Outrage over the naming of historian and Pulitzer Prize winner James MacGregor Burns ’39, a Williams alumnus and Woodrow Wilson professor of government emeritus, as the keynote speaker at Massachusetts College of the Liberal Arts’ (MCLA) commencement May 27 led to an outpouring of responses from MCLA students and the community concerning the relationship between MCLA and Williams.
In an April 6 opinions article in the Beacon, the MCLA student newspaper, columnist Akili Carter ’00 argued that MCLA was trying too hard to be a clone of Williams College and angrily stated that Burns was a bad choice for commencement speaker.
“Are we Williams College?” he questioned. “Why is this college [MCLA] so intent on being like our neighboring college [Williams]?”
“Certain people at this school think Williams is God’s gift to the world,” Carter continued. “Do they hold us on the same pedestal? A better question might be do they really care about this school at all?”
According to the April 13 editorial of the Beacon written a week later, “Having Burns give this year’s commencement speech casts doubt on all the achievements of the college. It leaves room for the question of whether or not we are really becoming a premier liberal arts college, or are we defining ourselves as the generic, publicly funded, cheap imitations of Williams College?”
Carter said he wrote his op-ed piece to point out his fear that MCLA was “losing its identity.”
“I wrote it because I feel that the administration compares our school to Williams so much,” he said. “The thing you hear around here over the past few years is Williams, Williams, Williams…You get tired of it after a while.”
“If you play any sport, you can talk to almost anyone and they feel this way,” continued Carter, who plays basketball for the MCLA Mohawks. “It’s probably the closeness factor. Sportswise, you [Williams] are our biggest rival for us because you are so close. If you hear about someone over and over, it starts to grate on you.”
A dialogue about the relationship between W1illiams and MCLA and the choice of commencement speaker lasted several weeks in the pages of the Beacon.
MCLA students echoed Carter’s frustrations.
“It is a slap in the face of all seniors who are graduating, because the last thing any of us want to do is to listen to a Williams professor talk,” wrote Evan Druckman ’00 in an April 13 letter to the Beacon. “It is pretty obvious during our years here that we are always compared to Williams, and now on our last day we have to see another reminder of Williams.”
Sports editor Arlen Cellana ’01 wrote in an April 20 Beacon opinions article, “The Trustees appear to have asked for little input in the selection process and have obviously touched a nerve running through much of the student body.”
MCLA administrators defended the decision to bring Burns to campus and attempted to downplay accusations of emulating Williams. “Our two administrations have tried very hard to build a bridge between the two institutions,” said Dan Barber, President of the Student Government Association at MCLA. “However, at times our administration has been accused of trying to ‘copy’ or model Williams College.”
MCLA President Thomas Aceto also defended MCLA’s choice of Burns as commencement speaker.
“The Trustees, upon my recommendation, approved James MacGregor Burns as commencement speaker,” he wrote in an April 20 letter to the editor. “I based my recommendation solely on his accomplishments.”
“In my mind, his association with another college was not a reason to qualify him or disqualify him from consideration,” he continued. “I did focus on his lifetime commitment to promoting the issues of democracy, leadership and human rights. His participation brings great honor to our College and to our graduates.”
According to an April 20 letter to the editor written by Dean of Academic Studies Randall Hansis, “Arrogance and ignorance mistakenly lashed out at a good thing in the name of a bad concept: that somehow we should affront those who in good faith and friendship reach out to assist our college; that MCLA is inferior and Williams superior.”
Hansis continued, “Comparisons are inevitable, since the two schools are each other’s closest neighbors. But, because we are so proximate, we should seek to be good neighbors, instead of falling to low sentiments of rivalry based on rumor and a false sense of ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’”
An April 18 front-page article in the Berkshire Eagle elicited strong reactions from community members who wrote letters to the editor labeling MCLA students “petulant” and “petty.”
“To be in imitation of as fine an institution of higher learning as Williams College would be no disgrace,” went an April 26 letter by Barbara Roberts. “It would only add to the luster of MCLA’s reputation and attract top-level students who would be getting a superior education at a college that is within the financial range of middle class and working people.”
MCLA enrolls 1500 undergraduates. Formerly North Adams State College, MCLA changed its name in 1997. Described on its webpage as a “coeducational, public, residential, four-year liberal arts college,” MCLA was established in 1894 as teachers’ college.