Students hold event to interrogate naming practices and unofficially rename Horn Hall

On Thursday, students, along with some staff and community members, gathered for a town hall meeting and student protest of the naming of Horn Hall following the resignation of Joey Horn ’87 from the Board of Trustees. Horn and her husband, Ragnar Horn ’85, were convicted in Norway last month for violations of the country’s au pair laws and sentenced to five months in prison. The Horns have since appealed their case and, until the resolution of the new trial, retain a presumption of innocence in the Norwegian judicial system.

The event began in Griffin Hall with what was intended by the event’s organizers to be a broader discussion of how the College names buildings and uses physical space to reflect institutional values. Divest Williams, the Coalition for Transparency and Accountability (CTA) and the Williams Minority Coalition (MinCo), co-hosted the event, according to the event’s Facebook page.

The event faced institutional obstacles even before it occurred; the College’s communications department rejected two different submissions for Daily Messages from the organizers, asserting in an email to organizers that, “Daily Messages is not an appropriate place to publicize protests.”

Lili Bierer ’19 and Linda Worden ’19 facilitated the discussion, which had around 70 people in attendance and featured a heavy presence of Campus Safety and Security (CSS) officers and staff from the Office of Student Life (OSL).

Initially, they did not intend for the discussion to focus specifically on the Horns’ case or the official naming of Horn Hall. “The event was meant to be framed as a direct action,” Bierer said. “The point was building student power by going around institutional channels to symbolically and unofficially rename a building to call out bad practices on the part of the College. More broadly, we wanted to call attention to the politics of naming a building on campus and call attention to the history of the College.”

Students pose outside Horn Hall with the banner unofficially renaming the building as “’69 & ’93 Hall,” which they then hung on the building. Nicholas Goldrosen/News Editor.

However, a small minority of attendees began the event by raising opposition to the premise for the event. Many of these attendees focused on the Horns’ generosity to the College and the personal toll their imprisonment might have on members of their family.

“To rename Horn Hall is to deny the numerous contributions that Joey Horn has made to our College,” Diala Al-Masri CDE ’15, a research assistant in the economics department, said. “To name a few, she has helped multiple Williams students in their academic and career journeys, founded an international alumni outreach program, founded a winter study for the [Program in Teaching], played a key role in the [Windows on Williams] program and helped raise funds to support various endeavors of our college … Importantly, the entire propaganda of it [tabloid coverage of the case] was ill-based and extremely damaging to the Horn family.”

Many attendees felt that objections to the event which centered personally on the Horns fundamentally misunderstood the purpose of the event. “Our goal was never to judge how good of a person anyone was, but that was how some people were feeling [the debate went],” Abel Romero ’19 said.

“The argument [in support of the Horns] made sense in a vacuum, but in the context of Williams, they fell flat to me,” Berline Osirus ’20 said. “They were saying things like, ‘They worked so hard,’ but my family works hard too – where’s our building? They were trying to gather sympathy that just wasn’t there. There’s a difference between someone who does nice things and someone who has goodness in their heart.”

Organizers and attendees intended to question broader policies of naming spaces at the College, especially as they reflect the College’s values. “The names that we say in our casual lexicon are indicative of violent systems that have made way for the College to exist,” Bierer said.

Many attendees at the event centered their comments on this point. “No one wants to say that they’re a product of this, this or that but there has to be a time when we sit down and say that the way we interact with institutions is shaped by proximity to these things [systems of oppression],” Osirus said.

There was also tension when some supporters of the Horns implied that students on financial aid owe gratitude to donors to the College such as the Horns. “Hearing some of the things that were assumed, the whole comments aimed at people who were on financial aid were really stressing, if nothing else,” Romero said.

Following this discussion, the event turned to brainstorming ideal names for a residence hall on campus, which would honor values students in attendance felt were more appropriate. The intent of the event was decidedly not to petition for an official renaming of Horn Hall. “The administration thought we were trying to get them to officially rename the building, which was not the purpose of the event,” Bierer said.

