Campus Free Speech

Williams College Students Urge Boycott of the English Department, Claiming It Promotes Racist Violence

"The English Department has a long, well-documented, disturbing history of racism, sexism, transphobia, and other violences."


Some students at Williams College have called for a boycott of the English department because of the "racist violence" faced by women of color who have had the misfortune of studying and teaching there.

"We are receiving an inadequate education from the English Department that not only hinders our learning but also enables the Department's racist culture," write the boycott's leaders. "We are undergoing this boycott to create the pressure necessary to force the Department, and the Administration, to take these issues seriously and to redress past and current harm with urgency."

A website lists the activists' grievances, which are largely directed at Kathryn Kent, chair of the English program. Students believe Kent should have resigned after having the audacity to argue with another professor, Dorothy Wang. Wang had confronted Kent last April about the chair's failure to hold meetings that would address the department's "longstanding history of hostility toward faculty of color," according to The Williams Record. This irritated Kent, who snapped that Wang didn't know what she was talking about. Two Wang-sympathetic students who witnessed the incident told the paper they feared for her safety, and their own:

Kasulis, Wang and Zheng described the incident as emotionally harmful. "This is something that none of us are going to forget happened, and for a week afterward I would wake up in the middle of the night and think of it," said Kasulis, who reported that she was physically shaking throughout the incident.

According to the students, the incident confirmed what they felt were longstanding issues within the English department and a departmental culture of intimidation, fear, racism and disrespect toward FoC [faculty of color], and in particular FoC who specialize in academic fields relating to minority literature and other underrepresented disciplines.

Kent admitted it wasn't her finest moment and apologized for losing her temper, to no avail.

The boycott's organizers want the English department to submit to an outside investigation. They want a new chair, and they want four new tenure-track scholars who would teach African American, Latinx, Native American, and Asian American literature. This protest, which has received extremely favorable coverage in the local paper as well as Inside Higher Ed, calls to mind similar campaigns against allegedly Eurocentric curricula at other liberal arts colleges.

Students are well within their rights to demand greater diversity with respect to kinds of literature and ideas discussed in their classes. But that's no excuse for overdramatizing their struggles. Getting something other than the exact program they wanted is not the equivalent of suffering violence.

For more about student activists and their demands, check out my book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump.