New committee will address historical representations

December 9, 2015 by Tesnim Zekeria, Contributing Writer

On Dec. 1, President Adam Falk sent out an all-campus email announcing his plans to assemble a committee on historical representations at the College.

Noting that several campus buildings and monuments, particularly the Log, are decorated in ways that are “problematic in a modern context,” Falk encouraged the community to consider these issues.

According to his email, the committee aims to examine the coexistence of the College’s efforts to create an inclusive community against the backdrop of its history.

Karen Merrill, chair of the history department and former dean of the College, will chair the committee, which will also be made up of faculty, staff, alumni and community members. These include: Joe Cruz ’91, professor of philosophy; Katarzyna Pieprzak, professor and chair of Romance languages; David L. Smith, professor of English; Keli Gail, secretary of the College; Ferentz Lafargue, director of the Davis Center; Kevin Murphy, curator of American art, Williams College Museum of Art; Rick Spalding, chaplain to the College  and Leila Jere ’91, president of the Society of Alumni.

The committee will also include three students. These students are to be appointed by Falk in consultation with College Council (CC) and the Minority Coalition (MinCo).

“When President Falk asked me to chair it, he asked that it be a committee that takes up two questions,” Merrill said. “Were there particular decorations or monuments or memorials that did not represent Williams in a way that felt inclusive today, or that outwardly contributed to making certain spaces feel unwelcoming to members of our community? He also asked that we consider whether the committee could develop any guiding principles to help the institution think through these questions at the concrete level.”

Dean of the College Sarah Bolton said that she thinks the process of “thinking about our history and how it intersects with students experiences here in the present,” through the committee and open meetings, “is really important.”

CC President Marcus Christian ’16 expressed enthusiasm for the committee and for student presence on it.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to have the ability to nominate students and have students sitting on the committee,” he said.

MinCo Co-chairs Bushra S. Ali ’17 and Penny Sun ’16, however, refused to recommend students to the committee. In an email sent out to all students two days after Falk’s email, the co-chairs outlined the reasons why they were unwilling to partake in a process they deemed “paradoxical” and “undemocratic.”

This decision stemmed from frustration with the committee’s structure. Ali mentioned that the committee model has proven to be inefficient through most of the College’s history, while most changes pertaining to minority students were a direct result of student activism. Further, the three-student limit was an “impossible” task for the co-chairs.

“No one student, or no three students, can represent the diversity of opinions on this subject,” Sun said.

Another factor in their decision was their perception that the committee lacks understanding of the issues surrounding the mural at the Log. Both co-chairs said that viewing the mural within the scope of the history it represents fails to address the ongoing struggles students face today.

“The issues are not just what these representations stand for,” Ali said. “But also how they tie in to our experience … how the broader narrative that the Log mural fits into is perpetuating racism, exclusion and marginalization on this campus.”

While the co-chairs appreciate Falk’s efforts to tackle this issue, they view it as a “misguided step.” They believe the underlying questions detailed in Falk’s email that spurred the formation of the committee failed to capture the essence of the issue. According to Ali and Sun, changing the course of those questions to encompass broader struggles on campus rather than focusing on historical representations will allow the College to move forward in building an inclusive community.

The Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity hosted a community forum last Sunday to discuss diversity and equity and related initiatives on campus. Several students, faculty and members of the administration such as Falk and Merrill were present.

“Especially after the forum last night, I think it’s important for us to hit the pause button for a moment while we sort out the question of student representation on the committee,” Merrill said.  “I’m hoping that we can get to a place where students feel that question is relatively resolved, at which point I’m excited to have the committee meet and begin planning its work, a great deal of which will involve gathering input from the community.”

Ali and Sun still plan to stand by their decision. While they do see the committee beginning to broaden its horizons, they do not want MinCo to be the “first and last resort of ensuring that the committee is representative of the diversity of the student body,” according to Ali.

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