Guadino Debate

Students Own the Williams Brand

Student ownership is the virtue that makes Williams truly unique among elite institutions. Williams students are not merely brilliant and talented; they also enjoy remarkable influence in determining the direction and values of the school. Indeed, students, not alumni, faculty or administrators, own the Williams brand. The concept of a Williams “brand” encompasses the ideals and achievements of the campus as well as the school’s reputation in the wider world. That students “own” the brand means that they are primarily responsible for shaping both activities within and perceptions about the school.

Williams students enjoy extraordinary leadership opportunities at the College. This sense of self-determination grants students major influence over the school’s reputation and, in turn, makes student sovereignty a vital part of the College’s brand. No other college entrusts 52 Juniors to live with first-year students, mentor them through personal hardships and help them discover their roles in the community. Nor does the administration demand any influence in selecting Junior Advisors; it relies on students alone to identify their most reliable peers. Students also exercise autonomous control over the substantial funds of the Finance Committee and the Minority Coalition. Many vital governing boards like the Committee for Undergraduate Life place a primacy on input from student members. Even the Honor Code requires that only students vote on academic violations.

Current students have the power to constantly redefine the College’s reputation. While the image projected by a school like Harvard, Princeton or Yale depends more on a historicized brand than recent developments on its campus, people outside of the College associate it almost entirely with the qualities of Williams present, like its current academic prowess, its recent Director’s Cup victories and its present political concerns. The everyday life of the College is the life of the students. What students believe and achieve becomes the Williams brand. Last year, students were indispensable in crafting bias incedent response protocol that reinforced the highly egalitarian values of modern Williams. A number of the College’s newest resources, from our Muslim Chaplain to our expanded course offerings in identity studies, were also added in direct response to student demand. Student voices are essential in interpreting campus events for the wider world; the page you are presently reading belongs to an independent student newspaper that serves as the most influential source of information about the school. If the goal of a college is to serve its students, then Williams is truly exceptional: Students drive its achievements, determine its ideals and ultimately define its reputation.

Jack Noelke ’13 is a history major from Chatham, N.J. He lives in Currier.

Students Do Not Own the Williams Brand

From First Days through Commencement, students are constantly assured of their importance to the Williams community. The College takes great care to ensure we are not treated like passive products on an academic assembly line; Administrators respond to student concerns, fund our autonomous College Council and place us on committees. In word and deed, the College affords students the opportunity to co-create their own experiences in the Purple Valley.

Painting the College as a dynamic, self-defining democracy of empowered students gels nicely with contemporary intellectual aesthetics. The resulting picture generates the same warm and fuzzy feelings we get when multinational corporations call their retail staff “partners” or “team members.” But sparkling rhetoric doesn’t change reality, and the reality is that students are far from chiefly responsible for maintaining the College’s world-class reputation. The classes of 2013-16 are but a tiny sampling of all the transient beneficiaries who have enjoyed this storied institution that brilliant faculty, talented staff, dedicated alumni and a few bold student leaders have taken two centuries to construct and improve.

It seems vaguely unsettling that traditions and administrators have more say than we do in shaping what Williams means to the world. Given the premium that modern culture places on individuals transcending circumstance and steering our own destinies, how can this big chunk of my identity not be mine to alter at will?

Philosophers have long recognized that flourishing is more than autonomy. Rich living sometimes means not seizing control, but surrendering it, entrusting ourselves to institutions not of our own design. The adamantine ties of family, the pride we find in cultural and religious heritage and the moral precepts that philosophers cannot trace but everyone still somehow grasps all show that satisfaction and growth are found not always through dominating our surroundings, but sometimes by diving humbly into oceans of wisdom older and more voluminous than anything we could accumulate ourselves.

Edmund Burke saw his generation as “the temporary possessors” of a handsome social inheritance and feared his contemporaries might squander their British ancestors’ achievements by acting “as if they were the entire masters.” This is needed counsel for a generation so self-obsessed that we feel strangers should not only read our digitized opinions about everything, but should also admire faux-vintage snapshots of our cooking while doing so. The College’s venerable history is not the students’ property to scrap and recast at will. We do not “own” the Williams brand.

Andy Quinn ’13 is a political science major from Lake Forest, Ill.  He lives in Currier.

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