Toward the future

December 9, 2015 by Adam Falk

There’s been a lot of discussion – on campus and off – about my recent decision to establish a committee to consider aspects of how the history of Williams is manifested in our campus environment. I welcome the conversation. I hope that everyone will contribute to the work of the committee, which will convene a variety of opportunities for members of our community to discuss opinions and perspectives on such historical representations and their implications in a contemporary context.

This is important work that has at its heart no single piece of art or historical monument, but rather the very question of the community we aspire to be. How can we be the inclusive, welcoming place we want to be – and increasingly are – if the images and stories that surround our students, faculty and staff are largely from a time when so many of them wouldn’t have been welcome here?

Of course, we can’t see our way to a harmonious future by looking away from our past. That’s the reason for this committee: to examine representations of our past with clear eyes and fresh perspective, to think together about what they meant then and what they mean now. Led by the chair of our history department, and including our museum’s American art curator, a philosophy professor and the president of the Society of Alumni as some of its other members, the committee will bring to bear its members’ own expertise, principles and perspectives, and they will listen to yours. And then they’ll put forth recommendations – some small, maybe, and some large – about what to do about various historical representations on campus.

Let me be clear about a few aspects of this work and what’s to come of it. First, there are no predetermined outcomes, and we aren’t responding to demands that we scrub the College clean of anything suspect. At the same time, I do expect this committee to recommend changing some things, though I don’t know what specifically they’ll propose. Here’s what I imagine to be a logical set of outcomes: The committee may determine that some historical representations on campus ought to be left as they are, that some ought to be removed or altered or that some ought to be added to, perhaps with historical context or commentary. I imagine the committee will consider these representations individually and as a collective narrative of our College’s history. It would be impossible to consider any one thing without thinking more broadly about the history and legacy of the College.

These are not new questions, and the work of this committee to address them won’t simplify the College’s complicated history or rid Williams of the racism that has always and still does exist here. But it’s important to undertake this work, to do so now and in this way.

What prompts the work at this particular moment? The simple and true answer is that when we reopened the Log we realized we’d erred: We were so focused on preserving the wonderful character and nostalgia of the Log that we didn’t think enough about how to make the space as welcoming as it could be for today’s students – and really, that’s our mistake, one that we sincerely regret. The alumni who gave generously to the renovation of the Log wanted not merely to restore a building they loved, but also to recreate it as a space that today’s students, faculty and staff would love and claim as their own.

That realization – clear as day once the Log’s artwork had been uncovered, cleaned and had new light shed on it, quite literally – led us to think anew about longstanding questions of historical monuments and objects, artwork and décor throughout the campus. These are questions that matter to our students, our faculty, our staff and our alumni. All of us have a stake, and all of our voices are welcome.

One last thing, about the work of a committee. I know about “death by committee,” and committees as the places “where ideas go to die.” That’s not, however, what I know about committees at Williams. At Williams, committees are often the places where ideas are born and where decisions are made. It was the alumni-and-student Angevine Committee appointed by President Jack Sawyer that spent a year considering fraternities and in 1962 came to the conclusion that they needed to go. And it was the Committee on Coordinate Education that recommended enrolling women, a recommendation adopted by the Board of Trustees in 1969.

Today, committees of various kinds carry a considerable share of the responsibility for creating and implementing college policies, and they’re at the core of our faculty-led form of governance. Students have crucial roles on many of these committees. Like other members, they’re not meant to represent the diverse views of all of their peers – no one student can speak for 2000 – but they are asked to commit to the ongoing, often difficult work of moving the college forward. Indeed, whether we sit on committees or not, that’s the work we all signed up for in coming to Williams. I, for one, came here for the chance to do exactly that kind of work.

Adam Falk is the president of the College and a professor of physics.

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