Vote to reconsider WNY

As the faculty go to vote this afternoon about the future of the Williams in New York Program (WNY), we urge them to vote “yes” on the program’s continuation and to opt for choice “c”, which calls for the creation of a committee that would undertake the task of reimagining the goals and priorities of the program. Although the future is too uncertain to guarantee that the program will be cost-effective and robust enough to sustain itself, in the present it is crucial that the College give WNY a chance. The only way it will surely fail is if the program is nixed before all options to fix it have been exhausted, and we’ve only just begun to think through the solutions.

From the evaluative committee’s report and given the College’s current economic straits, it is clear that WNY cannot go on in its current form. But it is also clear that the program has immense potential to be among the College’s premier study-away programs for students interested in experiential education. Furthermore, the College has invested significant resources in establishing connections in New York, and the discontinuation of the program would terminate these budding connections. WNY is the College’s program: ending it without exploring how it can be fixed is tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We recognize its issues, but do not see grounds for axing it all together.

When the question of WNY’s continuation was first brought into the open last spring, there were no barriers to fixing the program with the full force of our financial brunt. Now that the trees have stopped growing money, the reevaluation of WNY has taken on a new tenor, and financial concerns have moved toward center stage. However, what voters must remember is that while the situation has changed, the strengths and merits of WNY as a program have not. The transfer of fieldwork into the classroom is a unique opportunity that infuses Williams rigor into the concept of experiential education. By opting for a re-imagination of the program, faculty will set the ball rolling on thinking how to cut program costs as well as how to tweak the curriculum, in and out of the classroom, to address the Review Committee’s assessment of the valid – but not incurable – problems.

One starting point of consideration regarding finances is the home of WNY, the Williams Club. The room and board at the midtown Manhattan space have been a way of safely and lavishly housing participants, but because the College does not own the property, continuing to stay there may be a money-sink that the College can no longer afford. The building may be a red herring to the College’s connection to the city: believing it already has a home away from home in the Big Apple, the College has not thought as creatively as it could about how WNY can harness the vibrancy of every inch of the city to provide participants with the most intense program possible.

Perhaps WNY could follow the new proposed model for the revamped Williams in Africa program, which will likely collaborate extensively with collegiate institutions in Capetown, South Africa for its curricular experiences. Partnership with other colleges in the city would likely produce innovative ideas about not only clever, cheaper housing options, but also ways of further improving the educational experience. The College had already laid the groundwork for a culturally vibrant program with its strong connections: alumni contacts, professors based there and relationships already established with many fieldwork sites. But by recognizing its limitations, the College could make great strides in improving the urban life program by consulting institutions that know all about it already.

Another way to extend this intercollegiate connection would be to welcome students from other institutions to apply, the policy implemented by the Williams-Mystic Program of today and the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford of previous years. The Williams in New York Review Committee has already shown that program is more cost-efficient with increased enrollment, and this move would be one of many possible ways of making WNY more financially viable.

The conversation about WNY has understandably had to shift toward financial concerns. Dissenters bemoan the fact that the funds the College sets aside for WNY could be better spent elsewhere, but this perspective greatly undervalues the power of potential. Times are tight, yes, but in one resource in particular Williams is infinitely well endowed, no matter the market: brainpower. Although it is not a foregone conclusion that there is a workable solution, WNY is an important college program that merits a serious amount of consideration. We urge the faculty to demonstrate their belief that a better WNY begins and ends with constructive thinking by voting “yes” on continuation with the goal of mindful and cost-effective alterations.