The college is seeing measurable results in its work to expand access to students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds

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Begins the Quest

By Michael Blanding ’95

“I feel like I can literally go anywhere in the world.”

Like many of his classmates, Jonathon Burne ’17 expressed a sense of possibility as he prepared to graduate in June. But for the Arabic studies and political science major, who is headed to New York for a fellowship in immigration law, the words carried a deeper meaning.

Portrait of Jonathon Burne, Class of 2017, with his arms crossed and looking off into the distance.
Jonathon Burne ’17 is headed to New York City for a fellowship in immigration law. (Photo by Mark McCarty)

Before coming to Williams, he had neither traveled outside Southern California nor considered an elite four-year college as an option.

Burne’s mother emigrated to the U.S. from Honduras. His father grew up in a middle-class family in Orange County. They met when she became his drug addiction counselor. A few years after Burne was born, his parents began using methadone and heroin together. Then they began manufacturing drugs and ended up in jail.

Burne went to live with his paternal grandparents. His grandfather was a linguistics professor and instilled in him a love of reading. Burne’s parents divorced soon after they got out of jail, and Burne bounced between Los Angeles and Orange County. He attended five different school systems while navigating ongoing instability in his family.

In high school, his honors history teacher told him about QuestBridge, a program that connects academically qualified students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds with highly selective colleges. The opportunity seemed inconceivable to him.

“I had no way to conceptualize the idea of free money for college,” says Burne. “Yet there was a community of people who had come from backgrounds similar to mine and found ways to thrive.”

He joined Williams’ Class of 2017 with nine other QuestBridge students receiving full scholarships. Another 50 students affiliated with the program, who received nearly full scholarships, enrolled as well.

In four short years, Burne traveled to seven different countries through Winter Study courses and summer fellowships. He spent the spring semester of his junior year in Amman, Jordan. He stayed on for a summer internship with an international development law firm and enrolled at a Jordanian institute for language studies. The experiences reaffirmed his “commitment to serving vulnerable migrant populations through academic, humanitarian and legal advocacy,” he says.

When Burne and his classmates crossed the stage at Williams’ 228th Commencement, the college celebrated the graduation of its 400th QuestBridge student since joining the program in 2004. It’s just one of a number of initiatives at Williams that, over the past several decades, have added up to measurable results—not only in broadening access for exceptional low-income students but also in building the most talented and diverse student body possible.

“Socioeconomic diversity isn’t a nice add-on,” says Williams President Adam Falk. “It’s essential to every element of our mission to have a broad impact on the world. If we’re going to be relevant to society in the century to come, we have to educate students from every part of that society.”

Higher education is widely considered to be a powerful engine of upward mobility. But a growing body of research is calling into question how well colleges and universities fulfill that role. One series of studies comes from The Equality of Opportunity Project, led by Stanford economist Raj Chetty. The research, published earlier this year, shows that it’s increasingly difficult for people born after 1980 to move up the economic ladder and achieve more than their parents did.

Another Chetty study shows that the “opportunity gap” is growing, especially among the nation’s 38 elite colleges and universities. Approximately one in four of the richest students—those in the top 1 percent of the income distribution—attends an elite college, compared to less than half of 1 percent of the poorest students—those in the bottom fifth of the income scale.

“If you look at access at elite colleges in the last 20 years or so, there’s been virtually no change,” says Benny Goldman, a pre-doctoral fellow on the research team.

Williams is one of a handful of schools that are the exception, Goldman says. Comparing the Class of 2003 to the Class of 2011, the share of students from the bottom three-fifths of the household income distribution increased from 14 to 20 percent. And the share from the bottom fifth of the scale increased from 2.5 to 5 percent.

“That’s a doubling of representation,” Goldman says. “It’s clear Williams has made quite a bit of progress.”

The progress rests in part on a solid financial foundation. Williams is one of only 44 schools in the country that practices need-blind admission and meets 100 percent of demonstrated need, awarding $52 million in scholarships each year. To do this, the college has more than quadrupled its financial aid budget over the past 15 years, offering aid to 4,000 students during that time.

