May 5, 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: Deeply Troubling Recent Events at Williams College
Dear President Mandel and Vice President Klass,
We write on behalf of StandWithUs (SWU), an international, non-profit, Israel education organization. We are alarmed and concerned to learn that the student group, Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI) was denied recognition as a formal Registered Student Organization (RSO) by the Williams College Council (the “Council”). This decision is a blatant abuse of power by student leaders to silence a segment of the campus community because of its affiliation with the Jewish community and/or Israel. The Council’s conduct is flagrantly discriminatory against many Jewish students based on their religious and ethnic identities, and against Israeli students based on their national origin. Moreover, this decision has an indisputable antisemitic undertone. As a result, it potentially violates Williams College’s (“Williams” or the “College”) non-discrimination policy, its student code of conduct policy on individual rights, the Council’s bylaws and the Council’s process for recognizing RSOs, as described below. We encourage your administration to swiftly and publicly reject and reverse the Council’s decision and formally grant WIFI recognition as an official RSO at the College.
We are also disappointed that President Mandel’s letter of May 3, 2019, tries to excuse the Council’s discriminatory conduct on the grounds that WIFI can exist and operate at the College without official RSO status. This position sidesteps the greater issue and whitewashes the problem with the Council’s actions. WIFI complied with all procedures required to form an RSO and therefore should receive such status, as well as all, not most, services available to Williams RSOs. Denial of any benefit granted to RSOs is a form of de facto discrimination and should be rejected outright by your administration.
Violation of Council Protocol for New Student Group Formation
The Council’s protocol for new student group formation appears to be straightforward and free from ambiguity. 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.
As stated in President Mandel’s letter, “[t]he transcript of the debate and vote indicate that the decision was made on political grounds” rather than WIFI’s failure to comply with any RSO formation requirement. This statement does not go far enough. WIFI’s application for registration was rejected not because of mere political views but because of antisemitism. Zionism is the movement supporting Jewish rights to self-determination, and the Council’s rejection of WIFI as an RSO seeks to denigrate this vital aspect of mainstream Jewish identity for many Williams students. Williams’ student newspaper reported that this is the first time in over ten years that a group applying for RSO formation, and which complied with all applicable regulations, has been denied RSO recognition. Much of the debate for granting RSO status centered around WIFI’s refusal to take a stance on highly controversial issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in language that couched antisemitic slurs in the form of anti-Zionist rhetoric. This matter is clearly beyond the scope of Council protocol, violates viewpoint neutrality and ultimately stifles students from participating in an important component of campus life due to bias and discrimination.
Violation of Williams’ Non-Discrimination Statement
Williams’ Non-Discrimination Statement states, in part, that “Williams does not discriminate in …administration of its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, ancestry, or military service.”
The College strives to build and foster a “diverse and inclusive” environment for all members to grow and thrive. Yet the Council’s actions discriminate against many Jewish students based on their religious and ethnic identities, against Israeli students based on national origin, and against other students who may wish to participate freely in a fully recognized pro-Israel student organization. Because of the Council’s biases, these students are denied proper administration of College activities, including recognition as an RSO, in clear violation of the non-discrimination statement.
Furthermore, as you are undoubtedly aware, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides that “[n]o person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” The administration’s refusal to take prompt corrective action regarding the Council’s discriminatory decision, resulting in the denial of student activity benefits to WIFI members, may place the College in violation of this clear prohibition.
Violation of Williams’ Code of Conduct
Williams’ Code of Conduct applies to all students at the College. Its provision entitled “Individual Rights” states, in relevant part:
Williams College does not discriminate on grounds unrelated to its educational objectives; it is committed to being a community in which all ranges of opinion and belief can be expressed and debated, and within which all patterns of behavior permitted by the public law and College regulations can take place…. The College seeks to assure the rights of all to express themselves in words and actions, so long as they can do so without infringing upon the rights of others or violating standards of good conduct or public law.
Accepting membership in this community entails an obligation to behave with courtesy to others whose beliefs and behavior differ from one’s own; all members and guests of this community must be free of disturbance or harassment, including racial and sexual harassment.
The Council’s actions are a brazen attempt to silence students because of their political opinions and their Jewish and/or Israeli identities. While students are certainly entitled to maintain and express their own viewpoints, they may not do so in a discriminatory manner that “infring[es] upon the rights of others” with differing views. WIFI complied with RSO formation protocol. Its denial of RSO recognition was done in bad faith, constitutes blatant discrimination, and thus deliberately violates the individual rights of all WIFI members.
Violation of Council Bylaws
Article V, Section 3 of the Council’s bylaws expressly prohibits discrimination in student organizations. Subsection a) states:
Student organizations shall not, in any functions, discriminate based on immutable
characteristics including but not limited to race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual
orientation, gender identity, gender expression, veteran status, or disability. These functions include routine operations, attendance and/or participation in events, election or
appointment to club board positions and fulfillment of board role functions, club member
enrollment, and any other avenue through which Williams College students may join,
participate in, or otherwise interact with registered student clubs.
President Mandel’s letter alludes to a “tension” between the Council’s decision and this provision in the Council’s bylaws. To characterize this decision as involving merely “tension” with the Council’s bylaws is a gross understatement; the Council’s actions are blatantly discriminatory. The routine operation of the Council granting new organizations RSO recognition undoubtedly is covered in this provision, and by denying WIFI RSO status for discriminatory reasons the Council has violated this basic tenet of student governance.
In conclusion, it is imperative that your administration take all necessary steps to reject and reverse the Council’s discriminatory decision. We understand that President Mandel is trying to empower Williams’ students to right their own wrong. However, if this outcome had occurred against any other minority group, we strongly question whether her tone would remain as conciliatory toward the students who made that choice. While we recognize and appreciate the right to student governance autonomy and shared government, so too do we see the tremendous need for oversight to prevent abuse of that autonomy. The Council has patently abused its authority by discriminating against WIFI and denying it RSO recognition. We urge the administration to exercise its own authority within the College’s system of shared governance to correct this misstep.
Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter. We look forward to a response to you by Friday, May 10, 2019.
CEO and Co-Founder, StandWithUs
Director, StandWithUs Legal Department