On Campus Activism

Head shot of President Maud S. MandelIt’s summer in Williamstown: a wonderful time to step out onto campus and feel the embrace of mountains on all sides. And yet this summer also feels like the quiet eye of a far-reaching storm, swirling with debate of many issues.

Williams is hardly alone in this experience. From Maine to California, my fellow college presidents report that they, too, are witnessing widespread upheaval on their campuses. This generation of students—incisive, passionate young adults that they are—is emerging into mature awareness of a complicated, messy and often unjust world. While every cohort has some version of this experience, the current one has access to technologies that broadcast their responses and subject them to public scrutiny in new ways. An app that can be used to mobilize positive action can also generate counterreaction; one that can start a movement can also fuel a mob.

And yet, when asked whether I’m concerned by modern campus activism, my response, so far, is a gentle “No.” I absolutely think Williams needs to teach people to voice strongly held views in constructive ways. That lesson is best learned within a community broad enough to accommodate conservatives and radicals, believers and agnostics, creatives and critics. Disagreement, in such a culture, should fuel intellectual vitality. But we can’t assume students know how to debate effectively and respectfully. I plan to intensify our focus on that work, and I encourage you to read the recommendations from our Ad Hoc Committee on Inquiry and Inclusion, which will provide a strong, thoughtful basis for our efforts. (See bit.ly/wmsinquiryinclusion.)

But I’d be much more concerned if Williams were a community of people who did not hold strong views. Our students are as exceptional as ever. Our faculty and staff, too, shine in their chosen fields. These are smart, engaged people who want to make the world a better place. And they should: Williams is in a Purple Valley, but it should not be in a purple bubble. I want us to make our geographic location into a usefully critical distance from which we can regard the world and imagine strategies for making it better. And we have great capacity for such work. In these pages, as on campus, you’ll see that Williams has room enough for many views. There’s room for yours, too: Whether you see Williams as nestled in a beautiful valley or buffeted by the winds of change—or both—I believe this community is generous enough to contain us all, and I look forward to working with you to make sure it remains so.