On the College’s plan for the fall: A note of thanks and a call for answers

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In recent days, a growing number of colleges and universities have halted their original plans to bring students back to campus this fall in what one Middlebury student-journalist has termed “The Great American Flip.” At the time of publication, this list includes Johns Hopkins, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Columbia, Smith, UMass Amherst and UNC-Chapel Hill, which saw an alarming rise in student cases of the virus. While many of us on the Record’s editorial board are still hopeful about returning to campus in a few weeks, it would be naïve to ignore how the College’s own plans are already changing as we prepare for the  upcoming semester.

We do not know what the next few weeks will bring. Regardless of the outcome, however, we find ourselves grateful to attend an institution that is bending over backwards so that those of us who wish to return to campus may do so safely. While the College’s ability to undertake this challenge is undoubtedly tied to the immense resources at its disposal, it is also a testament to the hard work and dedication of staff and faculty who have spent countless hours toiling over reopening plans and redesigning life on campus. During the hardest of times and facing insurmountable challenges, those who keep Williams running have risen to the occasion.  

We are thankful for the administrators who — through Zoom town halls, online FAQs and zillions of emails — have diligently answered students’ flood of questions and concerns. We are grateful for the College’s decision to reduce our tuition by 15 percent and further subsidize the semester for those studying remotely, as well as providing further support for maintenance and dining staff who, in the midst of a pandemic, are working harder than ever to keep students safe and healthy. 

That having been said, no plan is perfect. We have heard plenty about how the College community will be supported physically as we reopen campus during a pandemic. We have heard less, however, about what social and emotional support we will receive. On this topic, we still have many unanswered questions and concerns that we hope the College will address in the coming weeks. 

We urge the College to keep issues of race at the forefront of its discussions surrounding student life for the 2020-2021 academic year. With racially marginalized students returning to campus at lower rates than their white counterparts and social distancing regulations fundamentally altering the college experience, the isolation and tokenization that many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) members of the Williams community already feel may be exacerbated. Members of the incoming Junior Advisor class expressed this concern in July, appealing to the administration for identity-based affinity preferences to be taken into account in determining first-year housing pods. We credit the administration for agreeing to implement a form of opt-in affinity housing for incoming first-years. We hope, however, that the College remains attentive to the concerns that underlie such requests and that it continues to implement concrete changes that will help marginalized students feel more comfortable on campus.

We also urge the College to be vigilant about listening to the concerns of its staff members performing on-campus jobs and to work diligently to keep them safe and healthy. Staff are valued members of our community, and they should not have to risk their health in order to do their jobs. In the past, staff of color in particular have expressed feelings of being undervalued by the campus community. These discrepancies are further highlighted in disparities in staff turnover rates, with a turnover of 4 percent for white staff and 10 percent for staff of color. We hope that, both through this period of uncertainty and beyond, the College seeks to establish a working community in which staff of color feel they are fully valued members. While these concerns are particularly salient as the College seeks to reforge notions of community in order to respond to a pandemic, we also stress that these issues neither began nor will end with the coronavirus.

In the past, faculty members of color too have expressed the sentiment that Williamstown and the College community can be isolating places to teach and conduct scholarship. This problem may be compounded given restrictions on travel. Moreover, attempts to hire more diverse faculty may face obstacles this year given that the College is “essentially in a hiring freeze.” We call on the administration to heed these concerns.

Deciding how, when and whether to return to campus in the midst of a pandemic is hard on all students, but is especially hard for those navigating unforeseen financial pressures. Some students find themselves with lingering questions about how their financial aid packages will, or will not, be affected. It is more important than ever that the Office of Financial Aid communicate clearly and openly with students and their families, perhaps through a financial-aid specific town hall.

The College has provided numerous details about its plans for the fall; for this we are thankful. But much remains uncertain about what it will mean to climb high and climb far — not just academically, but also socially and emotionally — in these challenging times.