Over the past month, concerns have been expressed within the Williams community about the selection of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as this year’s Commencement speaker. Much of the concern has centered on the constitutionality and disproportionate racial impact of certain police practices in New York and other municipalities around the country. Williams should be a place for the open and vigorous discussion of issues such as this. I’m grateful for those who’ve shared their informed views and, in some cases, their own painful personal experiences of racial and religious profiling. The development of this discussion into a broader examination of the quality of our community is very valuable, and it reminds us to be unflinching in our insistence on and work toward a Williams that is fully welcoming and inclusive.
Two especially honorable elements of our culture – which I’ve seen time and again in my four years at Williams – are particularly relevant now. They are virtues we rely on whenever there’s disagreement within our community, and I believe we would all do well to recall them, and to rededicate ourselves to them, in this moment.
The first is our deep commitment to shared decision-making.
The invitation to speak at Commencement originates in the Committee on Degrees, whose composition has evolved over time. Currently it is composed of four students elected by their peers; four faculty members, three of whom are identified by the Faculty Steering Committee and one of whom is the college marshal; the chaplain to the college; the vice president for public affairs; and six members of the Board of Trustees. I attend the meetings ex officio. In January of 2013, the committee discussed and then proposed that Williams invite
Mayor Bloomberg to deliver this year’s Commencement address. This is the same process that brought us recent, wonderful Commencement addresses from Billie Jean King, Atul Gawande and Cory Booker. Having delegated this decision to a duly constituted body, it is important for all of us, even those who might have done things differently, to show consideration for its work. Similar consideration has been given, appropriately so, to groups that have brought other speakers to Williams, including some whose invitation has aroused significant controversy.
The second virtue is our commitment to civil discourse. I share the distress of many that it has become the norm in our society to treat those with whom we disagree as not merely wrong but illegitimate and unworthy of being heard. At Williams, we strive to foster an environment of mutual respect and openness to political difference. Here, we learn to open our ears and our minds to each other, and we must practice that art at every opportunity – in the classroom, in public forums, on the floor of faculty meetings, in dorm rooms and dining halls. In doing so we aim not only to encourage thoughtful debate and broadened perspectives on campus, but also to shape students into citizens who can alter and enlighten public dialogue.
I am very much looking forward to Commencement. It’s about celebrating the marvelous Class of 2014, honoring the people they are and the great things they’ve accomplished and delighting in all that’s ahead for them. We will welcome their families and friends to campus, and together express our pride in these graduates and anticipate their future. And we’ll do so knowing that part of their preparation for life in a complex and often contentious world has been developing, through their experience here, the civic virtues needed to disagree in ways that build and strengthen community.
Adam F. Falk
President and Professor of Physics