Mandel outlines College’s commitment to racial justice, faces renewed criticism

After more than two weeks of pressure from students, alums and other members of the College community, President Maud S. Mandel released on Friday an outline of actionable steps the College will take to fight racial and social injustice. The initiatives are divided into four categories — people, philanthropy, partnerships and programming — and Mandel said each will continue to develop in the coming weeks and months. 

In response to calls from community members to put the College’s financial resources to use to support Black communities amid nationwide protests against police brutality, as Amherst and Bowdoin have done, Mandel committed in her email to investing “at least $500,000 over the next five years to specifically support racial justice organizations and efforts nationally and in our region” under the umbrella of “philanthropy.” 

With a focus on “people,” Mandel also wrote that the College will create new opportunities for student engagement in the form of “a suite of internships, fellowships, and other co-curricular offerings” on issues of racial injustice. She also intends to “create or extend Williams’ partnerships with organizations and educational institutions working for racial justice in the Berkshires and across the country,” a goal that falls in line with the College’s efforts for regional and global engagement.

Finally, Mandel wrote that the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (OIDEI) will “further invest in and build up campus programming on related issues.” She used last week’s series of panel discussions with leaders from legal and civil rights organizations as an example of “programming,” and noted that OIDEI and the Davis Center are welcoming suggestions for future initiatives. 

Hundreds of students and alums responded to Mandel’s newest statement by email, in comments on the College’s social media accounts, or in meetings with her in virtual office hours, with many criticizing her statement for its focus on actionable future steps that come at the expense of introspective engagement with the College’s institutional practices that some students have said harm Black members of the community. 

Isabel Peña ’19 and Kristina Hwang ’19 organized an email campaign after Mandel’s first statement that provided templates for students and alums to use to express their concerns and demands to Mandel and other administrators. Mandel estimated that she received around 100 emails from community members expressing frustration at the College’s perceived inaction in response to her initial statement on May 31, which expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement but shied away from announcing tangible ways the College would turn that sentiment into action. 

On Sunday, the College’s Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) chapter released new templates in response to Mandel’s update.

Some students reacted with cautious optimism, though, like Williams Student Union Representative Argenis Herrera ’22. “I am optimistic about Mandel’s statement on racial justice at Williams, though I worry about the lack of details and hope they are filled in soon,” Herrera said. “The College has a lot of work to do, and it must start immediately.”

The most negative reactions from critics called for greater clarity on what the College would do to confront what they saw as Williams’ unjust actions. 

“This institution actively creates a culture that harms Black students, making it impossible to learn and eventually leading to low rates of retention, ie. pushing Black students out,” Peña wrote in a statement provided to the Record. “The school also actively mobilizes campus resources to police and harm Black students, faculty and staff.”

In recent weeks, dozens of community members have questioned the College’s relationship with the Williamstown Police Department (WPD) and highlighted issues with Campus Safety and Security. Many have pointed to the fact that,  in 2018, the College donated $400,000 and an easement of land to the Williamstown Police Department (WPD). In 2019, a group of Black students created the “Where’s My Safety” art installation to illustrate their negative experiences with Campus Safety and Security (CSS) and the WPD. 

Last spring also saw the inaugural Black Previews, a student-organized event intended to more accurately portray the experience of Black students at the College to prospective first-years. College Council initially denied $795 in funds to the Black students organizing the event after a lengthy debate.

The College’s plans for philanthropy, and subsequent criticism

Mandel’s commitment to give $500,000 to racial justice organizations over the next five years has been criticized by some segments of the student body who feel that the money is insufficient and want clarity about where the funds will go. In an email template shared to social media, YDSA member Afoma Maduegbuna ’21 noted that the figure is less than the sum of two students’ tuition over four years, and called for the College to carry out a donation-matching campaign. 

