Williams’ Access Era

Legendary Williams Professor Fred Rudolph ’42 once posited that Williams experienced three distinct historical eras: the Christian Era, Gentleman Era and, post-World War II, the Consumer Era. What came next? My view: the “Access Era,” in which Williams and many other colleges began admitting women, people of color, the LGBTQIA community, international students, lower-income students and more.

Few would debate the enormous benefits the now splendidly diverse student body, faculty and staff have brought. But achieving diversity was just one step; creating a community welcoming to all has turned out to be far more challenging. The notion that previously underrepresented groups would simply assimilate into the campus status quo didn’t last long. In 1969, African American students occupied Hopkins Hall and won the creation of an Afro-American Studies program (and more). After other occupations in the 1980s (for a multicultural center) and hunger strikes in the 1990s and 2000s (for Latina/o studies), the quest for inclusion continues. Last year, various groups fought for an Asian American studies program, affinity housing and more. Other institutions of higher education have experienced similar histories.

The heart and soul of a liberal arts education is the critical examination of deeply held beliefs.

Most people inherently encourage efforts to address structures and systems that exclude communities. But some feel college administrators have “gone too far,” turning campuses into hotbeds of “political correctness,” even subordinating the institution’s core educational mission to the goal of inclusion.

I consider the fight for inclusion to be a moral imperative, and I believe the “gone too far” fears are overly fraught. But this essay is concerned with the nature and timetable of change. The inclusion struggle has and will continue to play out over an extended era. And now it is being waged in a societal tempest of ideological balkanization, impelled by social media.

On college campuses, people live side by side and thus must confront their differences out loud. This kind of debate is encouraged—the heart and soul of a liberal arts education is the critical examination of deeply held beliefs. Is it any wonder that the debate over inclusion seems so messy? And that only the messiest incidents go viral, not the quiet grappling that is underway to tame this complex topic?

Perhaps the first crucial action in the Access Era at Williams was the abolition of fraternities, which were a form of systemic exclusion. Passions ran high then; certainly on occasion they must have boiled over unproductively. But the issue was resolved, over roughly a decade, through a mix of passion, patience, problem-solving, strong leadership and a commitment to dialogue. Our Williams community is bringing these same tools to today’s inclusion challenge, and I am certain we will succeed in creating the inclusive community we all seek.

—Tom Gardner ’79, President, Society of Alumni
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