On committees and community: Examining the College’s response to issues of historical representation

December 9, 2015 by The Williams Record Editorial Board

We at the Record recognize the formation of a committee to consider historical representation on campus, as announced by President Adam Falk, to be a genuine effort on the part of the administration to consider and attempt to amend a relevant and historically-neglected issue. We recognize too, however, that criticisms of this new committee and the terms of its formation, such as those made by Minority Coalition (MinCo) Co-Presidents Bushra Ali ’17 and Penny Sun ’17, deserve thoughtful consideration, especially regarding the broad impact and gravity of the issues that the committee will address.

We believe questions of representation and their relationship with the past not only touch the lives of many students at the College, but also hold great consequence beyond the purple bubble, and thus are issues we consider with great regard. The formation of this new committee indicates an acknowledgement and active response by administration that trumps worse reactions to these issues: active denial of their reality or even a lack of formal response. We furthermore endorse the decision to address the issue via the formation of a committee, as we feel a committee has the potential to gather community opinions and experiences in a productive manner and enact change based on the information they collect. However, we believe that to maximize this potential, the committee could benefit from several structural adjustments.

We believe the faculty, staff and alumni that will serve on the committee to be qualified, as their areas of expertise should help them conduct conversation and produce recommendations regarding the broad issue of historical representation on campus. However, while we commend the proposed presence of three student representatives on the committee, we first question the number of students who will serve. Several committees on campus, such as the Committee on Educational Affairs, include more students than this one, with several committees having six. We posit that having a similar number of students in this new committee would serve several benefits. More students would provide a broader diversity of student voices, especially vital when the issue at hand is so intimately tied to student experiences, needs and opinions. Given the current visibility of the issue, and the fact that the committee’s formation is in part a result of student-driven efforts, we find that a committee specifically formed to examine representation should display a greater commitment to representing students themselves.

We furthermore find limitations in the manner of the student representatives’ selection. President Falk’s wording in his announcement, that he will be “in consultation with College Council and the Minority Coalition” to choose these student representatives is vague at best. While we hold the recommendations of College Council (CC) and MinCo in esteem and recognize the convenience of turning to student leaders to gauge broader student opinion, holding these few individuals responsible for the appointment is injuriously essentializing. In particular, it tokenizes the opinions and experiences of a few minority student leaders as being able to speak for many when they cannot, and limits opportunities for interested and qualified students to try to join.

Instead, we suggest that the committee solicit self-nominations from the entire student body, as CC President Marcus Christian ’16 has already enacted to some extent. In this case, the committee and President Falk could perhaps turn to student leaders to serve as liaisons to the greater community by encouraging members of their groups to submit nominations, without essentializing any particular individuals. This system of broader community engagement need not be restricted to MinCo and CC co-presidents; rather, any interested members of the administration, faculty, staff, alumni and student body could participate in spreading the word. Finally, we would trust the expertise of the existing faculty and staff members of the committee to select representatives out of these nominations, based on qualifications and interest, that are capable of enacting the work the committee’s agenda would require of them.

We would like to further intimate certain precautions regarding the committee’s future methods of operation. It is crucial to note that while members could and should bring their own experiences to the agenda of the group. These members speak not just for themselves, but represent a much larger and diverse collective. We are wary of a committee that could eventually come to be defined as a few appointed individuals relying solely on their own opinions and experiences in an attempt to speak for many. The issue that this committee pledges to address is one deeply entrenched in systemic institutions of power. In order not to fall into the very trap it was bred to combat, the structure of the committee’s operation must be crafted with careful thought to the existence of toxic, alienating and disenfranchising hegemonic institutions alive and well in our world and even at the College today.

In examining the functions of pre-existing College committees, we often find that their potency is impeded by restrictive bureaucratic tendencies to confidentiality, insularity and opacity. We caution against a committee that engenders these qualities, which only breed a culture of distrust. We urge the committee to solicit community opinion, perhaps in the form of campus-wide emails, surveys and forums. Furthermore, we urge the committee to consult the opinions of qualified and researched experts and not to rely on their collective knowledge alone. We cannot absolutely judge the eventual success of this new committee before it has begun its work, but only in this manner do we believe it can combat a pervasive culture of distrust in the administration and enact effective institutional change.