Amherst’s donation-matching drive, organized in partnership with the Amherst Black Student Union, raised a final total of $183,000. Approximately $115,000 of that sum went to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, while $36,000 went to the United Negro College Fund and $32,000 went to the Pioneer Valley Worker’s Center.

“A minimum of $500,000 over the next five years is pitiful,” Maduegbuna wrote. “I demand that Williams double this commitment and specifically name the organizations and efforts the administration has in mind.”

Meanwhile, Herrera stressed the need for the College to allocate donations wisely. “The quickest way to spend $500,000 is to bring in fancy speakers and call it a day,” he said. “If the College is to take racial justice seriously, though, we need an honest and sustained effort within the community. This is not the time for performative activism.”

In an interview with the Record, Mandel elaborated on several of the initiatives she announced in Friday’s email and commented on issues raised by students and alums that had not yet been addressed. 

In response to calls for donation matching campaigns in the short term, Mandel said that such efforts generally result in the contribution of much lower sums than the $500,000 that the College will distribute. Mandel pushed back against perceptions of the College’s monetary commitment as being too slow to be effective.

“I just didn’t think it was intelligent to announce [the recipients] in a five-day span without having good conversations with partners about what would be the most helpful and significant organizations to work with,” Mandel said. “It’s an immediate commitment. We’re going to do it over the summer.”

Mandel noted that the $500,000 figure represents a minimum, not a cap, and stressed the importance of carefully evaluating how much money the College can donate given the uncertain financial situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. She also said the College is focused on ensuring that its donations go to organizations that need the money most, a process that has taken more time than expected. 

“There was a lot of student outreach and concern, and a desire to have a quick determination by the College of what it’s doing,” she said. “But one of the things we really wanted to do is talk to our partners locally and nationally about what would be most helpful and useful for them.”

The College’s announcement that it would be offering a host of new internships and fellowships involving racial justice, meanwhile, represents “another fairly substantial, significant financial investment by the institution in anti-racist work, and one that could lead to really powerful outcomes,” Mandel said. She urged critics to include the money being invested in that program in their calculations of how much the College is devoting to anti-racist causes. 

“I’m not surprised there’s a focus on that number,” she said, referencing the $500,000 figure, “but I would suggest that the number is actually considerably larger when you think about the investment over time.”

The College, the WPD and CSS

Widely-shared graphics produced by the YDSA have visually compared the $400,000 donation to the WPD to the $500,000 philanthropic commitment. “A minimum of $500,000 over five years will not cut it, especially when $400,000 was given to the Williamstown Police Department lump sum, despite their history of profiling and antagonizing BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] students and faculty,” Maduegbuna wrote. 

Peña expressed similar sentiments, asking, “Why is Williams College so willing to fund the Williamstown Police Department and not Black students’ well-being?” 

When asked about the College’s donation to the WPD, Mandel said the commitment was made “before my time,” and is one that falls into a context of the College’s participation “in the surrounding community on various projects.” She noted that the College’s engagement with the Berkshires is outlined further in the “Williams in the World” Strategic Planning report.

Meanwhile, Mandel said that she sees the WPD and CSS as “separate issues,” and that the College must think through the ways in which the current residential life system “puts a tremendous emphasis on CSS.” 

“I will say that the work on CSS is part of this longer term work that we are doing,” she said. “We were doing an external review of CSS when COVID struck. But all of the work on campus — which is not just about CSS, I think it’s bigger than that — was really focused on thinking about ‘How do we create the most inclusive campus possible? And what do we need to change to get there?’ And I think there was a lot of work done over the last year around thinking about the role of campus safety and security on campus.”

Mandel further stressed the importance of fostering an inclusive environment across the campus community as a whole. 

“The word we use all the time is inclusion,” she said. “For me, inclusion is about fighting racism. Because if you create a space where everybody feels like they’re part of the community, then presumably, it’s not a racist space.”

Fellowships, internships and initiatives

Mandel expanded on her vision for the new student engagement initiative, which will contain a series of co-curricular offerings to support students, faculty and staff interested in deeper study and research on racial justice issues. 

