Beyond right and wrong

Dear Williams College Presidential Search Committee,

As you know, one of the challenges facing higher education right now is the paradox of wanting to create a diverse and welcoming environment yet not knowing what to do with the diverse set of people who disagree with that aim (whether full-on white supremacists or those who just dislike affirmative action).

I believe that many college leaders have been far too heavy-handed in dealing with this challenge — and therefore not as effective as they could be. For example, Williams’ outgoing president has repeatedly said that tolerance and respect for diverse views is “the one thing that’s not up for debate.” The grave downside to this approach is that it misses out on the critical educational opportunities that come from debate and conversation. If it’s just “not ok” to have racist beliefs, what is the racist community member to do? Stay silent and stay racist? Act out with racist graffiti as we have seen? If the debate is allowed to happen, I believe that the thoughtful community at Williams will have the opportunity to test their ideas, learn how to have difficult conversations, learn to empathize with “the other”… and perhaps break out of this polarizing cycle that the nation and world is caught up in.

Note that the leader can (and hopefully will) still firmly support diversity efforts. The trick is to do it in a way that invites conversation rather than denounces it. I have seen this done effectively by some leaders. For example, notice in this community letter how the author avoids any moralistic language but rather invites the reader to consider the consequences for community members of color.

There was a lovely article in a recent alumni magazine about a Williams professor who grew up as a white supremacist. He came to Williams and learned a more full history of the South and came to understand the problems (both moral and logical) with white supremacy. He now passes this on to students in a simple way. He doesn’t explicitly condemn racism — he doesn’t need to. He simply shows students primary documents that make the conclusion obvious.

This led me to wonder whether the Williams of today should offer admission to a student who was openly white supremacist? It may be an interesting question to ask candidates.

If yes, does that violate community standards? If no, how could we have modern successes of the type in the story? I hope Williams’ next president will be able to grapple with the subtleties and tensions in this sort of question and will not resort to a firm yes or no.

Indeed I have come to realize that overcoming hatred and division is not a matter of right and wrong, inclusion or exclusion. Rather it is a process of having difficult conversations and learning how to empathize with marginalized communities and those doing the marginalizing. Only then can we truly move forward together. My hope is that the Williams leaders of tomorrow will be able to grasp these subtleties and will not resort to moralistic thinking which simply deepens the divide between “us” and “them.”

Robin Stewart

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