Students propose canceling class for half day of dialogue

Mountain Day may not be the only occasion to interrupt the academic schedule next year. In a proposal brought to last Wednesday’s faculty meeting, student leaders called on the College to cancel all classes after 12 p.m. on a Friday in early September in order to hold a ”Claiming Williams” discussion day. According to the proposal, all students, faculty and staff would be invited to participate in workshops, panels, discussions and performances aimed at addressing issues of community and respect.

Shayla Williams ’09, Claire Schwartz ’10 and Nancy Dong ’11, who first drafted and then presented the proposal on Wednesday, have led a committee of six students since February in crafting plans for Claiming Williams. The committee is one of the three original Stand With Us subgroups, along with the ”sub-communities” and social honor code committees.

The students are now working to incorporate some of the suggestions from the faculty meeting into a revised proposal. It will then be brought before the faculty in the May meeting for a final vote.

The student committee initially suggested Friday, Sept. 12, 2008 as the date for the discussion day. But due to input from faculty, the proposed date may change to Thursday, Feb. 5, although this has yet to be finalized. If that were the case, however, students would attend their regular Thursday classes on that Wednesday, which would mark the first day of the spring semester. There would be no classes on Thursday, with Claiming Williams events starting at noon that day. The College would then resume its regular schedule on Friday.

The suggested Wednesday start may shorten the inter-semester break by one day. According to Wendy Raymond, chair of the Committee on Diversity and Community and professor of biology, faculty have already expressed concerns that this would make it difficult for those teaching both Winter Study and spring courses to prepare fully for the semester. An alternative would be to take a day from Winter Study to preserve the length of the break.

The proposed switch from the initial September date was made after faculty expressed concern that students may treat Claiming Williams as an invitation to leave early for the weekend if held on a Friday. In a straw vote taken at the end of the meeting, the majority of faculty preferred February to early September for the discussion day.
The three student leaders stressed that the proposal was far from a finished project. ”The proposal has gone through a lot of incarnations,” Schwartz said. ”It’s been constantly revised and we’re still in the process of revising it.”

”We’re trying to incorporate even more input in the coming weeks,” Dong added.

Raymond, who has acted as faculty facilitator for the committee, praised the students’ openness to outside input. ”Students have been very receptive to suggestions,” she said. ”I’m concerned about making sure the student leadership of the initiative doesn’t get stepped on, but they’re also very aware of the need to include faculty and staff as they move ahead with the proposal.”

In addition to scheduling, the language of the proposal and the logistical difficulties entailed also came under scrutiny. ”Personally I don’t see scheduling as the major difficulty,” said Kevin Jones, chair of the calendar and schedule committee and professor of physics. ”I think the much bigger challenge will be to come up with events that are inclusive rather than divisive. I was not encouraged by the language in the preliminary proposal.”
Robert Bell, professor of English, opened the discussion at the faculty meeting with a criticism of the proposal’s language and urged ”less hyperbolic and accusatory” phrasing. Referring to the racist graffiti found in Williams E in February and other incidents of discrimination and indifference, the proposal claimed a ”culture of hate and indifference” existed at the College.

Bell found that the ”proposal, however well-intended, could cause more trouble than it treats. The quickest way to transform a deplorable incident into a disaster is to declare officially that there exists a culture of hate at Williams College.”

He offered a revision to the proposal’s language: ”In the belief that more can and should be done to foster the spirit of free inquiry and commitment to community, we propose that an afternoon be dedicated to campus-wide consideration of prejudice and discrimination.”

Although Williams, Schwartz and Dong would not confirm whether or not the language would change as a result of Bell’s revision, they did say they would open the issue to further discussion. ”It’s definitely something we’ll incorporate into the dialogue,” Williams said. ”It’s important that this proposal not have the language of just the three of us, but that it reflects the views of the entire community.”

Several faculty also noted the logistical complexity of a discussion day and worried that unless Claiming Williams achieved broad appeal, it would, in effect, be preaching to the choir. Professor of English Peter Murphy expressed support for the event, but stressed the need for careful planning. ”The Williams community has very high intellectual standards, and the last thing we want is to create cynicism around these issues by being confused about what we are doing, or by creating events of uneven quality,” he said.

”As I try to imagine high-quality discussions involving 2000 to 3000 people, my mind boggles a bit,” he added. ”Lots of people will really have to apply themselves to solve this problem.”

Although the committee leaders will not finalize the details of Claiming Williams until the proposal passes, Williams, Schwartz and Dong have already considered aspects of the day’s structure. They hope to incorporate a range of individuals, from athletes to comedians, and involve as many student organizations as possible in the planning.

”We really want to span the range of interests on campus,” Schwartz said. ”We’re hoping that something in the day will attract everyone, not that everyone will necessarily stay for the whole day.”

”The idea is to make Williams a safe community for everyone, so in this Claiming Williams day we want to make sure that everyone feels very welcome in at least one event,” Williams added.

If the proposal passes next month, students, along with members of the faculty and staff, would form a new committee to more fully develop the day’s events and structure.