Keeping Williams in New York

One Tuesday afternoon in the fall of 2006, we met with the Deputy Director of the CIA to discuss controversies over torture, progress in the war on terror and his informal assessment of the inner workings of the agency. The next day, we were taken to the New York City Opera to see Carmen. Two days later, we observed the interrogation of a man suspected of running an international carjacking organization. We wrapped up the week in a meeting with the director of the Guggenheim Foundation, who explained to us the intimate details of his vision for a multibillion-dollar arts complex in Abu Dhabi.

In the future, such experiences for Williams students will likely be no more.

The Williams in New York Program Review Committee, chaired by Chris Waters, professor of history, last Friday issued its recommendation to the faculty to terminate the program. Williams in New York (WinNY) has been the most stimulating and memorable experience in the college careers of so many, including these authors. It is a program 13 years in the making that has cultivated the minds of its students, fostered relationships with alumni and exposed members of the Williams community to the diverse and unique world of New York City. Since it is being voted upon on May 7, the committee is giving the faculty only two weeks to consider the program’s many merits. It is a travesty to disband the program in such a hasty fashion after only three years in its pilot stage.

We are concerned that the committee did not have a full picture of the strengths of the program while crafting its report. These strengths can best be described through the reflections of program alumni. The committee, however, chose to interview only two students, and both interviews were conducted prior to their participation in the program. The committee chair asked for written testimonials from all alumni; many of us gave glowing reviews in September and were told that we would be contacted for an interview in the fall. We never were.

We find it puzzling that while Williams has committed to advancing experiential education and diversity, members of its faculty and administration are now attempting to eliminate a program that embodies both of these ideals. Our own field placement within the office of the District Attorney of New York exposed us to understandings of the world of law and criminal justice that a Williams classroom setting could never provide. The fieldwork and classes combined to expose us to a broad and diverse range of worlds, from immigrants working in sweatshops to third-generation police officers, from senior New York Times Middle East correspondents to experienced Broadway actors. The work we did in various institutions was central to providing us with the analytical framework for intellectual engagement in a diversity of environments.

The value of WinNY lies not just in its location and field placements, but also in the support of Williams alumni and wonderful program directors, who provide students with first-hand access to some of the world’s most important organizations. How many liberal arts students can boast of discussing the collapse of Enron with the very reporter who broke the story? How many students had the opportunity to see the gradual extinction of the New York Stock Exchange while on a private tour? How many have accompanied NYPD cops in chasing trespassers through housing for the mentally-ill?

The College is proud whenever guest speakers come to campus and students are invited to accompany them to discussion and dinner. Now imagine doing this every week – that is WinNY. If the faculty votes to dismantle the program, they will be taking away such exceptional opportunities for future students.

While Williams should never base its decisions solely on numbers, demand for the program is rapidly increasing. The committee states in its findings that “student interest has been higher recently.” Given that the program is in its pilot stage and attendance at information sessions has grown exponentially, this trend is sure to increase.

It is common for programs to face hurdles in their early stages. This does not preclude them from great success in the future. The Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford faced low student demand in its early years, yet it is now among the most popular institutions at Williams. What would have happened to this great program had it been subjected in its inception to the Waters Committee?

We urge the faculty not to consider the program’s merits without the points of view of those who were there. We urge the faculty not to give up on a program that has changed our lives immeasurably and promises to do the same for many future Ephs. We urge the faculty to sustain Williams in New York, and give the support that the program deserves.

Ben Sykes ’08 is an economics and political science major from Beachwood, Ohio. Mirza Delibegovic ’08 is a sociology major from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.