Portrait of Jared Currier, Class of 2009. He leans against a white pillar and is looking at the camera with one hand in his pocket. Short brown hair and short beard.
Jared Currier ’09 received an MBA at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and now works in marketing at General Mills. (Photo by Ryan Donnell)

Access is also a focus in Teach It Forward: The Campaign for Williams, a $650 million fundraising effort now in its third year. The college set a goal of $150 million in endowed support for financial aid, with an eye toward endowing the entire program over several decades.

But financial aid alone can’t move the needle on accessibility, which Williams recognized not long after it established its need-blind admission policy in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE) ranked its 35 members—private liberal arts schools that were highly selective and need blind—according to the percentage of students receiving aid of any kind. Williams was second from last, with 28 percent.

“It was upsetting,” says Tom Parker ’69, then Williams’ associate director of admission. “We asked some hard questions about why.”

Williams convened a financial aid task force, which set a goal of increasing the number of aided students to 40 percent by 1990. The admission office cast a wider net in recruiting and began using student data from the College Board to target communications about financial aid to academically qualified, low-income students.

Meanwhile, in 1989, a group of Williams economists, including Catharine Bond Hill ’76, launched the Williams Project on the Economics of Higher Education to examine accessibility more broadly. Funded with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and often using Williams as a test case, the researchers published data-driven books, articles and working papers on a number of topics, including whether low-income students underperformed their more affluent peers academically (they didn’t); what low-income students at COFHE schools paid out of pocket for tuition (too much, prompting Williams to virtually eliminate loans from aid packages); and whether there really were enough high-ability, low-income students out there to meet enrollment targets (there were).

So, if the academically qualified students were out there, and the financial aid was readily available to them, why weren’t they applying to Williams—or to any other highly selective schools? That question has driven much of the college’s work on accessibility.

Portrait of Naya-Joi Martin from the Class of 2009. She is facing to the left with a big smile and has black curly hair and hoop earrings. The photo is taken from the shoulders up.
Naya-Joi Martin ’09 has a business degree from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School and now works for its admission office. (Photo by Kay Hinton/Emory Photo)

Each year, an estimated 30,000 students from low- and moderate-income backgrounds are academically qualified to attend Williams and its peer institutions. Yet many of these students don’t apply to a single highly selective college.

Some don’t know these schools exist or are a viable option. Some are overwhelmed by the admission and financial aid processes. Some are reluctant to disclose socioeconomic information or lack something in their applications—an essay or references—that provides information about their backgrounds or circumstances.

Enter QuestBridge. In 1987, Stanford undergraduates Marc Lawrence and Michael McCullough began bringing economically disadvantaged high school students from East Palo Alto to campus each day for college-level classes and clinical experiences. The program soon grew into a five-week residency for high schoolers around the country that continues to this day. But McCullough felt the program didn’t reach far enough.

He and his future wife, Ana, developed QuestBridge in response. “There was so much interest in what we were doing and so many students that could use the support in ways that we knew how to do,” Ana McCullough says.

The “bridge” in QuestBridge is simple. The program identifies exceptional students who meet the criteria for admission at one of its highly selective college partners and helps those students apply to the college of their choice. The colleges, meanwhile, provide full scholarships to QuestBridge “matches” and meet the demonstrated need for a larger pool of students who just miss the financial qualifications for a full scholarship.

Amherst, where Parker joined the admission office in 1999 after serving as admission director at Williams, was one of the first schools to join QuestBridge in 2003.

“The faculty advisory committee was overwhelmed,” he says of response to the first matches’ credentials. “They said, ‘Here’s a kid with a 1390 on the SATs where English isn’t spoken in the home. We’d love to teach this kid.’”

Williams, where Hill was serving as provost, joined a year later and welcomed 14 matches to the Class of 2009. Among them was Jared Currier ’09, who grew up in a tiny logging town in Maine and worked after school at the restaurant where his mother worked, and Naya-Joi Martin ’09, who says her mother, a touring backup singer, made possible Martin’s private school education and extracurricular lessons in the Bronx. (Read their stories and others in “The Quest Continues.”)

