Assessing Williams Speaks Up

As a historian of twentieth century American politics, I’ve long been interested in how governmental structures respond to changed circumstances: how do new institutions and constituencies form around perceived problems? What range of solutions gets put on the table?
In the past year, as I’ve made the transition from being a professor to being a dean, I’ve had the chance to think about these questions on a much smaller scale at Williams. And no set of issues has been more challenging or more interesting than those raised by the formation of Stand With Us last spring in response to racist incidents on campus in early February. While deplorable, these incidents gave us, as members of a community and of an institution of higher education, the opportunity to think through how to respond and more closely examine aspects of our culture that are often difficult to confront.

Such heady times can produce open conflict, which can be stressful, hard to manage and even hurtful. But I was deeply impressed with the productiveness of student involvement in Stand With Us and College Council. Within a short time following the discovery of racist graffiti, Stand With Us identified initiatives that students pursued with determination and thoughtfulness. Two of them are underway this semester: the campus-wide planning for “Claiming Williams” and the student-led Committee on Community Interactions (CCI).

The third initiative was, in many ways, the most ambitious even as it seemed the most achievable last spring: the creation of a Web site, Williams Speaks Up, to document “unwanted, abusing, or harassing behavior.” Williams Speaks Up was created through the determined efforts of MinCo co-chairs Jason Ren ’08 and Haydee Lindo ’08 who worked with me and Vice-President for Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity Mike Reed to develop what they termed a “living archive” to document such behavior at Williams. Ben Brooks ’08 provided vital technical support.

Such a Web site would have been of great benefit during the incidents of early February, as a way to communicate about what took place and how the College was investigating. But even when the campus’s attention is not squarely on such issues, the Web site holds great promise: it provides a visible place for students to report discriminatory behavior; gives the College community an ongoing picture of the social relations on campus; and, because of that, has the potential to help us all talk about discriminatory behavior on campus.

Launching the site presented difficult questions, however. The most important involved how to make a Web site and a process for reporting behavior that inspired people’s trust. It had to be credible; if we reported on the site that someone had, for instance, experienced a homophobic remark, we had to do all we could to substantiate it. We therefore created the Williams Speaks Up Review Board – three student representatives (drawn from CC, MinCo, and the JA Advisory Board), Mike Reed, me and Director of Campus Safety, Jean Thorndike. The purpose of the board would be to discuss and determine which submissions should be posted.

We also had to have a way to pursue disciplinary actions when needed. This meant that, while the posted reports would be anonymous and shorn of identifying details, the Dean’s Office and Campus Safety would have the e-mail addresses of those submitting reports should follow-up be required.
The Web site went online at the very end of last semester, and the full review board managed to meet once to discuss submissions before students left campus. This discussion was remarkably substantive; it left me optimistic that having the information presented in the Web site available to the community would produce better and more informed dialogue on campus about diversity and inclusiveness.

But I’m still aware of the challenges involved in getting Williams Speaks Up running this year. Because it was important for many students that it launch before the end of the school year, there wasn’t time to widen discussion of it to staff and faculty, who have a real interest in what its presence means in our community.

Then, Haydee, Jason and Ben graduated, taking with them their energy, commitment, and knowledge of the site’s detailed workings. These are difficult to replace, and Mike Reed and I became increasingly convinced over the summer that we needed to secure Williams Speaks Up an administrative home to hold responsibility for overseeing the details involved in making it work. We are in the process of planning for that now.

Williams Speaks Up was just one of a constellation of creative proposals that emerged from students last spring, all of which challenge us to think in new institutional ways. I continue to have high hopes for the Web site, while I’m also humbled by the work entailed in making sure it has a sustained, effective presence.

Karen Merrill is dean of the College and professor of history.

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