Racial slur launches Williams controversy

By Linda CarmanPrint Story | Email Story
WILLIAMSTOWN — The voicing of a racial slur in a Williams College art department meeting in May — an incident disclosed by college officials only last week — has launched swirls of controversy like acrid smoke in this college community, which prides itself on the diversity of a student body made up of more than 25 percent minorities.

The injured party in the incident, an African-American professor, said she is pursuing internal action on the matter.

The "N" word used at that meeting last spring continues to hang in the air almost as visibly as graffiti scrawled across the picture-perfect buildings on campus.

While Williams College officials say the tenured woman professor who made the remark has received sanctions, no specific measures have been revealed.

The injured party is Laylah Ali, an African-American professor of studio art and a 1991 Williams graduate. She said in an e-mail yesterday that she had been so upset by the slur that she had left the meeting where it was voiced. Ali said she reported the incident to acting Dean of Faculty William Lenhart, as did others.

Lenhart sent a memo to the college community Sept. 10 outlining the incident, in which which a professor, not identified, "raised a concern about the status of her own field of professional work relative to the fields of the others. At one point, she made a heated statement to the effect that she did not want her field to be 'used as a nigger.' "

In her e-mail, Ali said, "What is missing from the dean's letter — and indeed the later discussion of this incident — is a sense of the malice with which the racist comment was delivered. The tone and manner of expression were so extreme that I felt forced to leave the meeting. It was extremely disruptive and upsetting."

She added, "I do not believe that the college administration has responded properly to the gravity of this incident."

But she said she is "refraining from more commentary at this time because I am currently involved in further internal action about this matter."

In his memo, Lenhart wrote that he had concluded "that the [unnamed] faculty member's behavior warranted the serious step of imposing sanctions on her, which I have done. I believe that the statement made at the meeting was a use of racist language that was meant to provoke or hurt the African-American colleague who was present."

Williams spokesman James G. Kolesar said he could not think of an instance of the college's specifying what sanctions had been taken against any faculty.

"There are legal and ethical considerations about how much can be said about a situation,"  Kolesar said.

According to college policy, "When the offender is a faculty or staff member, the disciplinary action may range from a reprimand to non-reappointment or the initiation of proceedings for dismissal for cause. They may also include warnings regarding the consequences of future misconduct, removal from certain teaching, advising or supervisory roles, job reassignment, and/or other restrictions of institutional role."

But both the chairman of the African-American studies department and a co-chairman of the Black Students Union called upon the unidentified woman professor to step forward and attempt to justify her remark.

And both political science assistant professor Alex Willingham, the chairman of the African-American studies program, and Christopher Sewell, a senior and a co-chairman of the Black Students Union, questioned the length of time the administration took to act. They voiced concern that the incident might make it more difficult for the college to attract and retain black faculty.

"One of my concerns is that she might leave," Willingham said of Ali. "That's almost my Number One issue."

He added,"I'm fairly pleased about the student recruitment, but the success in the one area generates the challenge in the other. The recruitment people have done their part."

But, he said, the college must put into place strategies to retain minority faculty.

"We can't offer the night life of New York City, but we can offer a good productive working environment. That's part of the appeal for faculty looking at Williams. If we've got to start hedging, saying, 'Oh, you know how those white people are,'  that makes it more difficult," he said.

Willingham called on the unidentified professor to step forward and publicly acknowledge her action.

"I think that would be a major step towards clearing the air,"he said. “That kind of reconciliation would be a proactive step. There are a lot of racists we live with in this world, but a lot of people are growing and changing."

Willingham was very critical about the college's time lag in reporting the incident.

"My overall reaction is one of disappointment, to say the very least. I wish this had been dealt with in the time frame in which it occurred," he said. "I'm less hung up on sanctions per se than the message sanctions send about the institution."

Willingham, as did others, remarked that the incident in May happened at nearly the same time as a music department flier had emblazoned KKK, an incident that distressed some minority students.

That flyer advertised "the Kechley Krazy Kookout," hosted by music department Chairman David Kechley, who did not design the flier.

Christopher Sewell, co-chairman of the college's Black Students Union, said that group is coordinating with other groups to consider actions.

"I do believe that alumni and students are equally as outraged as black students,"Sewell said. "Now we need to work on the larger problem."

He said the Black Student Union and others want to look beyond the departmental-meeting incident.

"Over the past year and a half, there have been several incidents, so this is not necessarily specific to what happened last May," said Sewell, an American studies and history major from Brooklyn, N.Y.

He raised the issue of students' concern over the attitudes of faculty whose classes they might take.

"It's important that we acknowledge the importance of students," he said. "Students take an active interest in faculty. These are the people who are teaching us."

Sewell said he also wanted to take a broader view.

"How do we mobilize the whole campus' students and faculty to discuss this issue?" he asked. "We're really trying to work together."

He questioned the administration's unwillingness to release the specific form of sanctions meted out. He noted that the college annually, and routinely, without disclosing names, releases a list of disciplinary actions taken with regard to students, with specifics such as "one-year suspension," or "disciplinary probation."

"Part of the problem is that students and faculty are not dealt with the same. If there's an honor code, we should all abide by it," he said. "People are going to figure out who this person is."

And indeed, speculation and suspicion have been rife. A Web site for alumni comments included a laundry list of six faculty members one writer thought could be possibilities, prompting indignation on those faculty members' part.

Sewell said he worries that the school could have greater difficulty attracting and retaining talented minority faculty.

Noting that the African American studies department is hiring, he said,  "There's the possibility somebody could find out about this and decide they don't want to be in a place like this. [Potential faculty] meet with students when they come here, and it can really have an impact. The same thing with retention: People who are here now can say, 'I can go somewhere else.' "

Also on Sept. 10, the same date Lenhart sent his memo, President Morton Owen Schapiro wrote that "with the strong support of the Board of Trustees, I call on all of us at Williams to contribute to a special initiative this academic year toward ensuring that our community be one in which all members are accepted and respected."

Schaprio wrote that he is consulting with the Committee on Community and Diversity, the Multicultural Center, the Office of Human Resources and others on campus on how best to mobilize the community for that effort.

And Schapiro called for a campuswide mobilization.

"To launch it, I will be inviting all students, faculty and staff to a gathering to be organized with the Chaplain's Office," he wrote.

He called for "mutual respect" in the pursuit of "civility, tolerance and community." While upholding "the free and vigorous exchange of ideas," Schapiro wrote, "every member of the campus community should know that we reject personal harm as part of that exchange. A civil atmosphere of mutual respect is critical to our educational mission. We therefore insist that public discourse not be undermined by personal attacks, especially when they reopen the many wounds of historic discrimination that burden our culture even today. Breaches of those limits will face serious consequences."

Schapiro added that while the issue is national, and even international, in scope, Williams should set its sights higher:

"At Williams, we set for ourselves the highest possible standards, including, critically, in the promotion of civility, tolerance and community.

"We can do better. We will do better. It will take the efforts of all of us."
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