Successful QuestBridge applicants are usually in the top 5 or 10 percent of their class academically and take the most rigorous classes offered by their schools. They typically come from households with incomes less than $65,000 per year, and they’re often the first in their family to attend a four-year college. The students may demonstrate an “unusually high level of family responsibility (caring for siblings or working to support the family),” as the program’s website states, and they’re involved in leadership or community activities.

Their applications include information about their schools—such as how many students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and what programs are offered—as well as directed essay questions that help admission officers get a more complete picture of their circumstances and how the students might transition to college.

“In the traditional application, the onus is on the student to share any information they want to about their socioeconomic status or their family life,” says Liz Creighton ’01, Williams’ dean of admission and financial aid. “The QuestBridge application prompts the student to talk about their lived experience and reflect on how it has impacted their life. It helps the applicant understand that admission officers want to gain a deeper understanding of their story and that the information will be used to help contextualize the rest of their application.”

Providing such context has a measurable impact on students’ chances of being admitted to college. Mike Bastedo, director of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan, found that providing consistent high school data increased an economically disadvantaged student’s chances of being admitted by 25 percent. Admission staff had “a better sense of what the student accomplished relative to what opportunities were available,” he says.

The number of QuestBridge scholars at Williams has steadily increased since Burne and his classmates joined the Class of 2017, from 60 in his cohort to 77 in the incoming Class of 2021. To help cover their tuition, the Class of 1969, Parker’s class, is supporting financial aid for QuestBridge as part of its 50th reunion gift.

QuestBridge is just one of a number of programs and policies implemented over the years aimed at making the college more accessible, or “need-seeking,” Falk says.

“Because low-income high school students don’t have access to the same resources as their more affluent peers, we know we have to affirmatively seek them out if we want to enroll them at Williams,” he says. “We’re not blind to their economic circumstances. We’re actively looking for students who need financial assistance.”

Creighton now oversees both admission and financial aid to better align the college’s efforts to be need-seeking. Williams also created a deanship dedicated to supporting first-generation and low-income students. (The incoming Class of 2021 has the highest percentage of first-generation students ever, 20 percent.)

“For each of the 550 students we enroll, there are 550 sets of needs and experiences,” Creighton says. “One of the beauties of a small school like Williams is that we can be high touch and responsive to individual student needs.” Says Falk, “We have to make sure that every student, whatever their economic circumstance, understands and believes that all of the resources of the college are there for them. It’s absolutely essential that low-income students develop a sense of ownership that can come so easily to others—that this is my college, and it’s here for me.” The college helps remove barriers to accessibility with need-based grants covering study abroad, Winter Study courses, independent research and summer internships. Textbooks and course materials are free for all aided students, and there’s need-based funding for job interviews and graduate school visits and preparation.

To make it easier for high school students from low-income families to visit campus, the college offers Windows on Williams in the fall, a three-day, all expenses-paid program. Students attend classes, meet with faculty and undergraduates, stay in the residence halls and attend workshops on admission and financial aid. A similar program called Previews is held in the spring for admitted students. Those who enroll can also participate in the Summer Science or Summer Humanities and Social Sciences programs, five-week mini-semesters to introduce them to life as college students.

“These may be the only opportunities many students have for an immersive experience on a college campus before they arrive for their first year,” Creighton says.

It was a Windows on Williams visit that first brought Burne to campus before he submitted his QuestBridge application. He says he struggled at first to adjust to the unfamiliar landscape. But a conversation about Marxism with English professor Christian Thorne in the Faculty House dining room during the visit sealed the deal for him.

“I was doing all these readings by myself and never had a chance to vocalize what I was learning,” Burne says. “It was hard to walk away after that and say that I would not like to come here.”

Michael Blanding ’95 is a Boston-based freelance writer.

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Psychology professor Catherine Stroud shares her research on the development of depression in adolescent girls

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Depression in Adolescent Girls

Associate Professor of Psychology Catherine Stroud recently completed a three-year longitudinal study examining the development of depression in adolescent girls. With the help of Williams undergraduates—whom she trained in interview and coding techniques—Stroud collected data about girls’ stress levels, their responses to stress and whether their responses can correlate with the development of depression.

