Keep the dialogue alive

When the news surfaced that a racial slur had been scrawled on posters in Williams Hall two weekends ago, many members of our community were appalled, but few were shocked. Sad as it is to say, deplorable incidents like this one take place publicly and privately, year in and year out. However, the response this month is exceptional. The incident has spurred students and faculty to stand firmly against hate and indifference; it has inspired them to act and to persevere until the cycle of hurtful speech and behavior at the College breaks.

Their enthusiasm and commitment to addressing these perpetual yet often overlooked issues is impressive. Students packed into the second floor lounge in Paresky for discussions on Wednesday and Thursday nights and again on Saturday afternoon. College Council organized the meetings, admirably leading and encouraging honest discourse and focusing emotion into action. The dialogue was active, inclusive and purposeful. On Wednesday, dozens of students shared personal stories about hurtful conversations and interactions that they have experienced at Williams relating to race, sexuality, gender and identity.

By Thursday, the tone of the meeting had changed: students were seeking out ways to address these issues for the long haul. Wednesday’s sense of communal outrage had solidified into a desire for concrete action. They decided to raise awareness and invite support through the rally scheduled for today; they decided to reach out to students in the College’s various sub-communities; most importantly, they decided to establish and record community standards by designing a committee to draft a social honor code.

This last commitment speaks for the lasting change that students have repeatedly stressed as necessary. This group wants to make permanent, institutional amendments to improve the quality of community life at the College. The recent events teach us that people sometimes need to be reminded of what is acceptable, decent, civil and respectful. A social honor code could serve as this reminder.

Unfortunately, a social honor code has limitations, especially at a place like Williams. With such a diversity of backgrounds and opinions – a diversity we pride ourselves on – seeking to define common morals to govern our actions could ironically impinge upon the multiplicity of beliefs and backgrounds that an effective honor code should protect.

However, there are a number of values we believe should be universally held by the members of our community. Perhaps a social honor code should not define a strict creed of right conduct, but it could at least set forth a few fundamental principles to guide all interactions on campus. Common decency and respect – broadly defined and widely held – are essential to a healthy student life. And these principles should be emphasized in our social honor code.

But even with the induction of such an outline of community standards, from the palette of discussions this past week, it is apparent that students and faculty are hungry for something more developed and meaningful. Students are eager to be engaged. In the meetings, they spoke out and debated; they listened and refined each other’s ideas; they were thinking and interacting in the way that makes Williams classrooms thrive. They considered their classmates absent from the meetings and wondered how they too could be persuaded to join a movement that demands mutual civility and respect, and they voiced a desire to bring faculty into the conversation.

The issues addressed in the meetings affect everyone in this community and everyone ought to be involved in the dialogue. We suggest that while the College works with students to develop their ideas, it also considers bringing these discussions into the classroom. A mandatory first-year seminar would provide a setting for every student who walks onto this campus to learn about standards of decent conduct.

Of course this would require a significant overhaul of the academic system now in place. But while considerable, the changes are not unfeasible. Although classes would be united by the common themes of civic engagement and issues of diversity these criteria still provide for a range of academic possibilities that cut across multiple disciplines. With such a broad yet inclusive guiding principle, many professors could teach classes in their respective fields and students could easily find a course that would interest them.

With an effective, mandatory first-year seminar, Williams’ standards could be learned instead of assumed. Given that the College is attracting an increasingly socio-economically and geographically diverse student body and faculty, such a class seems imperative. Admittedly, while the Exploring Diversity requirement celebrates differences, the class we suggest would level an understanding of societal standards that would foster a more respectful community.

As heartening as the recent groundswell of student activism is, these students are only here for a maximum of three more years – many of them will be gone this spring. We need to institutionalize a greater social awareness that outlives the relatively brief window of opportunity afforded every student. We can raise our voices as loud as we want, but our cries will not resonate unless lasting institutional change accompanies our outrage.

Yet given what has been set in motion in the recent meetings, it appears Williams is ready and eager to make considerable progress. What began on the second floor of Paresky on Wednesday night is spreading to the rest of the campus and may very well endure for years to come. Hopefully we’ll be able to look back on this week and realize, the bigoted display of “nigger” catalyzed the biggest blow to intolerance Williams has ever seen.

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