College unconcerned by wave of bad press

Students at the College typically discuss U.S. News & World Report magazine in a very specific context, analyzing how the publication ranks Williams in relation to its peer institutions. Last week, however, campus conversations and the WSO blogs were dotted with references to a different kind of headline on a U.S. News-affiliated Web site. Titled “Williams’ War on Errant Poo,” the brief item detailed the College’s recent struggles with bio-cleanups. Coming on the heels of similarly unflattering articles in venues as varied as the North Adams Transcript and the Web site, the U.S. News piece has left some observers deeply concerned about the College’s image.

College spokesman Jim Kolesar, director of public affairs is not among that group. “Research shows that human beings disproportionately weigh other peoples’ noticing of our embarrassments,” Kolesar said, going on to draw an analogy between the College’s current situation and that of a middle school student who drops a tray in the lunch room. “Nobody notices these things as much as we humans are wired to think they do.”

Kolesar’s experiences in recent weeks seem to support this interpretation of the situation. He has fielded only one off-campus inquiry on the topic of bio-cleanups, from a reporter at the Transcript. Anecdotal evidence from employees at the admission office, the other major group dedicated to mediating the College’s public face, also suggests a lack of general awareness of the incidents. Though Connie Sheehy, associate director for admission of operations, said she had discussed the topic with concerned alumni, assistant directors of admission Liz Tilley and Sulgi Lim ’06 both said on Tuesday that they had not fielded questions about the messes. Head tour guides Diana Jaffe ’08 and Jeremy Doernberger ’08 said that neither of them had been asked about the topic on their own tours nor heard of other guides being pressed on the subject.

“As unhappy as our current situation is in regard to our defecator, most of the world just doesn’t care,” Kolesar said.

Despite the lack of interest from most outsiders, the issue remains on the radars of employees in these offices. Kolesar acknowledged that he is working to keep abreast of the most up-to-date news on the subject, and Sheehy recounted a troubling discussion with an alumnus who suggested these incidents could significantly harm the “Williams brand.”

Sheehy also said that she hadn’t seen copies of the Oct. 24 Record on display around the admission office last week. Another admission officer confirmed that the papers, which featured a front page headline reading “Bio-cleanup warning falls on deaf ears,” had been removed intentionally.

Though their perceptions of the significance of the bio-cleanups diverge slightly, employees of the public affairs and admission offices claim a common set of guiding principles for discussing this and other controversial issues. Both groups say they work to emphasize transparency and communication in all cases, striving to provide accurate information to all inquirers.

When an issue on campus becomes heated or controversial, staff in both offices take steps to inform themselves of its details so they can speak from a position of knowledge. The admission officers normally hold meetings to discuss hot topics, in an attempt to make sure all officers can speak to them in a consistent manner during information sessions. As Kolesar typically fields all inquiries made to the Office of Public Affairs regarding problems on campus, he doesn’t require the level of coordination, and focuses instead on developing a broad framework for issues. “I try to know the facts as well as possible and understand them, so I can know how much I can say [to questioners],” he said.

Members of the admission office stressed the fruitlessness of attempting to minimize or hide campus problems from visitors. Sheehy emphasized the inevitability of being caught in attempts at such deceit. “We have to have transparency,” Sheehy said. “With people talking on blogs and the Record online and the power of the grapevine, people are going to hear about these things anyway.” She added that if an issue is particularly incendiary, she will sometimes address it at the beginning of an information session, in an attempt to offer a context for any questions people might bring to the table.

Doernberger said that though he rarely gets specific questions about controversial campus happenings on his tours, he answers them accurately but tactfully when he does. “Honesty is clearly the best policy,” he said. “Though there’s always more than one way to say something.”

While Kolesar said he does reach out to share information in some cases, oftentimes he waits for interested parties to come to him looking for information. He is most likely to reach out to the groups he terms “internal constituencies,” people directly linked to the College as students, parents of students, alumni, faculty or staff. “Those are the most important constituencies,” he said. “We can only do what we do if parents trust sending their kids here.”

Epic media disasters

Kolesar, who has held his position for 23 years, cited three incidents from 1995 as the most complicated, frustrating instances of negative national press the College has received. That July, New York Times columnist William Safire wrote a pair of columns criticizing the College for awarding an honorary degree to Goh Chok Tong, a CDE graduate and the controversial prime minister of Singapore. Despite the negative press, the College awarded him the prize at that fall’s Convocation ceremony, and held a number of educational and discussion forums about Tong’s policies.

In August of that year, Wendy Shalit ’97 published an essay titled “A Ladies’ Room of One’s Own” in the magazine Commentary. The piece critically examined Williams’ policy on co-ed bathrooms, and the conservative media, including pundit Rush Limbaugh, quickly picked up the story.

Later that fall, a local organization called Western Massachusetts Labor Action (WMLA) was found to be linked to a reactionary, cult-like group called the National Labor Federation (NATLFED). New York City police unearthed firearms and other weapons in a Brooklyn apartment that indicated NATLFED intended to violently overthrow the government. Unfortunately for the College’s image, a number of its students had been members of WMLA over the years, and one had actually spent time living in the very brownstone where authorities found the weapons. Many questions were raised regarding the wisdom in allowing the presence of group members on campus.

Describing these events, all of which grabbed headlines in national papers of record, Kolesar emphasized the transient nature of media attention. “All of these were very well-known at the time they happened,” Kolesar said. “But now they’ve completely faded from peoples’ minds.”

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