Williams responds to racism
At 12:30 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 12, a student at Williams College reported an act of hate speech and vandalism to the Williams Campus Safety and Security (CSS). The following day, the President of the College, Adam Falk, sent out a detailed e-mail notification to the Williams campus community. In contrast, recent events on the Hill have prompted some students to question the effectiveness of administrative responses to sexual assault on campus.
The e-mail, addressed to the Williams community, said that a student reported finding the phrase, “All n*****s must die,” written on a wall in one of the dorms on campus. “We are horrified by this act and regret needing to repeat such language in a college communication,” the e-mail read.
The notification reported that CSS had launched an investigation into the hate crime. It also reported the campus response, noting that student discussions were held on Sunday, Nov. 13, to discuss possible responses the College could make. CSS and the Dean’s Office spoke with all of the students living in the dorm and those who had swiped into the building that night.
Signed by President Falk, as well as Williams’ Dean of the College Sarah Bolton, Vice President of Campus Life Steve Klass and Vice President for Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity Mike Reed, the e-mail was forwarded to all Williams alumni with regrets and reassurance that hate has no place on the Williams campus.
Recently, students and faculty on the Hill have been engaged in discussion concerning sexual assault and the upholding of community values at the College. In response, Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Affairs James Terhune held a community forum on Tuesday, Nov. 15 for an open discussion regarding the College’s policies and the support available for victims.
Both at the forum and on the Community Digest of Civil Discourse, some students from the College praised of Williams’ response to crimes on its campus and questioned the strength of administrative responses to incidents on the Hill. Students at the forum asked why notifications could not be sent out that did not reveal private information—as investigations of sexual assault are confidential—but still alerted the campus that an incident has been reported and is being investigated. Ruth Frank-Holcomb ’12 passed on the Williams e-mail to the College community in a post on the Community Digest of Civil Discourse entitled, “Williams Can Do It, So Can We!”
However, the hate crime at Williams, a public and anonymous act, does not incur the same confidentiality clause that sexual assault does. Also, the College Affairs Committee (CAC), in response to bias incidents last spring, instated a Bias Incident Report Protocol, institutionalizing the College’s response to hate crimes such as what happened at Williams. The protocol includes the assembly of a response team, should an incident occur, to notify the community and arrange for support such as counseling meetings and discussion forums.
Still, some students on the Hill feel that the administration has inadequately informed them about recent issues concerning sexual assault. President William “Bro” Adams’ e-mail response to allegations against former Associate Professor of Economics Phil Brown last year has also come up in campus conversation. The brief e-mail notification in January concerning Brown simply stated that “the resignation [of Professor Phil Brown] at Colby’s request is related to violation of student privacy.”
One student at the community forum expressed a desire not for more detailed or frequent notifications but for a heartfelt response from a senior administrator speaking out openly to say that acts of sexual assault will not be tolerated on campus. An Official Notice Adams sent out to the College community on Nov. 10 stated, “My lack of prior comment to the community should not be taken as indifference. These are deeply troubling allegations that have far-reaching impacts on our community.”
Adams’ e-mail also recognized that federal law prohibits the College from giving information concerning assault allegations. The necessary confidentiality in cases of sexual assault makes the nature of the community notification very different from that of the hate crime at Williams. Jim Kolesar, assistant to the president for public affairs at Williams College, said, “No precise formula can perfectly calibrate institutional responses to incidents. Each is unique in some way.” However, he upheld that “reporting as much as possible, as soon as possible, is in the best interest of campus community members.”
Such e-mail notifications at Williams are typically sent from senior administrators, and alumni and parents are kept informed as well. “I think the response by President Falk of Williams was very commendable and appropriate,” Student Government Association (SGA) Co-President Laura Maloney ’12 said. “It was expedient…articulate, clearly emphasizing the community values at Williams and what is and is not acceptable there…[and was also] detailed.”
Maloney commended the Williams e-mail, but also felt the College administration has responded as it should to recent incidents on the Hill. “Williams’ incident was a public, in some ways anonymous, posting aimed at a large section of campus. The sexual assault case [on the Hill] involves private pending allegations among specific students on campus….I think the Official Notice [sent by Adams] was exactly what the administration should, and legally could, say.” Also, the community forum was a demonstration of administrative support and offered valuable information regarding procedure and student resources, Maloney said.
Terhune commented on the student requests for more frequent notifications, emphasizing the necessity of confidentiality, which is both required by law and intended to protect both the victim and the alleged assailant from prejudgment and from being ostracized by their peers. Community notifications are driven by safety, he said. The College would make a statement to notify the community of a danger on campus. However, “in instances where we have a specific allegation and there are identified survivors…and assailants, we generally would not make a broad public statement there,” Terhune said.
Concerning the suggestion of sending out notifications that adhere to privacy laws and merely alert the campus to a report having been made of an alleged crime, Terhune commented that such a notification would merely serve to raise rumors. “We always have to take into consideration the size of this campus,” he said. The College does not wish to provoke prejudgments that might corrupt an ongoing investigation. He also recognized the risk that should allegations become public and compel anyone who might have come forward to stay silent, it would be difficult to take any disciplinary action.
While the College is bound to confidentiality by law, Terhune noted that these same laws do not bind students. “They can speak,” he said. “They usually choose not to.”