

The 13-member committee will consist of students, alums, faculty and staff, and it will be led by Jana Sawicki, chair of philosophy. Student members, who were selected by the College Council Appointments Committee, will be Michael Crisci ’21, Eli Miller ’21, Rachel Porter ’21 and Conrad Wahl ’20. The committee also includes alum Mark Robinson ’02, staff therapist Alysha Warren, Rabbi Seth Wax, librarian Hale Polebaum Freeman and four other professors in addition to Sawicki: Senior Lecturer in Dance Sandra Burton, Assistant Professor of American Studies Eli Nelson, Professor of Political Science Cheryl Shanks and Chair and Associate Professor of Physics Fred Strauch.

There are 5 faculty members, 4 students, 3 staff, and 1 alum. Faculty, then, constitute 38% of the committee—as opposed to 100% of the Chicago committee (7 out of 7). There are almost as many students as there are faculty.

I find this deeply unbalanced, for faculty are not only older and more experienced than are students (call me elitist if you must), but faculty are at the College for the long term, while students are transitory. Further, students have shown more opposition to free speech than have faculty, though this is just my impression. I don’t have strong feelings about staff, except that one of them is a therapist (is she going to favor free speech as opposed to the “psychological damage” of hate speech?) and another is a rabbi (what expertise to rabbis have in free speech, and don’t they have an interest in protecting their faith?).

It should be clear that I want the committee to endorse the Chicago Principles, but this committee is front-loaded to avoid that. In a misguided attempt to get every faction of the college to participate in decision-making, President Mandel has shot herself in the foot. There will be no agreement that will come close to the Chicago Principles. But perhaps Williams wants to be on the side of censorship, in which case it’s abrogating its educational mission.

And then there’s this:

In a Jan. 9 email, while the committee’s roster was being formed, Mandel elaborated on the intent of the committee. “Williams, like other schools around the country, is debating how to uphold principles of open inquiry and free expression,” she wrote. “The debate has focused on how to do so while not providing a platform for hate speech, racism, or other forces that are corrosive to a learning community.”

She further framed the committee’s mission as seeking input from across the campus community to find a proper balance.

The proper balance is the balance struck by the First Amendment: free speech except for speech the courts have deemed illegal, including harassment, libel, and speech that incites imminent violence. So, I predict either no outcome and no unanimity from the committee, or a weaselly statement of “balance” that doesn’t specify what speech is allowable.

In other news, two Williams professors, Kai Green and Kim Love, have left off teaching for the semester. Both are black professors and their non-teaching is a result of or in protest of what they claim are the violence, microaggressions, and hatred that they encounter regularly at Williams. Green is a (male) assistant professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies, while Love is an assistant professor of English. They’re created quite a stir with their failure to meet their classes this quarter. Green is on an “unexpected medical leave”, apparently involving recovery from racism, while Love, without warning, simply didn’t show up in her class, leaving students stranded and other professors in the department to pick up their loads.  Both claim, and have claimed in the past, that they encounter “violent practices” from the College itself, as well as anti-blackness and transphobia. Click on the screenshot to read the Williams Record piece:

The article above highlights an essay jointly written by Green and Love in the Feminist Wire, an essay that details the racism they experienced. It’s below (click on screenshot). “Dr G.” self-identifies as “Kai” at the end.
But the article describes only a single possible incident of racism, and it didn’t take place on campus and didn’t even come from someone associated with Williams. The incident involved a local car mechanic who treated the pair badly when their car broke down. It likely does involve bigotry, but hardly instantiates the claim of Green and Love that a). Williams itself is committing “violent practices” against blacks or LGBTQ people, and b). that the pair experience daily racism and microaggressions. If you’re going to make that claim, and in fact stop teaching because of it (Love appears to have simply walked out of her class, as if on strike), you must document these claims. 

In an attempt to see how pervasive “hate incidents” are at Williams, I looked at the College’s record of incidents reported either to the campus police or the local police, a record you can find here.

Here are the data from 2015-2017, showing four incidents of “intimidation and harassment” in 2015, but none in the succeeding two years, and no other “hate crimes” reported. The chart below is full of goose eggs. Both Green and Love started at Williams in 2017.

This supports the impression I had that Williams is not only a very diverse college, but one that is supportive of diversity and largely free of bigotry:

Why do I bother with this? First of all because the newspaper report about Green and Love’s absence seems to have thrown Williams into a bit of a turmoil. And yet their accusations of racism are similar to those that occurred at Evergreen State before it melted down: in other words, unsubstantiated accusations.

Until Green and Love can actually document how Williams is a racist institution that isn’t doing anything about ethnic and gender bias, and describe the incidents that have made them quit teaching, I’d be wary of denigrating the institution itself. Evergreen, too, was not a racist, sexist, or transphobic university, and yet many students insisted it was, leading to the demonization of Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, the occurrence of thugs students roaming the campus with baseball bats, looking for racists, and then the big meltdown that made Evergreen State look ridiculous in the eyes of the country. It will be a long time, if ever, before Evergreen State becomes the kind of place where you’d want to send your kid.

