Sunday, May 14, 2017

Unsafe at Any Speed: Should I Go to Williams College?

I’m a former Williams College political science professor. I highly recommend avoiding it. It is, of course, highly rated by U.S. News & World Report.

This is why I was once proud to teach there and why I suppose so many are still interested in attending it. Its frequent number one ranking, however, conceals a number of problematic aspects of the college which should factor into your decision-making regarding whether or not you should go to Williams.
First, it is ridiculously cold and isolated geographically. My stomach still turns into knots when I remember what it was like to drive from the airport in Albany, NY into Williamstown, MA. The only route was a thin, two-lane highway. In the winter it was covered with ice and snow. The roads to both the north, south and east were also windy, tiny and inadequate. While I was teaching there one of my students died in a winter car accident. The road to the east was so bad that it had what they called a Deadman’s Curve, and it was indeed a place where there had been frequent accidents and deaths. Even in town, I remember the roads were narrow and dangerous. During my first year on the campus, one of my colleagues in the political science department was killed in a car accident as he made a short one-line commute back to his home.
Second, it is unbelievably cliquish. Because the campus is small and isolated you will quickly find that living there means that you are quickly identified, sorted out, accepted or isolated, and conveniently locked into place. For those who settle in the area, the rule of thumb is that you are not accepted by the locals until you are a third generation inhabitant.
The social pressures for ideological conformity are immense and thoroughly enforced on the campus. In particular, Williams College has a long-standing hostility to conservative students, speakers, and scholars. If you are a Christian, a Republican, a conservative or even a middle of the road liberal Democrat, then I highly recommend you find another place to study unless you want to endure four years of hostility and stigma.
The school has recently been in the news for banning conservative speakers including the relatively innocuous Suzanne Venker.
Third, if you are interested in parties and the opposite sex, then I also recommend against attending Williams College. At this school, being in a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship is discouraged by the social pressures which assume that such relationships are unhealthy and probably interfering with one’s academic advancement. The women who were interested in men, in my experience, were mainly interested in dating older men who had good jobs and good careers in nearby urban areas like New York or Boston. For the life of me, I cannot remember if any of the students I taught while I was there from 1986 to 1989 even went out on dates.
The social environment has apparently gotten even worse since I taught at Williams College by new rules and bureaucratic policies which appear to me to place young men at danger of being labeled as rapists simply because they had consensual sex with a girl who has been drinking. If I had a son, Williams College would be among the last places on Earth I would send him for school. As far as I am concerned Williams College is an unsafe environment for young men.
Fourth, the geographic isolation means there is little to do that is fun or interesting off campus. I remember being so bored while I taught there that I would get in my car and drive to the top of the nearby Mt. Greylock to enjoy a view of the surrounding area at the height of 3,491 feet. The nearby city of North Adams is an extremely depressing, poor, rotted out post-industrial population center.
Fifth, perhaps because there is so little to do in the area, the school has a bad reputation for out-of-control drug use. It was, in fact, once rated among the top ten druggiest colleges in the nation.
Ironically, when I taught at Williams College, one of the students I most enjoyed mentoring and working with as an adviser turned out to be one of the very top drug dealers on campus.
Sixth, I believe there is a lot of mental illness on the campus. I think it is an unhappy place because of the bad weather, the substance abuse, the atheism, the cliques, and the low social IQ’s of many of its bright, but immature inhabitants. It is the sort of place where young, unstable students flame out and end up taking five years instead of four years to finish their college educations. One ex-president of the college, Harry C. Payne, jumped to his death from the eighth floor of a hotel. While I taught at Williams one of the science professors killed himself by releasing deadly gas in his airtight car. As I recall a second professor also killed himself around that time although I did not remember the details. Maybe I was just teaching there at a bad time.
Finally, I would observe that the U.S. News and World Report rankings seem to be heavily dependent on a school’s endowment. I can confirm that Williams College is awash in money. There are plenty of resources available there to the students and the faculty. Thanks to all this money, it is a wonderful place to spend the summer if you are there when the students are gone and the community is packed with movie stars and celebrities who are part of the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
To be sure, not all my memories of the place are negative. I finished up my award-winning thesis while I taught there. I had good friends in the local community and incredible spiritual support from folks I met off campus including an inspiring Quaker group which met up north in nearby Vermont. (Although, come to think of it, I ran my car off the road and into a ditch while driving back from a meeting.)
My neighbors were some of the friendliest and nicest people I have ever known. The students, by far, were the best part of my campus experience. It was fun to teach such bright, energetic young people. Nevertheless, knowing what I know now, I would never have accepted a job there. I got sucked in by the prestige and underestimated how much I would miss a safe, sane, high quality of life.
My recommendation? Look for another college or university. Preferably a college or university near a big city where you can get lost, enjoy some anonymity, and lead a healthy, balanced life. Williams College is a great place to visit over the summer, but a terrible place to spend four years of your life.

John C. Drew, Ph.D. is an award-winning political scientist.

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