Student government at Williams College refused to recognize a pro-Israel group

The student government at Williams College voted against the approval of a new, pro-Israel student group called Williams Initiative For Israel (WIFI). From Forward:

The student government of Williams College in Massachusetts voted last month not to recognize a pro-Israel club as an official student organization – the first time in more than ten years that a club complied with all relevant bylaws but failed to gain recognition status, The Williams Record reported.

The Williams College Council voted 13-8 not to recognize Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI) – and in a break from normal procedure, they conducted their vote by secret ballot and did not publish a livestream or attach speakers’ names to statements in the official minutes.

Student government meetings are usually live-streamed to create a record of their activity but in this case, no record of the vote was published to avoid creating a public record that might be used in news reports.

Prior to the actual debate in last week’s meeting, there was a discussion among Council members and guests concerning how the meeting would be recorded and archived given a flurry of recent national media coverage of College events. In particular, a livestream from a Council meeting earlier this month has been featured on a number of alt-right and white nationalist blogs and websites, and some College students have received explicit threats, according to both guests and CC members who spoke at the meeting. CC ultimately decided not to publish a livestream for the April 23 meeting and published meeting minutes without any speaker names in a document accessible only to students and faculty with Williams emails.

Here’s a description of how the meeting went according to the group’s supporters:

From the outset of the meeting, WIFI was vilified by multiple speakers, who conflated the club’s mission with what they called the “genocidal” and “apartheid” policies of the Israeli government. The speaking order mechanism of the CC meeting, which dictates that people be called upon to speak in the order in which they raise their hands, coupled with the fact that there were significantly more people speaking against the club than for it, made it virtually impossible for supporters of the club to contest these accusations, or to properly clarify the mission of the club. WIFI aims simply to promote education about Israel, celebrate Israeli cultural events, advocate for campus recognition of Israel’s right to exist and allow Williams students the opportunity to form their position regarding Israel for themselves…

CC is tasked with determining whether a proposed organization meets the required criteria to become an RSO; its role is not to evaluate the substance of what it perceives to be the organization’s ideas or positions. If any member of CC had such strong opinions about what they perceived to be WIFI’s political positions that they were unable to be impartial on the matter of the club’s approval, they should have recused themselves from the vote rather than vote the club down based on their own personal views.

After the vote to disallow the recognition of the group, Williams’ president Maud Mandel wrote a letter expressing her disappointment with the student government and basically agreeing that the decision had been made on political grounds:

The transcript of the debate and vote indicate that the decision was made on political grounds.

In doing so, Council departed from its own process for reviewing student groups, which at no point identifies a proposed group’s politics as a criterion for review. The decision also seems to be in tension with CC bylaws, especially Article V, Section 3: “Prohibition Against Discrimination in Student Organizations.”

We’ve always expected the Council to follow its own processes and bylaws. I’m disappointed that that didn’t happen in this instance.

Williams has recently been divided over a proposal to adopt the Chicago principles, a commitment to free speech which has been adopted by many campuses nationwide. From Inside Higher Ed:

Williams is in “meltdown,” said Luana S. Maroja, an associate professor of biology and one of the faculty members who led the charge for the college to endorse the Chicago principles, known formally as the University of Chicago’s “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression.” At least 60 entities — including colleges, universities and higher education systems — have embraced the Chicago principles since they were first introduced four years ago. The growing support for the principles is due in part to a promotional campaign by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties watchdog group…

The problems at the Massachusetts institution began in September with a panel discussion on free expression in which a well-known religious scholar took part. The scholar was Reza Aslan, a best-selling author and professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. Maroja, who attended the event, said Aslan dominated the conversation and made statements that baffled her, including that administrators should dictate what can and cannot be said on college campuses, and that only “factual talks” had a place in higher education. She said students cheered these remarks.

“This nonsense was met with intense student applause,” Maroja wrote in a blog post about the roundtable. “It was appalling.”

After that panel discussion, a group of professors drafted a petition to adopt the Chicago principles but a small group of students objected:

A group of about 20 students showed up, some carrying signs proclaiming “free speech harms” and other similar sentiments. Maroja said the students were disruptive and eventually started yelling at white, male professors to sit down and “acknowledge their privilege.” Maroja said she attempted to engage the students — as a Hispanic woman, she said she understood prejudice — and told them that shutting down speech they find offensive would only invigorate bigoted speakers.

The students were unpersuaded.

“Students were just screaming that we were trying to ‘kill them,’” Maroja said.

Williams is one of the most exclusive (and expensive, it was #12 on this list) colleges in the United States. It also has a reputation for being extremely progressive. It’s because of that outlook that opposition to principles of free speech (and to pro-Israel student groups) are cropping up at Williams as they have at other progressive schools. Williams is being impacted by larger trends on the left, one we’ve seen play itself out at Evergreen State, Claremont McKenna, Middlebury College, Berkeley, and many others.