Williams Chokes Up

Peter Wood

In April 2008, Williams College established an official web portal Williams Speaks Up, for students to report incidents of bias. By September, Christine Chung, a student writing for the student newspaper, The Williams Record, reported the disappointing news, “Williams Speaks Up Site Lacks Posts.” It seems that in its first five months, the site had found only one “incident report” worthy of posting. 

The absence of bias reports, of course, doesn’t mean absence of bias, and Ms. Chung weighs what might have gone wrong. Oddly, this does not include the possibility that bias took a holiday over the summer when the bias-mongering Williams students may have been someplace other than Williamstown. But there are other possible explanations for the dearth of reports. (1) Dean of the College Karen R. Merrill explained that in evaluating a possible post, they discovered “how complex the process can be.” (2) Dean Merrill also mentioned “administrative breakdowns.” (3) Merrill acknowledged the site needs more visibility. Don’t worry, Dean Merrill. NAS is on it. 

(4) Dean Merrill also acknowledges that Williams Speaks Up needs “more thought” from students and faculty about how it can be used effectively. (5) Ms. Chung reports that the portal “has not yet received much time on the College Council agenda this semester.” (6) And, Jason Ren, who graduated last spring, but who had served as the co-president of MinCo (Minority Coalition) and had co-founded the Williams Speaks Up website, “attributes the lack of activity to the beginning of the school year.”  

Jason, however, is optimistic. “The support from the administration last year was overwhelming, and I believe that it will become a truly great living public archive for the students of Williams.” 

In other words, it is too soon to tell whether Williams will speak up in a torrent of closely documented, reliable case histories of “unwanted, abusive, or harassing behavior” perpetrated by students, faculty members, or staff. 

Of course, the null hypothesis is also a possibility, i.e. that Williams College just doesn’t have very many actual incidences of “unwanted, abusive, or harassing behavior.” Or that when claims are submitted to the William Speaks Up Committee (the dean of the College, MinCo co-chairs, junior advisor co-presidents, and College Council representatives) they prove insubstantial and melt away like the snows on Mt. Greylock in the late Spring sun. These possibilities, however, seem not to occur to thorough Ms. Chung, avid Dean Merrill, and hopeful Mr. Ren. 

Is this too much detail? Perhaps. But I was trained as an anthropologist and tend to think the fine-grained detail often tells us more than broad-brush generalizations. In this case, we have an elite liberal arts college in the midst of what looks like a mild case of hysteria. Its administration is convinced of the merits of vetting all the rumors, gossip, tall tales, and out-of-context jokes in search for the elusive needle of actual bias. Do the Williams administrators really believe that their community is rife with unreported bias? Or do they see tactical advantage in humoring MinCo, whose members presumably gain some psychological satisfaction from imagining that they are victims of an oppressive system at one of the nation’s most liberal liberal arts colleges? We can’t tell and won’t guess. The MinCo website, incidentally, seems frozen in 2006, and doesn’t appear to reflect any sense that Williams is an unfriendly environment for minority students. 

Dean Merill’s explanation for establishing Williams Speaks Up is arresting. She told Ms. Chung that the site “can help stem the tide against poor Web sites with no mechanism for weeding out gossip.” Really? Was Williams caught in a “tide” of gossipy websites parlaying stories about “unwanted, abusive, or harassing behavior”? 

Should Bias Be Reported?

Williams College, of course, is not the first institution to set up a system for reporting bias. Last year the College of William and Mary drew national attention for establishing a Bias Reporting Team that encouraged students to submit anonymous complaints that would be investigated secretly by anonymousstaffers.   William and Mary’s system focused on incidents in which people were accused of displaying “lack of tolerance.” In response to harsh coverage in the general press and complaints from alumni, William and Mary eventually scaled back but did not eliminate its Bias Reporting System. Williams apparently picked up where William and Mary left off. 

At the end of 2002, a website called NoIndoctrination.org was created by Luann Wright, after she reflected on the classroom experiences of her son at the University of California at San Diego. Wright believed that faculty members were all too often using their courses to indoctrinate students and wanted to create a national mechanism for students to come forward with their complaints, either under their own names or anonymously. NoIndoctrination.org, like Williams Speaks Up, goes to considerable trouble to verify the complaints it posts. It also offers professors who are accused of classroom bias the opportunity to respond. 

Campus Watch, founded by Daniel Pipes, the Director of the Middle East Forum, is another website that invites students (among others) to submit reports of bias—in this case, bias in Middle East studies programs. Campus Watch came into official existence September 18, 2002, a few months before NoIndoctrination.org, and occasioned a lot of controversy. In 2003, Campus Watch went to the trouble to explain why its invitation to students to submit allegations of bias should not be confused with “McCarthyism.” 

