Some at Williams College object to ex-mayor Bloomberg's honorary degree


This article has been updated to add that four Williams College faculty members also serve on the committee in charge of recommending honorary degree recipients.

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Williams College's choice of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as an honorary degree recipient has drawn criticism from students and faculty.

Eighty faculty have signed an open letter showing their support to students who take issue with policies put in place during the Bloomberg administration and their objection to the selection.

Bloomberg, the billionaire entrepreneur who served three terms as mayor from 2002 and 2013, will also be the principal speaker at the 225th commencement exercises on campus this Sunday.

Professor of Political Science Gail Newman, one faculty member who signed the letter, stressed the faculty has no intention of suppressing free speech and would welcome the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with him.

"We are protesting the choice to honor Mr. Bloomberg," she said.

She and numerous students take issue with policies Bloomberg's administration supported, she said, such as the New York City Police Department's "Stop-Question-and-Frisk" program. Supporters of the program, in which law enforcement to stop pedestrians and frisk for weapons and other contraband, cite an overall reduction in crime under Bloomberg's administration. Critics, however, say the program unfairly profiles minorities.

Williams students organized numerous meetings, a protest, and circulated a petition to show their discontent over the choice, Newman said.

The letter was written collectively by faculty at a community meeting.

"For a good number of our students, what [Bloomberg] has come to stand for is very personal to them," Newman said. "Some of them, and/or their friends, have been profiled, targeted, and have experience living in New York City under his policies."

The letter refers to a section of the college's mission statement stating the goal of "welcoming and supporting in the College community people from all segments of our increasingly diverse society."

"Our policies and practices are premised on the idea that we want to have a diverse community," Newman said. "This choice flies in the face of that."

Bilal Ansari, Muslim chaplin and assistant director of the Center of Learning in Action, expressed his concern over the New York Police Department's spying on Muslims.

Mark Reinhardt, professor of political science, said he and others were concerned of the symbolism attached to giving Bloomberg an honorary degree.

"We are saying, ‘You now have a degree from Williams College,'" he said. "'You, like the Class of 2014, are graduating this year.'"

In an email on Thursday, James Kolesar, vice president for public affairs, wrote that anyone in the college community can nominate candidates for honorary degrees, including for commencement speaker and baccalaureate speaker.

The college's Honorary Degrees Committee works through consensus to recommend to the board of trustees a slate of recipients, he wrote. The committee includes four students, four faculty, five trustees, the chaplain, and the president.

"As speakers, the committee looks for candidates with prominent perspectives that are rare or unique," he wrote.

Kolesar acknowledged the choice of Bloomberg wasn't without controversy.

"I'd say that colleges are full of people with varying opinions and the freedom to express them," Kolesar wrote. "That's a big part of what makes colleges great places to learn and to work."

"No matter who you choose, some speakers will be more popular than others," Reinhardt said. "Our point isn't the college failed to pick someone everyone equally, or it's never good to choose someone controversial."

But the decision was insensitive to those who might have been on the receiving end of some policies, he said.

Bloomberg will be one of five honorary degree recipients at this weekend's commencement. Joining him will be author Karen Armstrong, trustee Greg Avis, physicist Steven Chu, and social activist Vishakha Desai.

To reach Edward Damon:,
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