Finally, while we appreciate the formation of this committee as a step forward in dismantling problems that have plagued the College even preceding its inception in 1793, it is by no means a definitive solution. As a community, we must continue the work that creating a committee of 12 individuals can only barely begin. We would point out that the committee’s formation seems a reactionary response to vocal discontent across campus – particularly regarding the recent restoration and unveiling of a mural in the Log depicting Mohawk Chief Hendrick and Ephraim Williams in battle – as well as to widespread protests on college campuses across the country. Issues of representation at the College are by no means restricted to those that the committee plans to address, and issues that affect minority students at the College are by no means restricted to those of representation. We suggest, therefore, that the College take a more proactive, pre-emptive stance in thinking about these other issues and in other ways we can enact productive institutional change.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

HC December 10, 2015 at 5:25 pm

I thought the paper would come out against censorship. This strange article assumes that the committee “could possibly” avoid being impacted by cultural production/ place in history. That is not possible. All you can do is view things in context.

The underlying assumption is that this current generation of Ephs “can know better” than past and future generations of Ephs “if it is done right.” That contemporary Eph work can banish past work. That the present should control what the future sees.

Censorship is wrong.

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MJ December 13, 2015 at 11:24 pm

In reply to HC:

Prediction: they will decide to take the mural down, put it in a frame and move it into the Williamsiana or WCMA collection.

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HC December 16, 2015 at 8:45 am

MJ- I agree. This committee to address “historical representations on campus” has the power of censorship. That is a huge amount of authority. Censorship impacts what people are allowed to see and where they might see it, now and in the future.

Ironically, such a design promotes the very “hegemony” it professes to negate. Censorship takes away the work of the individual, the historical context, as well as the representation. It banishes the work of previous generations. It establishes contemporary cultural dominance.

Any other predictions MJ? Other murals in the log will be considered. The mural in the lounge depicting the founders of the little three playing football has symbols of imperialism in it. It too could be cut out and moved.

Remember, Williams is considering the censorship of anything that displays what Falk describes as “images… from a time when so many of them wouldn’t have been welcome here.”

This is not lip service. With language like that, if you do not think that Haystack and The Soldier monuments are in play, you do not believe what is being written by people in positions of power and influence. Look at this editorial. The Williams Record Editorial Board is stating, “… the structure of the committee’s operation must be crafted with careful thought to the existence of toxic, alienating and disenfranchising hegemonic institutions alive and well in our world and even at the College today.”

Poorly written, but get past the clichés and what remains is language that describes globalization and development as fundamentally evil. Capitalism is a dirty word that means exploitation. This means the “historical consideration” of:

1) All other works in the log that have depictions of “hegemony”; including the historic football centerpiece, as well as the lampshades.
2) The soldier monument: anything that depicts service in war. Perhaps fenced in, so that it is not seen without entering “an area.” Removed from “public sight”.
3) Haystack Monument, birthplace of American Missions. Perhaps fenced in?
4) Names of buildings, anything involving a “controversial” historic figure.
5) The American Flag flying on the green. Yes, the flag could come down. Anything that represents the spread of a “nationalism/ patriotism” will be considered. I doubt they will touch that because of the press, but it will be considered.

The name “Mission Park” will probably be changed. Other names associated with “imperialism” as well.

I doubt enough people care to challenge the voices of this narrative. That or people are scared of the backlash. So far, very few have challenged this censorship.

Apathy and fear will lead to the altering and destruction of many monuments.

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Bruce Entwisle '76 January 21, 2016 at 12:01 pm

Good for you. I hope you are a current student, as I would feel much better about today’s student body if you are!

I have written to the Record on this matter and I am told it will print next week.

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Robert Ciulla February 6, 2016 at 9:00 am

The editorial refers to “problems that have plagued the College even preceding its inception in 1793.” Huh? Like a disease a person has before he or she is conceived?

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