Emphasizing ethical responsibility

Williams has an educational policy against fraternities. The reason it is an educational policy is the expressed belief that the organization of the college environment around a fraternal system will ultimately lead to the inculcation of “bad values” which are inappropriate for college-aged people. The College arrived at this stance a decade after a ghastly murder was committed in one of the fraternities on campus, where a student was shot. The racist scrawlings in Prospect on Nov. 12 do not rise to the level of murder. And, because they do not, I am afraid that all that will happen will be a lot of talk. The College has a culture problem and an ethics education problem that it does not wish to address.

Ethics has its basis in the idea of questioning one’s behavior and evaluating future actions against the lessons of the past. With regard to others, ethics calls for a state of mutual respect. Respect has as its roots in Latin

‘Re’ and ‘spect’ – “view again.” Mutual respect is based in the idea that parties expect to encounter one another again and will guide present interactions with an eye toward the prospect of future interactions. But, mutual respect can be overcome by the simple idea that the “other” is not a full person deserving of full consideration. It was this notion of “us and other” which the fraternity system was imagined to endorse and which the College felt constituted “bad values.”

Yet, the College has gradually, but implicitly, endorsed those same values over the past 20 odd years.

It has yielded to raw consumerism by allowing students to, in effect, choose their own “sub-environment” in which to function during their Williams years. During the 1970s, the College believed in and enforced the idea that college was an ideal environment for people to learn to interact with others different from themselves and to learn from those interactions. Housing was mostly random. Eating occurred within your randomly-assigned house. Self-segregation was actively discouraged. As time passed, the consumerist demand of students was, “we want to associate with whom we wish to,” and the College yielded on what had been a matter of educational policy. There now exist many places on campus for the self-segregated. They used to call those fraternities.

The absence of forced interactions with others different than oneself has been supposedly tempered by lots of talking about what the others are like. Talk is cheap. It embodies nothing. It is easily forgotten and contains few truly ethical lessons. Talk is about paying lip service to a problem which demands embodiment if it is to be addressed.

When there is only talk, the implicit narcissism of the “golden rule” can rear its ugly head. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” presumes that the only relevant standard is you, not the others. In the absence of mutual respect it degenerates into, “I will do what I want to those nothings because if they were me and I was a nothing, that’s what I would do.” The College used to teach the “platinum rule”: Do unto others as they would have done unto themselves – far less narcissistic. But again, it means nothing in the absence of mutual respect.

The present College administration seems to lack respect for the College’s history, alumni and students. For President Falk to suggest that “now is the time to build a Williams we can all be proud of” is to ignore all that occurred from 1793 to present (and, Mr. Falk, some mighty impressive ideas and events came from the College during those 200-plus years). For the administration to take the position that only it has the right to contact the alumni about events at the College (including the racist incident) is to assert, much like the government of Myanmar, that only “big brother” can be trusted with “correct information.” For the College to demand public discussion by those who were affected by the issues brought up by the racist incident and to not provide neutral, anonymous, third-party investigators who can compile a report is to demand that those who feel the most vulnerable are to either expose themselves to their tormentors or to be doomed to silence – their very voices to be disregarded. Where in any of this is mutual respect?

A book I recommend to my ethics students is Albert Hirschman’s Exit Voice and Loyalty. It speaks eloquently of the three choices available to those who desire change from inside an organization. At the College, I have tried all three. I donated more than $1.5 million for an ethics chair (I thought that was being loyal). I tried repeatedly to give voice to concerns and to have an ethics professor on campus whose activities would give rise to voice (and indeed from 2004-2006 the Lissack Forums performed that function). But, my voice being rejected, my money being returned, the ethics chair being no more, the time has come for exit.

I loved the Williams I attended. I respect the students and dedicated faculty of the College today. But the College of today disgusts me as an institution. It has abandoned any mission of inculcating good values and opted instead for the pursuit of money and status. It may take another murder for the College community to wake up from its delusion, but I won’t be waiting.