Indeed, an official renaming of the building remains highly unlikely. “Ragnar and Joey Horn are loyal alumni, deeply committed to Williams,” President Adam Falk said. “Sometimes they’ve provided support publicly, through their philanthropy; other times they’ve helped quietly, by personally mentoring students and encouraging individual faculty in their work. Every one of us has benefited from their love of the college, whether we realize it or not. Board chair Mike Eisenson ’77 told the Record he saw nothing in the court’s verdict that warranted a reconsideration of the decision to name Horn Hall. While the Board reserves authority to decide such matters, I personally agree.”

Students in attendance discussed on three new names for the building: Leslie Brown Hall (a tribute to the late Leslie Brown, associate professor of history), Justice for All Workers Hall and ’69 and ’93 Hall, a reference to the year in which students occupied Hopkins Hall and the year that students went on a hunger strike asking for the establishment of Africana studies and Latino/a studies as academic departments, respectively.  Due in part to concerns about naming a building after a person without familial consent, the final name decided upon by vote was ’69 and ’93 Hall.

About 30 students then marched to Horn Hall, painted a banner with the new name on it and hung the banner on the front porch of Horn Hall. They also posted signs with several other slogans such as “Justice for All Workers” and “Students in Solidarity.” Students posted the banner and signs at about 10:30 p.m., and while it is not clear who removed them, they were gone within an hour of being put up.

  • Kt

    “Many attendees felt that objections to the event which centered personally on the Horns fundamentally misunderstood the purpose of the event. “Our goal was never to judge how good of a person anyone was, but that was how some people were feeling [the debate went],” Abel Romero ’19 said.

    “The argument [in support of the Horns] made sense in a vacuum, but in the context of Williams, they fell flat to me,” Berline Osirus ’20 said. “They were saying things like, ‘They worked so hard,’ but my family works hard too – where’s our building? They were trying to gather sympathy that just wasn’t there. There’s a difference between someone who does nice things and someone who has goodness in their heart.” ”

    This sounds like something that came out of Kellyanne Conway: “Don’t focus on Trump’s arguments (they make no sense), or Trump’s actions (because they’re cruel and stupid), because he doesn’t mean what he says or does. Focus on the goodness in his heart.” But replace with students’ arguments about the Horns & their feelings about the Horns.

    Seriously I expected better from Williams students…

    PS: To Berline Osirus ’20: Did your family work hard TO CONTRIBUTE TO WILLIAMS? Because that’s THE criterion for being named a building. If they did, please let me know how did your family IN PARTICULAR contributed to Williams?

  • Augustine25

    Wow! It looks like complete insanity for the Board of Directors to fail to rename Horn Hall. It is ridiculous to honor a family that mistreats others, lies to the government, and was sentenced to jail time for their abuses. Truthfully, students and trustees who see the full picture of the Horn’s values should begin questioning everything they have done, supposedly, to help the college. Too often, those who exploit and abuse others – our use their alumni activities to advance their business interests – cloak their activities in acts of philanthropy. I’m amazed at the administration’s naive reaction to learning the truth about Joey Horn ’87 and her husband Ragnar Horn ’85.

    • Daniel

      That’s because they have followed this case for three years and know a lot more about it. For example, the Horns were convicted for hiring undocumented workers — not for abusing them. The au pairs attempted to blackmail the Horns for money before the trial began. When the Horns refused to pay, the au pairs went to court with allegations of abuse. These allegations were thrown out by the court and the Horns were convicted of hiring undocumented workers.

      Even those charges though have been rescinded because a higher court has taken up the case. It’s also worth noting that the Horns actually paid each au pair double the Norwegian minimum wage (which is obviously much higher than the US minimum wage) and provided free housing and food. Basically, these au pairs lived like upper middle class Americans. It is hard to see how this could be classified as abuse.

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