We Missed an Opportunity

By Kyle Finck

In November 2011, a student at Williams College painted the wall of a dormitory with a racist, profanity-laced death threat aimed at African-Americans. In response, the administration canceled all classes, athletics and extracurricular activities to hold a school-wide discussion and lunch as a college on the following day of classes.

There is no way to compare the actual events at Williams to the Sept. 11 flag uprooting in terms of severity. But the reactions to the flag incident posted the Campus and middbeat exposed significant hate. While most of it may have come from outside of our community, there is no denying a lot of it came from within the bubble. There is no question that the action was hurtful and wrong — it is an open and shut case — but the reactions of what last week’s editorial penned “arm chair vigilantes” exposed a dark undercurrent of discontent aimed at student activism that, until a few weeks ago, did not have a politically correct avenue to flow from.

Our generation has a problem with talking to each other about contentious issues face to face. For whatever reason, we prefer the online arena. The Vice President for Academic Affairs organized seven talks led by faculty members over the course of the week afterward. When the Campus has more reporters at an event than there are students, something is wrong.

But the paltry student attendance could have been foreseen.  How to attract students to voluntary events has always been the million-dollar question, and one lone e-mail was a ten-dollar answer. In my four years reporting here, the most widely attended event was an alcohol forum in May 2011. The e-mail inviting students to the event asked: “is a dry campus the only option?” At the standing-room-only discussion, students from all backgrounds vented frustrations at each other, at Old Chapel, and at the drinking culture in general. But most importantly, we looked each other in the face, and worked it out in same room. That kind of discussion was sorely needed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 incident.

President Liebowitz’s e-mail to the College the morning after the incident set an appropriately firm tone, emphasizing that debate and dialog can only occur within a context of respect and civility. The online dialog that occurred in the days after the incident was neither respectful nor civil. Inside the Campus editorial discussion, varied and vocal opinions battled to find a consensus. While uncomfortable at times, the debate ultimately led to the common ground of condemning the act, but pleading for due process and dignity for our community. Could that same understanding and self-reflection have been achieved in classrooms across the College if Liebowitz had mandated the first fifteen minutes of every class on Friday, Sept. 13 be devoted to an open discussion of the incident and the reactions?

We missed an opportunity.