When one of my class agents e-mailed me reminding me of the upcoming deadline for this year’s alumni fund, I wrote back, thanking her for the reminder, but explaining why I was reducing my contribution to just $9.
My concerns had been growing since the early 2010s when I served on the Executive Committee of the Society of Alumni. Adam Falk had just started as president and seemed oblivious to the threats to free speech. Indeed, after my term ended, he stood idly by when students intimidated fellow students who had invited controversial speakers. And then he canceled just such a speaker himself.
Since then, things have gotten worse. In 2021, the Williams Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program endorsed a statement with anti-Semitic overtones singling out Israel, the world's only Jewish State--and the Middle East's most progressive nation on the rights of women and gay people, for condemnation. I organized Jewish alumni to oppose the statement, but program chair Greg Mitchell was intransigent, neither retracting the endorsement nor responding to our concerns. President Maud Mandel met by zoom with concerned Jewish alumni, but the college issued no public statement distancing itself from the Gender Studies program's statement.
Because of the college's public silence on this matter, I reduced my contribution from three figures to two and resigned as a class agent.
Not long after that meeting, Phoebe Cohen, the chair of the Geosciences Department at Williams made a bizarre statement to the New York Times supporting the cancellation of controversial speakers.
Again, the college did not distance itself from the statement. I realized I could send my own statement by reducing my donation further. It is will now be in the single digits. I will give $9, the highest single-digit donation I can make. I have fond memories of Williams, how then-English Professor Lisa Wright encouraged my passion for Beowulf. I did two Independent Studies and one Winter Study 99 with her on the Anglo-Saxon (Old English) language and the great poem itself. How Track and Cross-Country Coach Pete Farwell helped me, a non-athlete in my adolescence, become an athlete. How Dean Mary Kenyatta was sensitive to my unique nature and listened to my housing--and other--concerns. How the great Kurt Tauber, a Marxist, taught an incredible course on conservative political theory where he showed respect for viewpoints different from his own.
Williams helped me become more broad-minded, maturing from the narrow-minded ideologue I was during parts of our freshman and most of our sophomore year to a man who learned to respect differences. As an undergraduate, I came to appreciate that while someone may have an opinion at odds with my own, they could still have a valid argument, that I could learn from them–just as they could learn from me.
But I fear that the Williams I loved is disappearing, with students disrupting speakers --and student organization meetings, with an academic program taking a stand on a political issue, alienating students who disagree with it, and that a professor, a department chair no less, sneering at the idea of free speech and open discourse, the very heart of a liberal arts education, the very essence of my Williams experience.
That's why I helped establish the Williams Free Speech Alliance to help restore the college we loved.
Since writing that e-mail, I have met with faculty and learn that many have concerns similar to my own. They remind me, in so many ways, of the greatest professors of my era, true heirs to broad-minded intellectuals like Kurt Tauber.
I believe that with more alumni raising their voices, as I am now doing, we can restore Williams as a place where ideas are freely debated and discussed and where students as well as faculty both learn from and respect those holding opinions at odds with their own.
B. Daniel Blatt '85