Were I an administrator at Williams College, I’d be quite concerned that my university was being accused of structural and institutional racism. I would want to see if the complaints have merit before convening committees to fix a problem that may not exist. And I’d be concerned about the national reputation of the College, which heretofore has been high. Williams is not only a good college but a wealthy one, and incidents like these, and the College’s reluctance to embrace free speech, threaten to damage its reputation. Sadly, I don’t think that its President has the moxie to stand up for truth and free speech, or to stand against accusations of structural racism if they’re false.

35 thoughts on “More kerfuffles at Williams College

  1. The debate has focused on how to do so while not providing a platform for hate speech, racism, or other forces that are corrosive to a learning community.

    “Other forces” being the wishy-washy language of pecksniffian censors who are worried about the moral upbring of youth, like a 21st century Watch and Ward Society.

  2. Interesting to see how things move along.
    Read Zachary Wood’s bio and experience last summer. A complicated young life but he attended two schools my kids did years ago and rose from poverty and troubled life.
    At Williams he was soon in a kerfuffle as he believed open, civil, presentations from other factions was needed for all to understand and question. His criticism and derogation by woke faculty and students is still present

  3. Read their article. Mainly they just complain that a working class man didn’t suck up to them as much as they felt they were entitled to.

  4. A university set in turmoil by two snowflakes being snowflakey. I’d suggest to disband the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies, which will release some badly needed funds and will solve the problem of/with Prof. Green. Prof. Love should be given a reasonable deadline to collect herself or hit the road.

  5. Their complaint is that the local tow-truck guys aren’t in the white-glove taxi business? And perhaps, maybe, made vague promises before getting your car on the flatbed which turn out not to be worth the paper they were written on? The horror.

    I hear there’s a queue round the block for junior humanities teaching jobs. Maybe if these ones decline to show up and teach, the college should hire some others?

  6. “many students and faculty . . . are urging nuance”

    I have been accused a few time of not understanding the “nuance” of the situation. Mainly because I did not agree to break rules to let them do what they wanted to do.

    Anyone who uses that in an argument is not being reasonable or rational.

  7. Looks like a school without a clue. The officials of this school should have told both of these teachers to either return to their duties fast or terminate them. Allowing 20 and 21 year old students to make policy at the school is nuts. Students should be able to speak their mind and have any opinion they want but do not make policy. If you want to make the policy then get a job that requires it. Those at the school that should be doing this are what? On vacation.

  8. Looks like a school without a clue. The officials of this school should have told both of these teachers to either return to their duties fast or terminate them. Allowing 20 and 21 year old students to make policy at the school is nuts. Students should be able to speak their mind and have any opinion they want but do not make policy. If you want to make the policy then get a job that requires it. Those at the school that should be doing this are what? On vacation.

    1. something has gone south on the web site today. Everything I do either says I have already done it or goes ahead and does it twice.

  9. “The proper balance is the balance struck by the First Amendment: free speech except for speech the courts have deemed illegal, including harassment, libel, and speech that incites imminent violence.”

    I agree.

    They got it right (respectfully and humbly) with the First Amendment.

    “What’s happening at Williams is that several professors have asked for the College to adopt policy embodying the Chicago Principles of nearly untrammeled free speech (over 50 colleges have already adopted them).”

    I am definitely strongly in favor of this.

  10. On her Facebook page, Dr. Green reports on her psychotic breakdown. It left her walking naked through Williamstown. The reason for this lapse in good judgement? Anti-blackness.

  11. I tend to believe the 2 professors. Most of us white people don’t have a clue of what black people go through on a daily basis.

    1. I agree with the second statement. I have been told multiple times I will never understand what black people (or some women, for that matter) go through. But I do not see that evidence, in this case, supports the two professor’s judgment upon all of Williams for having an ostensibly violent climate.

      Addendum. If anyone wants to know what it’s like to be a white male I will be happy to tell them my life story and if they say they understand my plight (or privilege) then I believe them. Oddly, this is not usually the case the other way around.

      1. Oh, I think white folk can understand what’s going on with minorities. But they have to work at it — have to work at it a lot harder, that is, than minorities do to understand the dominant culture. The dominant culture is what’s fed to all of us on a daily basis — it dominates the media and the educational system and the legal system and just about every system it’s important to understand in America. Minorities have to learn it to navigate through this world for their own well-being. Members of the dominant culture, on the other hand, can pretty much get by without knowing a damn thing about how minorities live if they’d prefer not to.

        It’s like, in the days of slavery, how the slaves always knew what was going on in the master’s house, but the people in the master’s house usually had little clue of what was going on behind closed doors in the slaves’ quarters. This nation has come a long, long, long way since those days, of course, but there’s still quite a cultural divide. And many people in the dominant culture don’t even see it, ’cause they’ve had little need to, and little reason ever to wonder why.

    2. I agree we should be careful and open to listening to the claims anyone has – black or otherwise – as to their experiences.

      And of course racism still occurs.

      But even given those propositions, we still have to problem of trying to understand reality, untangling truth from error.