Michael Lissack ’80 is the executive director of the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence. He lives in Naples, Fla.

Comments (4)

  1. a nit (as in nit-picking) —
    I find myself in agreement with most of what you have to say.
    The “nit” has to do with the decision to do away with the fraternity system.
    The question was one of simple decency. A small number of freshmen were beiong left out. They were not being invited to join a fraternity. I hope I don’t have to explain to you the harm and pain that wrought on some (most?) of those not invited.
    In my freshman year (1952), they tried a thing called “total rushing” — all incoming freshmen were invited to join a fraternity. Some chose not to join…but that is a very different kettle of fish as compared with not being invited in the first place.
    The system didn’t work … some nasties (yes, my classmates) would go out of their way to let the “late joiners” know that they might not have been invited before total rushing. Or they simply did not treat them in with the same enthusiasm and grace as others.
    In other words, the system remained flawed, unfair and harmful to a number of Williams students.
    Seeing that this was so, the Board of Trustees wisely decided to scrap the system.
    No one was murdered. (There was a suicide in 1952, before I came to Williams…but that had nothing to do with the fraternities.)
    I think if someone had been mudered, I would have heard about it.
    very truly yours
    Robert Bottome W’56

  2. Today I took my 95 year old father to his Doctor for an appointment. He is Pearl Harbor survivor and his ship, the Oklahoma, was sunk. He lost many friends and Annapolis classmates that day and throughout the war and was reflecting on his long-gone friends while we were waiting. As I thought about what must be going through his still very alert mind your email with the attachments arrived. The narcisisim that attaches to the recent indidents at Williams when compared to his life experience is compelling to me. I had my share of biases and insensitivity when I showed up at Williams as a kid from a wealthy, segregated Oklahoma high school. But as my career progressed through military service, graduate school, and a career in agriculture I like to think that most of those biases and insensitivities melted away-and my experience at Williams was part tof that process, but just one part. It seems to me that somehow the current Williams, and perhaps its new President, is rather disconnected from the real world and how people react to the real world. I know you are an ethics and values guy, but those things can’t be taught, in my opinion. They come from within the individual informed by his life experiences (including Williams) and willingness to change and learn, hopefully, before he can do real damage to society and himself.

  3. While not agreeing that  Williams “has abandoned any mission of inculcating  good values,” the administrations response to my fellow alumnus Mr Lissack is very disturbing.  If a liberal arts college is not about the free exchange of ideas, we should dump the label altogether.  For the College to send messages to Alumni attempting to intimidate them into not sending emails to other Alumni solely because they object to the opinions expressed, and then to spend money to hire outside legal counsel on what is clearly First Amendment speech is so against  the core  values and very purpose  of an  institution like Williams.  I hold not only President Falk accountable here but also the Trustees who would need to approve the return if endowed funds twelve years after they were accepted.  Making this truly egregious is that the speech being suppressed  is from the Alumni who are in fact the ultimate guardians of Williams.

    To Mr Lissack’s and other’s point regarding self selecting housing, Williams NEEDED to ban fraternities in the ’60’s for the very reasons hate speech appeared this year.  It demonstrated national leadership in doing so.  Self selecting housings recreates the very same problems that prompted the college to ban fraternities half a century ago.

    Before all else, we need a truly open, not a President Falk controlled, discussion of the problem.  Let’s stay true to the beautiful and desperately needed ideals that the College DOES embody in the very desire to discuss this issue passionately.

  4. What a series of powerful statements in the Record! Anti-you name it will not be eliminated from the thoughts of individuals but the public display can be. When I was at Williams the honor system mandated that anyone caught cheating or saw someone cheating and did not report it was to be expelled from the college. Certainly such a policy should stand for actions of hatred. The fraternity system encouraged segregation and was eventually and rightfully eliminated. Return to a form of voluntary segregation in housing should not be considered. While bigotry will not disappear those who harbor such feelings should at least learn to live with the people they irrationally dislike.

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