Last month, late on the Saturday night of homecoming weekend at elite Williams College, some unknown person scrawled a highly unpleasant and ugly graffito on the wall of an upper floor of a student dormitory. The dreaded “N-word” figured prominently in the message, so written to generate the maximum incendiary impact.
Adam Falk, president of the College, was instantly on the case: “A great deal of harm has been done by this vile act,” he said in a public letter to the grieving Williams Community, which was wracked by this horrible, horrible incident. “Since there is no excuse for behavior so offensive, hateful, and harmful — anywhere, but especially at Williams — we will continue to do all that we can to hold the perpetrator(s) accountable.”
He cancelled classes and athletic practice for the following Monday, using the day as an opportunity for “healing” and to teach about the evils of racism and how such attitudes would not be tolerated on his campus. The Counseling Center, Chaplain’s Office, and Multicultural Center advertised psychological help for students who might feel traumatized by this “shock.” A group of students marched to the local police station to demand that the police aid campus security in investigating this “hate crime.” Eventually, even the FBI — the FBI! — was enlisted to investigate this “horrifying,” “vile,” “hateful,” “offensive,” “harmful” act.
A bit of an overreaction? I think so, which is why I wrote a note about the incident for the December The New Criterion. The hysteria continues unabated in bucolic Williamstown. One student who posted several comments on a student website dilating on the “hypocrisy” of race relations at Williams earned the attention of the Dean’s Office: “The posts that I put up on this thread,” he wrote,
got me noticed by the Dean’s office as a suspicious person and I was brought in for an interrogation by the FBI and Sergeant McGowan explicitly because of them the Sunday before reading period. “You seem to be a fairly vocal poster on the online message boards.” They asked for a polygraph test, DNA test, the works.
Think about it: A student expresses his opinion about something. The administration doesn’t like his opinion. Ergo, the administration turns him over to the FBI for interrogation.
That was the way they did things in Stalin’s Russia, but many of us thought a different tradition regarding freedom of expression prevailed in American colleges.
When the “vile,” “offensive,” “hateful” graffito was discovered, two hypotheses crystalized to account for it. The first hypothesis, quickly embraced by President Falk (a physicist) and the more vocal parts of the administration, was that there exists a racist sub-culture at Williams. The idea was that the message was written by a bigot to intimidate minority students on campus. Indeed, many students claimed that the message amounted to a “death threat” against minority students.
What do you think? Is elite Williams College (all in, it will cost you — or whoever’s paying — more than $55,000 per annum to attend) a seething cauldron of racist, sexist attitudes? Or do you reckon it is, like most elite educational institutions, a farm specializing in coddling a herd of well-fed, complacent, eminently politically correct sheep — that “herd of independent minds” the art critic Harold Rosenberg spoke of, lo, these many years ago?
I incline to the latter option. I think you’d have to look far and wide at Williams to discover anyone harboring or espousing anything so outré as a racist opinion. Which is why, when the story of this vile, harmful, terrible, offensive, violent example of hate speech was first announced and President Adam Falk publicly promised to discover and hold accountable the “perpetrator(s),” I had to wonder whether he was being entirely prudent.