Mandel said she is aware that “there’s a hunger at Williams for hands-on engagement opportunities,” and expressed her hope that the program will help “students think about working in NGOs that maybe don’t have budgets to support student interns.” She noted that other ideas for the program include “postgrad fellowships and gap year support, potentially.” 

Mandel emphasized that these programs are still in their beginning stages, and she welcomes student input as they develop. “In order to build a program that is responsive to things that students are interested in, we definitely need to engage with students,” she said. “What the best way to do that is, we’ll figure out as we go forward.” 

She said she intends for the program to be a long-term investment with adaptations based on student needs. “We both want to get it right and build it carefully, but we also want to be capacious in the sense that it has room to evolve over time,” she said.

Additional student advocacy and the OIDEI’s work 

Some students have urged Mandel to go beyond providing funded internships and fellowships by supporting marginalized members of the community in other ways. In Maduegbuna’s view, key areas where greater investment from the College administration is needed include robust support systems for faculty of color — a theme that members of the community were especially vocal about last year — as well as student-facing resources such as Integrative Wellbeing Services (IWS) and the Davis Center.

“I want to see commitment to not only hiring faculty of color, but retaining them by giving them the institutional support they need to succeed in our white homogenous campus,” she wrote. “I want to see greater monetary commitment to hiring and retaining staff of color for Integrative Wellbeing Services. I want to see a commitment to anti-racist education on our campus starting by rebuilding the Davis Center.”

Maduegbuna referred to the structural changes at the Davis Center earlier this year that took place in tandem with the departures of several key staff members. Since then, the Davis Center has been staffed on a largely interim basis as the College has looked to fill the new positions created in January. The most recent addition to the Davis Center staff, Dialogue Facilitator Drea Finley, was hired in April.

Vice President for Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leticia S. E. Haynes ’99 said the Davis Center will continue to hold workshops and trainings this summer, and is developing resources for on-going anti-racism work. “Every day, we have dozens of conversations — many are one-on-one conversations with students, faculty, staff, and community members — and these interactions have increased as black people continue to be killed in the country,” she wrote in an email to the Record.

Haynes noted that OIDEI and Davis Center staff have engaged with the local community while holding workshops and conversations on racial justice in the United States that have attracted more than 500 participants. 

Mandel and Haynes will work together to determine where donations from the College will be most effectively allocated. In response to student criticisms, Haynes acknowledged the value in diverse forms of discourse around racial injustice. “As a civil rights and racial justice advocate, I believe advocacy appropriately takes many forms – there is no one prescribed way; and the best advocacy is informed,” she said. “When advocating for racial justice, people have a right to express their opinions with the goal of driving critical change and advancing civil rights.”

In an email campaign resources document published on Sunday, YDSA included Maduegbuna’s email template, additional resources and readings, and an outline for writing individual emails with a list of concrete short-term demands aimed at Mandel and the College. 

In regards to co-curricular planning, the outline, written by Claudia Inglessis ’22, urged the College to “expand TIDE grants to support individuals working on anti-racist projects” and “make anti-racist and abolitionist literature available to community members.” 

Additionally, the document criticized both of Mandel’s recent statements for “relying on education as the sole available tool of anti-racism without acknowledging that academia is inherently racist.” 

Mandel said she stands by her assertion that offering an elite education is one of the most powerful actions the College can take when it comes to enacting positive social change, but acknowledged and validated students’ feelings of outrage.

“There is no statement that I could make that would sufficiently address racism in this country, in the Berkshires, in the world and on our campus. This is a huge, systemic problem that we face— that all of us face,” she said. “I was heartily criticized for saying that without saying what we were going to do.

“… I am committed, as I hope the letter shows, to Williams doing its best to make an impact in this area. We have a lot of work to do on campus, and a lot of areas which I do believe we were on the way to trying to address, but I also believe this is work that is never done.”