WILLIAMS MAGAZINE: How did you set up your study?

CATHERINE STROUD: I knew from the outset that I wanted to take an integrative approach to trying to understand how depression develops. We followed 132 mother-daughter pairs over three years, starting when the girls were approximately 12 years old, before symptoms of depression typically emerge. We investigated the interplay of biological factors, interpersonal relationships and psychological factors, such as emotion regulation and personality. For example, we collected girls’ saliva to index cortisol levels, the main stress hormone in the body, as well as genetic factors involved in sensitivity to stress. We also interviewed the girls and their mothers about stressful experiences and coded the severity of those experiences to measure stress levels in the most objective way possible. And we examined aspects of girls’ family environments and their use of different emotion regulation strategies, such as rumination—the tendency to get stuck in a repetitive cycle of negative thoughts.

WILLIAMS: What did you discover?

STROUD: We found that girls who experienced higher levels of adversity in childhood had more symptoms of depression and anxiety as adolescents. Also, girls with certain genetic factors were more susceptible to stress in their relationships, such that they experienced greater depressive symptoms under high stress levels but lower depressive symptoms under low stress levels. And girls who ruminated more generated higher levels of stress in their relationships, such as conflicts and romantic relationship break-ups, which likely increases their risk of developing depression.

WILLIAMS: What surprised you about your findings?

STROUD: I was surprised by the effect parenting can have on the development of depression. We examined the ways in which mothers helped their daughters cope with stressful life events, and we found a connection between mothers’ coping suggestions and daughters’ tendency to ruminate. Adolescent girls tended to ruminate more when their mothers suggested using distraction or avoidance to cope with stressful situations. In contrast, the girls tended to ruminate less when their mothers suggested using problem-solving techniques or accessing social support. In other words, providing suggestions to face the stressor may have helped adolescents to resolve the problem, allowing them to let go rather than get stuck in negative thoughts.

WILLIAMS: What advice do you have for girls and their parents?

STROUD: Adolescent girls are going to face stress in their lives, and we need to help them use adaptive coping strategies to promote their resiliency in the face of such stress. One way to do this is by coaching parents to encourage their daughters to engage with the problem as well as seek the support of others rather than using strategies such as denial and distraction. But it’s important to keep in mind that my work to date has not attempted to tease apart which factor is the cause and which is the consequence. It may be the case that girls who engage in greater rumination are more likely to elicit disengagement suggestions from their mothers, who are only trying to help them to stop negative thought patterns.

—Interview by Julia Munemo

Illustration: Joey Guidone

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Search committee formed to begin the process of selecting Williams’ 18th president

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About the Search

To the Williams Community,

I hope you are all enjoying the last days of summer, and looking forward, as I am, to the new academic year.

As you know, President Adam Falk recently announced that he will leave Williams at the end of December to become president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. In my role as chair of the college’s Board of Trustees, I have been asked by the Board to lead our search for Adam’s successor. I am writing today to inform you of our considerable progress in organizing the process, and to share with you our plan for interim college leadership beginning in January of 2018, which was approved by the Board of Trustees yesterday.

First, I am pleased to inform you that Protik (Tiku) Majumder, Barclay Jermain Professor of Natural Philosophy and Director of the Science Center, has graciously agreed to serve as interim president, starting January 1, 2018, and continuing until the new president is in place. Tiku has an outstanding record as a Williams teacher and mentor, scientist, and faculty leader, and just as importantly has earned wide trust and respect across the Williams community. Our objective was to find an interim president with a keen understanding of our institution; a love of Williams, of its students, and of its faculty; enormous patience, tact, and insight; and an ability to respond with intelligence, compassion, and calm to the inevitable challenges that will arise from time to time. Tiku has each of these qualities, and many more. He will do a superb job of keeping Williams on track, and I ask you to join me in thanking him and supporting his leadership. 

Second, we have formed a Presidential Search Committee whose charge will be to present to the Board of Trustees one or more exceptional and thoroughly vetted candidates to become our next president, and to ensure that every member of the Williams community has an opportunity to give input with respect to qualities that we should be seeking, as well as to offer nominations. The Search Committee includes representatives from every sector of our community: students, staff, alumni, faculty, and trustees. Several members are also Williams parents. As their backgrounds indicate, each brings deep involvement with the College. Service on the committee will require significant time and effort, and I am personally grateful to the members for their dedication to Williams and their willingness to take on this essential task.

