Center surrounded by ambiguity

As plans progress for the proposed performing arts facility, we urge the College to be more forthcoming with information. At a faculty meeting last May, the administration explained to the faculty that Mr. Allen’s gift came very quickly and therefore it was difficult to get faculty input. At the time, the Record admonished the administration for not accepting the gift through the proper channels, namely the Committee on Priorities and Resources, which is a faculty committee charged with advising the college on issues of spending and identifying areas in need of funding. A large capital project such as the construction of the proposed performing arts center, in addition to carrying the implication of a shift in curricular priorities, clearly changes spending priorities and requires the designation of funds for maintenance. Thus, we argued, it was precisely the kind of decision the CPR should have been informed of. We understand, of course, that generous gifts such as Mr. Allen’s are quite sensitive and must be dealt with delicately.

However, the specifics of the gift itself are not the only issues surrounding the project about which the college has been less than clear. Since May we have heard several different stories about the proposed construction site. The administration said that the area south of Walden Street would be the ideal site for the facility.

Over the summer, however, the administration said it was looking into at least four sites: the area behind the Greylock Quad, the northwest corner of Main and Southworth Streets and the southwest corner of Main Street and Stetson Court, in addition to the primary site.

When Sasaki Associates, the firm the College hired to look at various sites in the area, met with townspeople on Thursday night, they told the audience, “We come to campus without any previous involvement in the process of choosing a site for the new facility.” This seems to suggest that the site for the facility is still entirely up in the air.

But in an interview with the Record last night, President of the College Harry C. Payne said, “The College has determined on its best judgement that the facility would go well [south of Walden Street]. When we hired Sasaki we asked them to examine the virtues of the primary site and hear every possible concern about that site and see how the College could answer those problems. Secondly, if there is a great liability in the primary site, they should evaluate other possible sites as if they are starting from scratch.”

Thus, we are receiving two apparently contradictory messages from two groups who are supposed to be working together. If the College has a definite plan for the site, why is the firm it hired to look into a site telling the townspeople differently? Why did the College hire Sasaki Associates at all?

Lane Zumelsky, a member of the Williamstown Community Association, noted that he was pleased that the College was taking steps to rebuild trust with the community and hoped it would continue. If this is indeed the case, it is admirable. However, increased trust requires increased disclosure of information. Although the College does seem willing to address some concerns about the area that it has earmarked for the new facility, the extent of its commitment to addressing these concerns is unclear. Will the College listen to concerns about the proposed site with the tacit assumption that it will not seriously consider other sites?

As far as actual decisions are concerned, this debate may not be relevant. The proposed site is on college-owned property, and because of Massachusetts State law, Williams College is not subject to the same zoning restrictions as normal residents are. In the end, the college will do as it pleases. Yet, as Payne himself said, the College wants to be a good neighbor. A good neighbor would try to keep his fellow neighbors informed of any actions that might directly affect them. A good neighbor would try to eliminate ambiguity about its intentions, not create more. Williams College should be a good neighbor.

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