When my fellow college presidents and I get together, we sometimes reminisce about what we miss from our previous lives. Personally, I miss the joy of being in the classroom full time. There’s nothing to match the thrill of leading a vibrant discussion in a roomful of earnest, thoughtful students.
Of course, there will be days when an idea doesn’t gel or the conversation peters out. Sometimes the heaviness of outside events can sap students’ enthusiasm for classroom debate. There’s a strong temptation for us as educators to fill those silences. But at Williams we know the power of pausing to give students the space to develop and test their own ideas.
I was thinking about this dynamic recently, given the somber mood on campus after the horrifying violence in Israel and Gaza. Students, like so many around the world, continue to struggle deeply with the loss and turmoil.
Many higher education leaders issued institutional statements in response to the events of Oct. 7 and their aftermath. I sent a different kind of message to the Williams community. I explained why I find college statements about world affairs to be highly problematic and how, even before the invasion of Ukraine, I had decided not to make them anymore. Among my reasons is the belief that our job is to teach students how to think—not what to think.
I don’t get to spend as much time in the classroom as I used to. But I try to think of my presidency as a new form of teaching. Instead of coaxing discussion from a dozen students around a seminar table, I seek to help make all of Williams a space where people can reflect, analyze, engage and communicate with one another. A place to encourage critical thinking, analysis, consideration of a wide range of viewpoints and a commitment to debate and discussion.
Right now, people are distressed. Some are speaking out in anger or defiance, while others are expressing grief or have turned inward. Many are scared in light of rising incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia.
It is incumbent on us, as educators, to encourage learning in such moments. That work is happening through classroom discussions, campus vigils, guest lectures and teach-ins. It is featured in informal conversations in dining halls and dorm lounges as well. Our goal is to create circumstances in which students can absorb the enormity of events and then try to make sense of them and work toward a better world.
The Williams campus is a classroom. And, as in any classroom, the easy days can be a joy. But often it’s the hard days that remind us how important our work is. Even in difficult times, I am grateful to be doing this urgent work with all of you.
Maud S. Mandel
Read President Mandel’s message to the community at bit.ly/wmspres1012.