Unpacking social currents on campus: Reconciling mixed messages about the College

Davey Morse

For the most part, the expectations I developed as a prospective Williams student align with what I’ve experienced. The food is pretty solid. The professors are incredibly thoughtful in leading discussions, asking questions and communicating material. The campus feels isolated. The community is welcoming and small, first-year entries are homey, many students are athletic and there’s substantial work.
But, there are certain aspects of campus dynamics that run contrary to each other and have surprised me and some of my peers.
The first is the administration’s emphasis on our lives, in all of its social, intellectual and physical dimensions. In the first-years’ class-wide meeting, President Maud Mandel encouraged us to pursue our interests in school, independent of pressure to get a job or plan our lives. Her speech caught my attention not by deviating from the liberal arts mantra preached by similar institutions throughout the admissions process, but rather by so fully embracing it.
In an effort to address all parts of our lives, the administration openly discussed several problems that students face in college. Members of the faculty opened up about their struggles with substance abuse and their undergraduate workloads, Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom talked about healthy social and romantic relationships and the “Speak About It” performers educated us on consent and sexual assault prevention.
I loved that the administration was willing to address topics that many of our high schools deem taboo. While the newness of this holistic emphasis might be a part of any transition from day school to a college where students live, I can’t help but be grateful for and impressed by the College’s strong values and willingness to talk in a language that students understand.
That’s not to say that the school is run solely with this desirable spirit and that there are not many ways in which it could better meet the needs of its students. Indeed, I have learned that there are ways in which it is lacking. But, against the backdrop of this overwhelmingly positive introduction to the administration, I was surprised that many upperclassmen conveyed to us a very critical attitude toward the College.
Jamboree at Previews this past April first introduced me to this dynamic. Students presented reasons as to why Williams should have an Asian American Studies program. About halfway through, one student spearheading the effort went further, asking prospective minority students to reconsider whether they should attend. It struck me quite intensely that an event meant to introduce us to student life ran contrary to the aim of having us enroll.
For the reasons the performers listed, many of us did judge that an Asian American Studies program seemed overdue. We reasoned that the students were using this opportunity to address prospective students to leverage their demands. I also appreciated the freedom they wielded in denouncing the College. Yet, there was something unsettling for me about their rebuke of the school.
Since arriving on campus a few weeks ago, it has become clear that the critical attitude toward the school I witnessed at Previews was no outlier. During First Days, we attended an event called “Voices,” in which five older students shared their stories and struggles here, often painting the College in a negative light. One of the speakers concluded that her appreciation for the College does not come from seeing it as a city on a hill, but rather from embracing her somewhat imperfect experiences here.
During President Mandel’s induction ceremony, College Council Co-Presidents Lizzy Hibbard ’19 and Moisés Roman Mendoza ’19 delivered a speech that, rather than celebrating its new president, was much more centered on the ways in which Williams is lacking. They asserted, “This would not be a true welcome without addressing our faults and our flaws.”
I believe that an outspoken student body willing to be critical is important for a school to improve and stay current. I also think that getting a realistic picture of life here – one that discusses the rich opportunities and community as well as academic challenges, the hookup scene and the role of alcohol and drugs on campus – is necessary and healthy for new students. But, when the administration offers insight about our holistic well-being and doesn’t mention the sociopolitical currents of the students – like efforts for an Asian American Studies program – and simultaneously older students talk of the administration, in public settings, in often disapproving terms, new students are left to piece together the relationship between these two views of campus themselves.
Doing so is a big, puzzling task. It is possible that it is also a task not unique to Ephs; maybe all college students come to understand how their school’s leaders relate to the student body through a process of personal reasoning. But, it could be worthwhile for the faculty and students to examine the gap a new student might perceive between the social currents on campus and official communications – and do so as openly as the administration introduced the Class of 2022 to the College and as honestly as the upperclassmen have presented its faults.

Davey Morse ’22 is from New York, N.Y. His major is undecided.