Trustee Paul Neely ’68 on women, the Williams experience

(Editor’s Note: Paul Neely ’68 of Chattanooga, Tenn. retired from his career as a newspaper publisher three years ago, and has since been looking forward to the chance to teach a course at Williams. This Winter Study he is teaching “The News Business.” Neely has also served as a trustee of the College since 1995, and is a parent of a first-year student.)

What brings you all the way from Tennessee to Williamstown in January?

Well, that’s the only time of the year they would let me teach! I’m a trustee of the College, so I get up here four to eight times a year, anyhow. A large number of people knew me already, and they do lower their standards for teaching in January, so they decided to take a chance on me, I guess.

Has it been worth the trip?

Oh yeah, I love it. I’ve taught a lot of classes before at other colleges, but not a full course. I knew this would be somewhat easier, though, just because of the quality of Williams students. Despite the fact that it hasn’t been above freezing since Jan. 13, it has been rewarding.

What issues does your course address?

My course is about the tensions between journalism and the business side of the media. Some of that is ethics, but a larger part of it really is the conflict between professional standards and the business area.

It’s not restricted to journalism, and in fact I make comparisons to what doctors say about the practice of medicine these days, and what lawyers say about the practice of law. They have that conflict between their professional reasons for going into the business and what the economics of the business force them to do instead.

As a trustee, and now as a parent of a current student, you’ve been closely involved with the College since you graduated. How have things changed?

There were a lot of changes going on while I was here as a student. 1968’s class was the first class not to go through fraternity rush, so we were assigned to houses randomly, in housing groups.

Was it a hard change? Did you sense a lot of hostility?

There were a few seniors who would still grouse about it, and there were a few alumni out there who were really grousing about it. But as a student you didn’t really feel that very much. By the time I came as a freshman, I knew they were in the process of doing away with fraternities, so I didn’t get anything I didn’t sign up for.

What else?

In my senior year, I was on a student-faculty-trustee committee studying co-education. That was the committee that made the recommendation that Williams should admit women. The full board then approved that recommendation, acting on its authority, a few months later. Obviously, you can’t admit women all of a sudden. It took a few years to build the dorms and make the adjustments you have to make for that, but it was already starting to change the nature of the place, the nature of what students might be attracted to. There was a lot of discussion about it my senior year, of course, because everybody knew that the topic was on the table.

Did you have any personal reasons for becoming involved?

Did I like girls? Sure [laughs]. The more I thought about it, the more I believed Williams would be a better place if women were students here too. A lot of what we talked about that year in that committee was the nature of the place. Its faults were what adding women would help to mitigate.

What kind of faults?

It was very much a work hard, play hard syndrome that was based on the weekly calendar. People were ashamed if they went to the library on Friday or Saturday. Then it was an incentive to go really crazy on weekends in a fairly negative way. Some of that bad behavior was transferred to when people were on road trips, too, to Mount Holyoke, Vassar, wherever.

You were also cutting off half of the viewpoints of the world. There are certain different perspectives on things, and certain different styles of expressing things. It was clear by 1968 that the world was changing in terms of women’s status in the workplace. It didn’t make much sense not to be exposed to these different perspectives and styles while you were in college and then adjust to a new kind of world out there in the workplace.

Was the decision to go co-ed successful in reversing these shortcomings?

Well, you still had the problem of those things existing in the broader culture. That was changing also during those years, so it’s a little hard to separate what was changing what. Today it’s vastly different, because men and women are friends. That doesn’t mean that sex doesn’t take place, and it doesn’t mean that male-female relations are always easy, but it certainly seems to me to be a far healthier situation than that kind of weekend dating or nothing.

How much of the College’s decision to admit women and diversify had to do with its concern about how it was perceived by many in the outside world as a “country club school”?

I think it’s hard to separate that from thinking at the same time that those moves were the right thing to do. I don’t want to sound too pretentious here, but they were the right moral things to do. I think we were concerned that we would be ashamed if we didn’t do them, but it was largely because it would mean we weren’t doing the right thing, not because somebody would come up with phrases like “country club school” to apply to us.

Do you think your involvement during your years at Williams prepared you for life in the outside world?

Did I come out at age 22 a perfectly formed young citizen of the world? No. But one of the things I hope people come out of Williams as is life-long learners, where you enjoy dealing in the world of ideas, and you’ll read books on your own and not just let television passively wash over you. I think there were a lot of things about Williams that helped me especially more than I might have been helped at some other school. Much of my adult life, I’ve been engaged in civic affairs through journalism, and since then I’ve been more directly involved. I think being part of a community like Williams, where you have that feeling of connectedness, is important to civic life in America today.

