Paying greater attention

I have been a professor at the College since 1977 and have fully participated in the life of this institution. This includes service on many of the committees most responsible for providing faculty governance.

In a recent turn of my life into the realm of volunteer firefighting, I have become aware of the significance of “situational awareness”: the need to remain highly alert to all conditions that could prove threatening to the well-being of yourself, your colleagues and those you have committed to protect.

I believe exercising situational awareness at the College is necessary for the institution’s vitality. This requires an analytical approach that defuses expedience and privileges the whole enterprise, rather than a series of seemingly unlinked moments. I recommend that our colleagues in the administration examine an in-depth application of situational awareness on a number of levels.

First: buildings, buildings, buildings. How can an institution committed to reducing its carbon footprint in a climate-changing world continue new construction? New buildings not only increase the energy requirements of the campus – no matter how green – but also require ongoing maintenance. As a current video on the College’s homepage states, the College spends $17,000 per student per year on buildings.

How do brick and mortar costs take precedence over the need to offer a loan-free education for our financial aid students, recruit and support low-income students and return to need-blind admissions for our international students? The learning we pride ourselves in offering takes place in the mind. That learning will long be recalled by its content, not the building in which it occurred.

Second: the scale of administrating. Situational awareness requires full consideration of what you can and cannot do. Why do we seem almost compulsively driven to service an institutional smorgasbord of options, when our intellectual mission might be served more thoroughly through a reduction of these options? Harder choices need to be made. Perhaps more creative and collaborative decisions could be reached if there were more ample means of having those discussions. The Committee on Priorities and Resources is charged with providing President Adam Falk with advice on such matters, but I wonder if there are not means of being more broadly inclusive in this counseling that would encourage creative and collaborative input from the entire college community. If we are truly a faculty-governed institution, then why does this crucial committee have six administrators and only four faculty members?

Third: institutional racism, sexism, homophobia and class prejudice that remains unaddressed. One of the best ways that the College has changed during my time here is that the student body is far more racially and economically diverse than it was. However, the College could and should assume more national leadership in hiring faculty of color. Yes, our hiring and retention of these colleagues compares well to some schools, but we should aim for the ideal, not standards that are also subpar. Excellence means more than meeting acceptable standards. We cannot truly claim diversity in our academic community if there remains a dearth of people of color in tenured positions at the College.

I am fully supportive of and encouraged by our long-overdue efforts to address and reduce on-campus sexual assaults, but what about the depth of our institutional concern for the safety of students of color, LGBT students and religious minorities? There is a persistent expectation that people of color and LGBT people educate those who have not experienced entrenched and painful aggressions. Well-considered, sustained and continually-updated professional training programs must be implemented throughout campus – in residence halls, student life services, athletics and academic departments. Unless there is systemic awareness and action, administrative messages deploring the horrific cases that occur every year on this campus will simply induce institutional complacency and reinforce the belief that these are isolated events.

Fourth: building a sustainable thread to the future. We need to more fully acknowledge that the wealth gap in the United States is dire and expanding, and that the U.S. population will have more people of color than white people by 2050. This situational awareness will be crucial to the hiring practices of the next decade. As the faculty of my large cohort retire, the College must seize this opportunity to focus its influence in the hiring and retention of faculty of color. Current programs (such as the  Bolin, Mellon and C3 Fellowships) should be expanded to include more fellows, as this directly allows the College to play an aggressive role in linking faculty of color to careers in higher education. Programs for undergraduates (such as the Mellon Mays and Allison Davis Fellowships) should be more fully staffed and financially sustained so even more of our current students of color can begin to establish the links to an academic career.

This institution has many needs and each competes for the available resources. I get that. I understand the administrative challenge. Leading, however, ought to be from the front. It is where the integrity of all challenge is located. Our answers to these difficult choices must benefit those most in need, even if that means forfeiting personal interests.

Does the College really need a new art museum when that money could fund more fellowships for students of color? Does it really need a new bookstore building when that money could be used for regularized professional trainings on sexual assault, race relations and homophobic behaviors? Does it need any more improvements of the athletic facilities when that money could be allocated for more financial assistance to our students most in need? We are told we cannot divest from fossil fuels because it would impact the institution’s fiduciary responsibilities, yet we are informed of physical plant expansion as if it were a separate topic.

To survive, situational awareness requires the realization that everything is threaded together. We are members of a complex community that must not privilege expediency over the needs of the whole. We must be nobler than that if we are to thrive.

Ed Epping is the A.D. Falck Professor of Art.

Comments (6)

  1. Great professor. Lead the way, Ed.

  2. Long overdue critique of current Falk administration. There is a crisis of leadership at Williams that is being spoken of by many students and faculty but rarely makes it into the pages of the Record. People, especially tenured faculty who know the history of the college, should not stay silent as the institution is being remade into a place that functions increasingly like a large, impersonal university.

  3. Well ED,

    Each year you, in your whiteness, remain a professor is one more year a faculty spot is denied a candidate of color.

    Fall on your sword, back up your rhetoric, and contribute to the diversity at Williams by retiring.

    1. Mike,
      I have made that commitment already. In 2013 I entered into an agreement with the College to begin a phased retirement. That agreement reaches its conclusion in 2017. In deed, part of my reason to take early retirement was to have my privilege of serving on the faculty made available. I am encouraging the College to seize that opportunity in ways I wrote about.


      1. ED,

        A 4 year “phased retirement”? In you’re late 60’s? Wow, you guys are really in a bubble up there. But, I guess when you’re really, really important it takes time to wean people off you….at least a presidential-terms-worth-of-time.

        How about “committing” to a ‘conscious uncoupling’…I believe those are quicker.

  4. Very necessary critique. The spending on buildings is absolutely insane. Never heard any student find Water Street Books and Goff’s to not meet their needs for books and merch, but recently a mentally distressed student posted on YikYak saying they had finally decided to seek help for their troubles but Health Services didn’t have a psych appointment available for two weeks (it is woefully understaffed). Absolute disgrace. I love Williams and it can be so much better than this.

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