Why we left the Davis Center: Systemic neglect and structural changes

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In the past two months, Vice President for Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leticia Haynes, Assistant Vice President for Campus Engagement Bilal Ansari and President Maud S. Mandel, among others, have presented a narrative of “structural changes” that have taken place at the Davis Center (DC). According to this narrative, the positions that previously existed at the DC have been reimagined to create new roles with substantially different responsibilities. Supposedly, amidst these changes, former staff members Tatiana McInnis, Cecilia Del Cid and Keara Sternberg voluntarily chose to leave the DC. The public narrative furthers claims that these changes are part of a greater effort to help the Center achieve its mission by re-envisioning and re-organizing the work that DC staff members do. As former Community Engagement Fellows (CEFs) at the DC, we have a fuller perspective on the reality of what has happened and believe this optimistic focus on fulfilling the Center’s mission is disingenuous. 

During the fall semester, the DC was staffed by Bilal Ansari (Acting Director), Tatiana McInnis (Associate Director), Cecilia Del Cid (Assistant Director), and Keara Sternberg (Assistant Director). In December 2019, Tatiana announced that she was leaving her position. Soon after, Haynes announced in an all-campus email that the DC would be undergoing structural changes in order to better pursue its vision and goals (Jan. 2). While the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (OIDEI) had been planning changes and receiving private outside consultation on the matter since before Tatiana’s departure, it is an incredible coincidence that the emphasis on structural changes was announced just a few days after she left and over winter break, when many students were not on campus or checking email. In January, both Ceci and Keara announced that they were also leaving their positions. 

Haynes wrote, “With the departure of the Center’s Director [Shawna Patterson-Stephens] and more recently, the Associate Director [Tatiana McInnis], some existing responsibilities are being reassigned and reenvisioned, and new ones will be added” (Jan. 2). In other words, additional staff would be hired and existing positions reimagined. VP Haynes claimed in a Record article that Ceci and Keara left the college voluntarily. In all of her public announcements, she failed to mention that Ceci and Keara’s positions were, in fact, terminated. Although OIDEI had the authority to transfer them to the newly created positions, they were instead given the option of reapplying for these roles. 

The narrative that Ceci and Keara chose to leave the college was made possible by this underhanded method of terminating their positions. Because they “chose” not to re-apply, we were told that their departure was of their own volition. However, the way they were treated was disrespectful to their qualifications and their work at Williams. Ceci and Keara’s decision not to stay is unsurprising given Haynes and Ansari’s decision to ask them to re-apply as if they had no prior relationship to the College and as if they were not clearly qualified to continue to work for the DC. This mechanism of terminating employees is commonplace in corporate settings, as it allows for the simultaneous elimination of unwanted staff and the protection of decision-makers from wrongful termination lawsuits by obscuring the cause for termination. 

These staff changes have been justified through the claim that new positions are being created with substantially different roles and responsibilities. The positions that will be at the DC going forward are Director, Associate Director, Dialogue Facilitator and Program Coordinator. From our understanding, nothing about these roles is incompatible with the qualifications and work that Tatiana, Ceci and Keara could have offered. For example, Keara was trained specifically for intergroup dialogue, exactly the purpose of the new Dialogue Facilitator position. Instead of shifting responsibilities or re-defining roles to allow her to utilize this background, the Davis Center terminated Keara’s position less than a year after she arrived on campus. 

Furthermore, Carmen Whalen, the interim director of the DC, told CEFs in a February 10 meeting that, while the Dialogue Facilitator position search was underway, the other positions had not yet been fully defined. She explained that the job search is intended to build a cohesive team and that the positions will vary depending on who fills them. If it is not yet clear what these positions will look like, how could it have been clear that Ceci and Keara could not fill them? After being pushed on these inconsistencies, Ansari eventually told several students that he considered former staff members to have been “toxic,” and that their positions were terminated instead of transferred for unspecified “legal reasons.” 

It is difficult to put into words just how good Tatiana, Ceci and Keara were at what they did. They are qualified for social justice work on college campuses and their experience and comfort with this work was clear to every one of us who worked alongside them. At DC workshops and during our training sessions, they presented material clearly and confidently, encouraging people to engage and challenge their assumptions. Beyond their formal DC work, Tatiana, Ceci and Keara always treated us and others with genuine love and care. They modeled compassion, vulnerability and self-care for us at a time when we were all grappling with many difficult burdens in our lives. In every way, they went above and beyond what their roles required of them, working relentlessly to make this school a better place. 

Since the departures of Tatiana, Ceci and Keara, the DC has been wholly unable to meet its obligations or fulfill its mission. Many MinCo groups, who depended on DC staff for guidance and funding, were not adequately informed that they had new advisors. After losing strong relationships with Tatiana, Ceci and Keara, many MinCo groups were given advisors who they did not know, some of whom did not even know what MinCo was. Far from meeting groups’ needs, assigning new advisors adds even more challenges. Relationships take a long time to build and the temporary nature of the staff hires, in addition to the injustice and pain present in this “restructuring,” has severed the care and trust that the DC had previously provided for students in MinCo groups. We stand with MinCo through these changes and their efforts to continue their work. 

As MinCo’s op-ed in this issue of the Record outlines, since Tatiana, Ceci and Keara’s departures, there has been a severe lull in the DC’s student resources. Additionally, the future of programming previously run by Tatiana, Ceci and Keara is unclear, including partnerships with the Zilkha Center, the directorship of Root, oversight of the Dively Committee and events for students staying on campus for breaks. In her Jan. 2 email, Haynes said that “central to [the DC’s] mission is working with and supporting students from historically underrepresented and often marginalized groups.” It is evident that these claims of prioritizing support for marginalized students are blatantly false since OIDEI has demonstrated a complete disregard for these students’ needs. 

Together, the utter lack of transparency, the lack of acknowledgement of the hurt these “structural changes” have caused and the inadequate support provided to affected students have resulted in our (the signees’) decision to leave our positions as Community Engagement Fellows at the DC. The information and justifications provided have been vague and disingenuous. Furthermore, learning about these changes after winter break, and for many after Winter Study, long after the College engaged with consultants on the matter, meant it was impossible for students to give meaningful input. 

These changes at the Davis Center are part of a disturbing pattern at the College and many institutions of higher education, where campus offices that claim to support students are not capable of meeting their needs. Just last month, Integrative Wellbeing Services underwent a major restructuring that seriously cut back on the mental health services individual students receive. The Office of Accessible Education is severely understaffed, which means that despite the best efforts of the staff, many students go without necessary accommodations. Williams College systemically refuses to fully respect or make meaningful efforts to support marginalized students (including but not limited to students of color, low-income students, queer students, trans and gender-non-conforming students, first-gen students, international students and neurodiverse students). 

In leaving our positions, we want to disrupt this pattern at Williams. We hope that this piece will draw attention to this College’s systemic neglect of marginalized students, highlighting just one manifestation of a greater problem. We will not stay silent while this college undermines student interests and refuses to be transparent about decisions that affect us. We believe in students’ power and demands, including the student occupation that led to the creation of the DC. We hope for a future where the Davis Center’s mission is fully realized and where the College actually prioritizes marginalized students. We believe in what the Davis Center was created to do, and urge those in power at this college to stand with students and give the DC the staff, resources, support and jurisdiction it needs to achieve its goals.

Haley Bossé ’20, William Ren ’21, darien k n manning ’20, Claudia Inglessis ’22, Louisa Belk ’20, Michael Nettesheim ’20 and Sareena Khanal ’22 are former Community Engagement Fellows at the Davis Center.