Earlier this year, the National Association of Scholars also launched a web venture, the Argus Project, that likewise welcomes submissions from individuals who are in a position to know something about particular campuses. We are dedicated to using only publicly available documents and open sources, so the parallel to William and Mary’s Bias Reporting System, Williams’ Williams Speaks Up, Luann Wright’s Noindoctrination, and Daniel Pipes’ Campus Watch is imperfect. But sure enough, within days of our creating Argus, we too were accused of McCarthyism

In principle, we see nothing wrong with creating mechanisms whereby students (or anyone else) can bring forward evidence of wrong-doing. The situation, however, has some complications. Americans—and many other people—have qualms about snitching. There is something cowardly about it, as if the person who squeals doesn’t have the strength of character to stand up to the person who is doing something wrong. We also have a “mind your own business” ethic. Robert Ford didn’t win any public esteem by shooting Jesse James in the back. Even bad guys are granted an implicit right to be confronted by the law, not by vigilantes. 

When an organization invites people to complain, it has to bear in mind the possibility that the invitation itself can be an inducement to mischief. That puts the burden on those receiving the complaints to be tough-minded. They need to make sure trivialities don’t grow like beanstalks to the clouds of conspiracy. They need to see facts, not just allegations. 

In that vein, I don’t see any evidence that Williams College has gone amiss with its Williams Speaks Up.  It hasn’t resulted in publication of unfounded accusations—at least so far as we know. The one incident it has posted is open to view only to Williams’ students.

Should bias be reported? Yes, but resorting to a mechanism like Williams Speaks Up looks justified only if there is an actual need. Within weeks of NAS setting up our Argus project, we had over sixty volunteers looking at colleges in 31 states. So far we have published four articles based on research by these volunteers. That seems to bear out the reasons for creating Argus: there are important stories about higher education, some of them concerning bias, that aren’t getting told. Argus is bringing them to light. 

So the real question is whether Williams College is in the grips of widespread incidents of actual bias that the College is unable to identify and address in any other way. The evidence so far is that the bias incidents just aren’t there. Perhaps in the next few months we will find out otherwise, and Williams Speak Up will become, as Mr. Ren hopes, “a truly great living public archive for the students of Williams.” Alternatively it could become a forgotten experiment in the annals of political correctness.  

What Happened at Williams?

Appeals to public conscience, of course, depend a lot on context. It is one thing for police in a drug-infested neighborhood to encourage citizens to turn in the dealers. It is something else to encourage neighbors to spy on each other, as routinely happens in Cuba. Where in the gradations of snitchery does Williams come in?

The Williams Speaks Up web page declares that it is intended “to advance cultural understanding and community engagement.” This seems a little unctuous. Whatever “cultural understanding” is, it is not advanced by ratting people out for failing to show obeisance to the ever-changing dictates of multiculturalism. “Community engagement” is a strange euphemism for telling the teacher. The Williams’ site also describes itself as “a resource for dialogue and education on issues of inclusion.” These too are trick words. “Dialogue” in this sense means, “Shut up and listen to us.” “Education on issues of inclusion” generally means, “Here’s our agenda.” 

It is certainly no surprise to see Williams College tangling itself up in this rhetorical and bureaucratic mess. It is what comes from embracing identity politics as the core of a liberal arts education, and Williams has been doing that for a while. But there is an actual sequence of steps that led over this particular cliff.

At 1:45 AM on Saturday, February 2, 2008, someone reported finding the word “nigger” written on a white board on the landing between the first and second floors of building Hall E, (“Willy E.”) The epithet and drawings of male genitalia were also found scrawled on several doors. No one was seen doing the scrawling and no one was ever caught. The possibility of a hoax crossed the minds of at least a few students (see Constantine, Madonna) but the College administration sprang into action like the FBI on the trail of an anthrax mailer. Students were interviewed. Stories were checked. Students were interviewed again. 38 of them. But justice was thwarted and after weeks of intensive forensics, Dean Merrill threw in the towel

But all was not lost. One of the students who lived near the scene of the crime was an African-American freshman named Jacquelin Magby, who felt that the epithets were intended for her. And her magic marker to the white board on her door was stolen! In any case, Ms. Magby became the center of the storm, complaining that she had ben the victim of a campaign of psychological intimidation and persecution. Out of this arose the “Stand With Us” movement which declared that the College has a "culture of hate and indifference." Williams Speaks Up was intended to remedy this. 

Was Williams correctly diagnosing a hidden vein of racism among its students? Or was it turning a single anomalous incident into an occasion for an out-of-proportion intervention? 

We can’t tell at this distance. We do, however, see that Williams has scheduled a whole day—Claiming Williams Day— for thoughtful reflection on “issues of community and respect.” This was a proposal put forward Stand With Us last Spring which won administrative approval. Not everyone is enthusiastic about it. Robert Bell, a professor of English, told The Williams Record, “The quickest way to transform a deplorable incident into a disaster is to declare officially that there exists a culture of hate at Williams College."

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