This semester in Williams history

Bellamy Richardson and Jacob Posner

(Collage by Bellamy Richardson.)

Williams has experienced turbulent times — think the Spanish Flu and Vietnam War — but this fall semester has been like no other. While on-campus students lived under new COVID-19 safety guidelines such as social distancing and twice-weekly testing, remote students could access campus only through Zoom. 

Though on-campus students gave up freedoms they would have in a normal semester, including exploring the Berkshires past route 2, studying unmasked at the library, partying in large groups and listening to a cappella on Stone Hill for Mountain Day, they did it in the name of keeping the College community safe. And it worked. The College community saw only 10 cases of COVID-19 over the course of the semester, and the campus was able to remain open until the planned end of in-person classes before Thanksgiving. For the sake of posterity, and to provide a chance to reflect, the Record put together a recap of its coverage during this unusual semester. 

After campus closed last year, and in the wake of this summer’s protests against anti-Blackness, the College community had more conversations than was typical for an academic break, particularly on how Williams can be a more welcoming place for BIPOC. Whether over social media, or in emails to President Maud S. Mandel, the student body braced itself for the coming semester.

Student groups reckoned with racial injustice in different ways as many groups published statements in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) published its own statement, though its fall programming failed, in the eyes of a writer, to reflect its new goals. 

Scott McGowan, a sergeant at the Williamstown Police Department (WPD), filed a federal lawsuit this summer alleging sexual assault and racial harassment committed by the WPD Chief Kyle Johnson and unnamed WPD officers. WPD confirmed some of these allegations this semester, leading to a WPD dispatcher’s resignation after he acknowledged making anti-Black Facebook posts. As local police accountability organizers called for Johnson’s removal, the town government decided to retain him.

Upon arriving on campus, students were subject to a strictly enforced, four-to-seven-day in-room quarantine. They stayed confined to their rooms, stocked with “quilk,” until receiving two negative test results.

Students emerged from quarantine ready for the first day of classes on Sept. 10 (though three positive tests sent 18 of them back in). While attempting to eat outside with friends when the weather was still nice, students faced swarms of wasps outside of Paresky Center and Driscoll Dining Hall. Some really took advantage of their newfound freedom, violating health guidelines in the process.

Those who started the semester remotely found completing schoolwork to be difficult, especially if they lived in far-off timezones. One student said she went to sleep at 11 a.m. and woke up at 5 p.m. in order to operate on Eastern Time. Meanwhile, first-year students studying remotely formed an entry with remote Junior Advisors, and perhaps counterintuitively, many of them have not found remote learning to be so bad, with a majority of remote students agreeing that the quality of remote classes have improved significantly since last spring.

A symbol of this truly strange semester was the weekly Campus Operations and Business Continuity email updates. These updates ranged from serious to hilarious (flying port-a-potties, anyone?) and kept students informed of changes in COVID protocols. 

The NESCAC’s decision to cancel all fall sports disappointed first-year and upperclass student athletes alike. In October, NESCAC announced the cancellation of winter sports as well. However, sports teams still found ways to train safely.

Campus travel restrictions eased in the beginning of October, which brought one enduring College tradition: Mountain Day. On the second Friday of the month, students awoke to an email from President Maud S. Mandel announcing the cancellation of classes for Mountain Day 2020. And while trick-or-treating did not happen on a large scale in Williamstown this fall, students still found ways to have a festive Halloween, such as entering a pumpkin carving contest and a virtual costume contest. 

As the semester continued, students developed various creative ways of adapting to campus under COVID regulations. They started a Minecraft server, created a Twitter bot to report new cases and found new ways to connect with one another in race, ethnicity, international student, LGBTQ+ and religious groups.

Meanwhile, the Record dove into College history to investigate how students had long been connecting with each other under the auspices of an underground fraternity.

Performing arts groups found new ways to recruit members and rehearse online and in person, socially distanced. The I/O New Music Festival adapted from performing only during Winter Study to performing all throughout the fall semester due to the cancellation of Winter Study 2021. One student noticed that different things on campus, such as colorful trees and COVID tests, reminded her of different works of art, and another created videos for his TikTok account, which now has 2.1 million followers.

Over the course of the semester, students connected through the anonymous Unmasked app to chat about their mental health, and one student wrote about the tolls of the pandemic on our well-being. 

During a time when people are dealing with loss all around the world, the College community also dealt with a loss of its own. On Nov. 2, Mandel announced the deeply upsetting news of the death of Jackson Ronningen ’24. Students honored Ronningen’s memory at a candlelight vigil.

The presidential election presented a unique opportunity to profile student voters from across the country, and to capture what was at stake for students from different backgrounds. Across the board, students said they had no idea what the outcome might be, fearing an undefinable, unpredictable outcome to the election. Williams students voted overwhelmingly for former Vice President Joe Biden over President Donald J. Trump, with COVID-19, inequality and climate change being the issues most important to them. 

Not only did the Williams community vote in the election, but one professor weighed in on Trump’s unfounded accusations of voter fraud. Steven Miller, professor of mathematics, submitted a sworn court declaration that there were ballot irregularities in the Pennsylvania vote count, a claim repudiated by statisticians and political scientists (including some from the College).

Back home, some parents watched the College’s COVID dashboard with a close eye to be aware of any outbreaks on campus. Throughout the semester, the College community had a total of 10 positive COVID cases, which was actually quite successful in the national context. However, students sent into quarantine and isolation housing faced a lack of communication and support from the College.

The College addressed other internal controversies, including recommendations from an external audit conducted on Campus Safety and Security (CSS), which led to a list of proposed reforms. Additionally, the Log, which is owned by the College, removed murals that inaccurately portrayed Indigenous people, and David Kane ’88, a professor at Harvard, came under fire for racist posts on his College-related blog EphBlog, which has since been taken down. 

The College community also dealt with a blatant instance of racial and anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination when a staff member received a violent and threatening hate letter at their home. Despite its troubled recent history, the WPD began investigating the incident and instituted safety measures at the individual’s home.

Looking forward, students had to decide whether to enroll in person for the spring semester, which will include “health days” instead of spring break, and those on campus had to pack up their rooms in case the College goes completely remote for the spring.

A Record survey predicted that on-campus enrollment will increase for the spring semester, with many students looking forward to returning to campus. One student, Young Wuk Jung ’21, said of his decision to return, “unless COVID causes the world to completely fall apart — if school opens like it did this fall — I’ll be back.”