May 30, 2019
Maud S. Mandel, Ph.D.
President, Williams College
Office of the President
880 Main Street
Hopkins Hall 3rd Floor
P.O. Box 687
Williamstown, Massachusetts 01267
Vice President for Campus Life
Williamstown, Massachusetts 01267
Re: Avoiding Future Discrimination at Williams College
Dear President Mandel and Vice President Klass,
We write to you on behalf of StandWithUs, an international, non-profit, Israel education organization. We are inspired by our love of Israel, our belief that education is the road to peace, and our commitment to stand up for Israel and the Jewish people when they are publicly attacked or misrepresented.
We write to follow up on our letter dated May 5, 2019 in regard to a Williams College (“Williams” or the “College”) student group, Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI), being denied recognition as a Registered Student Organization (RSO) by the Williams College Council (the “Council”). As you are aware, in addition to the discriminatory and antisemitic controversy surrounding this matter, WIFI’s rejection by your student leaders was politically motivated and violated numerous College and Council policies.
While we commend your administration for ultimately intervening and granting WIFI RSO status, there remains procedural ambiguity for this type of situation to reoccur. The College—perhaps intentionally—has two separate policies for granting formal RSO recognition. Although facially each policy appears straightforward and free of ambiguity, the Council’s recent conduct demonstrates both the existing tension between the two policies as well as the need for reevaluation and possible reform of current procedure.
According to the Student Life website, starting an RSO requires that students first fill out an application for formal recognition. From there, a committee of representatives from the following departments meet to review the RSO application: the Council; the Office of Student Life; the Office of the Vice President for Finance & Administration; and Athletics. After this meeting—consisting of both student leaders and College administrators—the listed contact on the RSO application is notified of a final decision.
Alternatively, the Council has a separate protocol for new student group formation. The group must first fill out a registration form. Then, presuming there are no similar groups in existence, it must hold an interest meeting open to the entire student body to gather signatures of interested students. Finally, it must create a constitution and ensure compliance with all requirements to become an RSO: that there is no substantially similar RSO in existence; that there is a reasonable level of widespread or sustained interest in the organization; and that its existence and constitution is not in violation with either the Council or Williams policy. From there, the organization is voted upon by the Council for formal recognition. Unlike the process for RSO recognition on the Student Life website, there is no meeting of various departments. This potentially grants the Council unfettered RSO ratification power.
To the best of our understanding, and based on information gathered in President Mandel’s May 3, 2019 letter, there was no initial meeting with various departments to discuss WIFI’s RSO application. Presumably this means that only the Council’s process for recognizing WIFI as an RSO was followed. Although WIFI complied with all Council regulations for RSO formation, the Council denied them RSO recognition, becoming the only student group in over ten years to be rejected, despite following proper protocol.
The Council’s decision for denying WIFI RSO status centered around WIFI’s refusal to take a stance on controversial and political issues surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict. This stance, astoundingly required by the Council but found nowhere in the Council’s criteria for RSO recognition, is completely outside the scope of either RSO policy. Nowhere does a group’s politics factor into written protocol for granting RSO recognition. Instead, the Council revised its policy in this particular instance in order to stifle a segment of the campus community for their support of the world’s only Jewish state. This is a grave abuse of power rooted in discrimination and antisemitism. The Council failed in a primary tenant of student governance, signaling that it does not deserve the privilege of unilateral decision-making authority in granting RSO recognition.
While we recognize the importance of student governance autonomy, there are many instances in which shared responsibility between administration and student leaders is called for. Now is one of those instances. We therefore recommend that you take this opportunity to clarify the College’s policy in granting RSO recognition and formally adopt the policy on the Student Life website as the College’s official formal policy. In doing so, you will reduce the likelihood of similar bigotry and discrimination from reoccurring on your campus. Additionally, you will send a clear message to your student leaders that abuse of their power will not be tolerated and will be met with consequences.
Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter. We look forward to a response to you by Friday, June 7, 2019.
CEO and Co-Founder, StandWithUs
Director, StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department