If you were a student here today, what kind of issues do you think you might be involved in? Do you see Williams students playing the same role as they did in the past?

We have been worried over the years that here and elsewhere students are becoming more disengaged from public affairs. By putting in different programs, debates and lectures we are trying to help the campus reengage with public affairs. I don’t know if it’s that students have so much to do that the outside world gets squeezed out of the daily schedule, or whether just as members of their generation they are not as engaged in public affairs as my generation may have been.

Does a lack of student concern put Williams’ reputation at stake?

I’m not sure it’s important to Williams’ reputation what students think about the war in Iraq, or whether they think about it. I think it does matter to Williams’ reputation what kind of people graduate from Williams, and whether they are engaged here and thus more likely to be engaged later in life and become citizens with a broader view than just their family and their current jobs.

Williams takes pride in alumni who play larger roles, not just in the world, but even in their communities. That requires a certain habit of engagement, and interest in engagement.

As a trustee, what are your concerns for the future of Williams?

There’s a whole article I wrote on threats to liberal arts colleges in a magazine called Daedalus, the quarterly journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The threats I covered had a lot to do with the broad marketplace. If people tend to regard education as just a credential for a vocation, then the liberal arts will suffer, and places like Williams will suffer.

Can Williams survive with the focus on vocation?

Williams, because it’s at the top of the liberal arts heap, has that problem less than other schools do. Such a high proportion of students go on to graduate school that they don’t have to get their business degree here, because likely they’re going to get an MBA later, or go on to law school or medical school. There’s less pressure on us to steer to the vocational than there is on the mid-level schools. If the mid-level schools all start leaning over toward the vocational end, all of a sudden the top-tier schools, let’s say the top dozen or so, start to be regarded almost the way we regard elite prep schools now – as a leftover from the past that you wouldn’t build if you were starting from scratch – that have more of an elitist tinge because they’re such a small group. That would be a real danger.

Are there any ways to avoid that?

I don’t know. My course is about how the media are being buffeted and changed by the economic marketplace, and that happens to education, too. You just have to fight it as hard as you can. Part of what you do is you fight it internally, and as much as possible you fight it externally.

I think every alumnus of Williams ought to be a spokesman in his or her community for the importance of the liberal arts and a broad-based education and the kind of citizen awareness that derives from that. Education is about a lot more than just getting a job. If it becomes about just that, then you wind up with a citizenry that is going to be deficient in this wider purpose.

Is all of the current and future construction on campus important to that mission?

Your generation is far more performance-oriented than mine was. It’s not an accident that you have a better theater facility coming. The Adams Memorial Theatre was built in 1954 for Cap & Bells. There was nothing else; there was no theater program, there was obviously no dance program, and now there are hundreds of people involved in those. When I was here, there were one or two singing groups. Sometimes I get the feeling that it must be shameful if you’re not part of a singing group now [laughs]. That kind of performance orientation leads to changes in the curriculum, and it leads to changes in the kind of facility you want to have.

Would you prefer the return of the old housing system?

I think it’s a reasonable thing for the College to look for ways that we can recapture the best of that, where you start to diminish that class stratification. There are ways to make progress on that kind of campus life issue. You can’t say the housing system is fine because you want to go into a draw with your teammates, and then turn around and say that social life is lousy, because the two are related. One of the reasons that there have been problems with the social life in the past is that there isn’t the house cohesiveness that there used to be, so people have to scrounge for their own social life.

Has Williams changed for the better?

No question about it. Any institution is a product of its time, as any person is. You can’t judge anything by the standards of 40 years ago fairly. But I think Williams has been very good at remaining near the front on adapting to the changes of the times. It addressed fraternities before most of its peers did, and it added women and added them more smoothly than many of its peers did.

The kinds of things that we’ve been looking at in the past two years concerning the curriculum have had that same sort of forward look. What will keep us at the peak of our form? Has every single change been for the better? No, some of them were economic changes. [Nevertheless], I’m enormously proud to be associated with a school that has that kind of aspiration, to be the best. We’re not a perfect institution, we’re not perfect people – at least the trustees aren’t [laughs]. But what a great honor it is to be a colleague of people who just work unbelievably hard at trying to make it the best, and for the right reasons.

The best moment of any year as a trustee, I believe, is sitting on that stage and watching 500 people come up and get diplomas, because that’s what it’s all about. It’s the warmest day of the year for me. The neat thing about being a trustee is that you can take great pride in where we’ve been, and where we are, and yet I’ve never heard anybody in that group sound satisfied. They always want to keep working to make sure it stays at that level.