The members of the committee are:

Michael Eisenson ’77, Trustee and Chair of the Search Committee
O. Andreas Halvorsen ’86, Trustee
Clarence Otis, Jr. ’77, Trustee
Kate L. Queeney ’92, Trustee
Liz Robinson ’90, Trustee
Martha Williamson ’77, Trustee

Ngonidzashe Munemo, Associate Dean for Institutional Diversity and Associate Professor of Political Science
Peter Murphy, John Hawley Roberts Professor of English
Lucie Schmidt, Professor of Economics
Tom Smith ’88, Professor of Chemistry
Safa Zaki, Professor of Psychology

Chris Winters ’95, Associate Provost

Jordan G. Hampton ’87, President, Society of Alumni
Yvonne Hao ’95, alumna and Trustee Emerita

Ben Gips ’19, student representative
Sarah Hollinger ’19, student representative

Keli Gail, Secretary of the Board of Trustees and principal staff to the committee

Third, the board has retained the firm Spencer Stuart as consultant, to help manage the search process. Spencer Stuart has been involved in numerous recent and successful academic searches at the highest levels, and is very well positioned to help the committee in its work. Searches like this are complex and sensitive, and we expect to benefit greatly from their expertise, specialized resources, and pool of outstanding candidates.

The Search Committee will begin its work shortly, and we will announce opportunities for community input as these are developed. As a first step, we have created a website where you can find information and materials related to the search. We will add to the site as additional materials are available, as further process steps are scheduled, and as we have news to share. Our future email updates will link back to this site as the place of record for search news.

On behalf of the Board of Trustees, I want to again thank the members of the Presidential Search Committee for the work they are about to do, and Tiku Majumder for his service as interim president. I also want to convey to our entire community our enthusiasm and optimism as we set out to find the 18th president of Williams College.

Sincerely,

Michael Eisenson ’77
Chair, Williams College Board of Trustees

 

Learn about past Williams presidents

 

 

Visit the presidential search website

The Williams community welcomes the Class of 2021 to First Days

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Welcome, Class of 2021!

The Williams community welcomes the Class of 2021 to First Days

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Professors discuss how the evolution of martyrdom over 13 centuries informs our understanding of ISIS

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The Face of Sacrifice

Before you can understand ISIS, you need to understand the evolution of martyrdom over 13 centuries of Middle Eastern history and culture. Plus: Take a look at some of the key historical moments that shaped Afghan history and the changing definition of martyrdom

“The central question that has arisen out of my preoccupation with the war in Afghanistan … is how it happened that men (and sometimes even women and children) would come to consider it a good thing to strap bombs onto their bodies, walk into crowded places and trigger the bombs, knowing not only that they will lose their own lives but also that they will take with them a large number of strangers.” So writes David Edwards, the James N. Lambert ’39 Professor of Anthropology, in his book Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan. Published in May by University of California Press, the book explores that question. The answer, Edwards says, lies not in psychology or pathology but in understanding Afghan history and the changing definition of martyrdom. In the spring, Edwards and Professor of History Magnus Bernhardsson taught a new course, The Challenge of ISIS. The two spoke with political science professor Ngonidzashe Munemo about how ritual sacrifice in Afghanistan has evolved from a form of peacemaking to a deadly public spectacle.

NGONIDZASHE MUNEMO: We should start by talking about the role of sacrifice in Afghan culture.

DAVID EDWARDS: Sacrifice has an important and long-established place in Afghan culture. Each year Afghans celebrate the Eid-i Qurban—the Feast of the Sacrifice—which commemorates the Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God. And as long as anyone can remember, animals have been slaughtered as a ritual to please God or to bring about peace. In Afghanistan, if there were two feuding tribes, and one side wanted to stop the feud, they would take a sheep to their enemy and sacrifice the sheep. It was a way of switching registers from physical violence to talking.