      It would certainly make things easier if we could just trust any account as accurate based on the skin color or gender of the person giving the account. But we are all human and suffer bias in our interpretations…even when interpreting bias.

      How often in life has someone drawn an inference about our intentions or beliefs that just aren’t accurate?

      In trying to diagnose racism, we now have an ever growing problem mixed in of identity politics, “safe spaces,” people being taught to notice and be upset by microaggressions etc. And we have the problem where this is all being escalated via, as Jonathan Haidt points out often, the “catastrophization” of small events, enabled by language moves like “he didn’t answer me” is now “He DENIED MY EXISTENCE!” And not immediately agreeing to call someone anything they want to be called is akin to a a Hate Crime and Violence.

      So we have a sort of boy-who-cried-wolf issue now, where incidents can be described in language that makes them sound like an all out assault with traumatized victims, and when you finally get actual details you are often left wondering….”are you kidding? You think THAT was violence and you were traumatized by THIS?”

      And as has often been pointed out, it seems the “snowflake” phenomenon of easy traumatization, claims of violence, victimization, racism etc seems to be highest among the most progressive schools!

      Being white, I surely don’t have to deal with some things that some, or many, black Americans have to deal with in terms of racism, subtle or overt.

      At the same time, when I’m reading accounts like the one in this story and many others, I have to ask myself honestly if such instances aren’t themselves the result of interpreting life through another form of biased lense: the one of victim-hood where one always assumes some friction is due to racism.

      There are plenty of instances I experience, even as a “privileged white man” that, if I were black, I could easily have attributed as as due to racism, where it was mostly due to the other person just being a jerk, or tired, or bad-with-people, or may be from a different social strata, etc. And all sorts of lower income white people, or hippies, stoners, artists etc experience prejudicial situations that, if they were black viewing through the lense of finding racism, they would interpret as simply more evidence for racism.

      So dealing with racism has always been tricky. But this has been made exponentially more unclear by identify politics and it’s branches of thought.

        1. That is a pretty impressive display of mental illness.
          The grounds of “The Clark” are closed after dark, according to their website.
          And I had too look up Racial Capitalism. I was not surprised at how it is perceived.

          This seems to be a person with a bunch of issues, who has apparently latched onto the idea that “anti-blackness” is the source of all their woe.

    3. I have mentioned here before that one of the things I did at university was interviewing perpetrators, victims, and witnesses of some of the horrors of WW2 in both Asia and Europe. The project was about the materials technology that emerged from scarcity of materials, but the human stories were inseparable and a part of the materials questions we were trying to answer.
      Anyway, I talked to quite a few people who have gone through real suffering. Some of it hardly believable. But what they did not do was engage in self pity, and constantly dwell on the hardships and loss they endured.
      I am open to listening to empathizing with the struggles that these professors, or anyone else is going through. Racism happens, and I don’t discount that. But reading what these folks have written, it seems less like they are undergoing objectively quantifiable oppression, and more like they just generally feel like they are being oppressed.
      It might be worth considering that people with that attitude frequently take a combative stance when they interact with others. It sort of becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

      1. That last para. is exactly what I was going to say.

        Some people (not saying this applies to Green and Love, because I don’t know them) go around expecting to encounter prejudice. Looking for it, if you will. Not surprisingly, others sense their attitude and react adversely.


  12. These grievance studies programs do serve a purpose, they make acquiring a degree possible for those who would quickly fall behind in any traditional program, be it hard science or even humanities. That allows an easy solution for the school to achieve desired demographic metrics.
    That is all fine, but we must not start pretending that these are actually educated people, in any real sense. If you include them in a debate such as the one under discussion, they are not going to provide helpful input.
    And they are going to be oblivious to their own lack of knowledge or objectivity.
    And I want to make it perfectly clear that my comments are not focused on any particular sex or ethnicity. There is plenty of ignorance to go around.

    1. Even without the balancing aspect, wasn’t it long said that the only reason MIT had an English department (or something) was because changing majors was less traumatic than transferring, for everyone involved.

      1. I dunno. I’ve known some people with degrees from MIT, and many more with STEM degrees from other elite schools. A few of them, outside of their own fields of expertise, have seemed kinda dull — not the type who could keep up their end of the conversation should it come to discussing a book or movie or a piece of music or a work of art or anything else having to do with the culture at large.

        1. Oh I don’t mean to glorify the MIT folks.

          But nobody chooses to go there for the English program (if that’s what it was), despite which the university found it worth running a whole department just as a kind of safety-valve, somewhere people could transfer to if their initial ambition didn’t work out. (I guess another reason is to make it easier to hire mixed-field couples.)

          I’m sure there’s an aspect of this with grievance studies departments. Every outward transfer is a headache (and a loss of tuition), so you may prefer to have somewhere inside for people to go.

  13. The committee also includes […] staff therapist [name],

    Whatever happened to treating therapy needs with a shark tank? Or is this person actually the feeder?

  14. Students should NOT be given power to decide major policies at a university before they earned a degree at said university! I object strongly to the very notion that they should have much say.

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