MUNEMO: You tell the story of how you and an Afghan friend were traveling with a former jihad commander in 1995. You spent the night in the friend’s village, and your guards, mistakenly thinking they were under attack, almost massacred your whole group. What happened next?

EDWARDS: My friend’s father led the sheep to where we had been sleeping. He matter-of-factly recited some prayers and calmly cut its throat, letting the blood spill on the ground. I was struck by the power of that ritual. We could have been killed the night before, and the sheep was our qurbani, our sacrifice, for having stayed alive another day. It was a substitute for us.

MUNEMO: At what point do you think the use of surrogates or substitutes like sheep or goats in the larger, societal sacrifice became inadequate or insufficient?

EDWARDS: What we’re seeing now—the Taliban, 9/11, ISIS—began in Peshawar in the early 1980s. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, a lot of Afghans, particularly in the tribal areas along the border where I’ve done my research, went into the war thinking it would be something like what they’d known before, like a feud, but this time with the state. The Afghans would show their bravery, demonstrate their prowess and gain the reputation of great warriors. But they encountered a different kind of war—a mechanical, industrial war—where they were bombed and civilians were as likely to die as warriors. They had to find some way of grappling with the fact that lots of people were dying. At that point, martyrdom became a central motif in Afghan culture.

MUNEMO: How did that happen?

EDWARDS: One faction within the mujahidin resistance—the young Islamists, the precursors to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS—recognized the potency of martyrdom as a resource to increase their own power and legitimacy, because they didn’t have traditional sources of power such as being respected clerics or Sufi leaders. The faction essentially created a cult of martyrdom, publishing magazines and propaganda material around it and generally promoting martyrdom. An important second stage was introduced by Abdullah ‘Azzam, the Jordanian founder of al-Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden. Between them, the two turned martyrdom from a retrospective conferral of status upon the dead into a desired state to be pursued actively and single-mindedly. They did this by recounting stories and writing books about the fabulous miracles associated with the Arab martyrs who died in Afghanistan. As a result, young men started coming to Afghanistan specifically to emulate these martyrs and be killed in battle. 9/11 would be impossible without the changing conception of martyrdom in which people saw death as their desired fate.

MUNEMO: Arabs play a critical role in this transformation in the meaning of martyrdom. Yet these transformations are happening, initially, outside of Afghanistan. How do the two currents come together and seep into this territory and grab hold?

EDWARDS: ‘Azzam was a Palestinian Jordanian and wanted to do battle with Israel back in the 1970s. But he was discouraged that the Palestinian parties were very secular. This was the age of Arafat and the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the liberation movement presented an opportunity. ‘Azzam visited for the first time in 1984 and saw it as a place where his vision of global jihad could be initiated. He popularized the idea that jihad was not an option but rather an obligation—not just for Afghan Muslims but for all Muslims. In addition to the fact that the Afghans were battling the Soviet superpower, Afghanistan has a larger, symbolic significance in the history of Islam. Afghanistan is also known as Khorasan, and many ancient legends, some associated perhaps apocryphally with the Prophet Muhammad, say that the Mahdi will arise out of Khorasan and lead his troops into the final battle that will signal the end of history as we know it and the beginning of the reign of God. These were resources that ‘Azzam and bin Laden both drew on to recruit Muslims from all over the place, mostly Arabs from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries but also Chechens, Indonesians and Filipinos. This was the first generation of the global jihad that began in Afghanistan. One of the people who came in 1989 was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the organization that later morphed into ISIS. He was inspired by an Afghan political leader who spoke fluent Arabic, and he was motivated, like a lot of other people, to go to Afghanistan to fight in this jihad. That’s where ISIS begins its fateful story.

MAGNUS BERNHARDSSON: Keep in mind that, while all of this was going on in Afghanistan in the 1980s, there was also a protracted, bloody civil war in Lebanon. Really it was an international war. And there was the long and bloody Iran-Iraq War, where notions of martyrdom also emerged and were institutionalized by the Iranian government, in particular. What was going on in Afghanistan wasn’t happening in complete isolation. There were various fires, and people were experimenting with using sacrifice both passively and actively as an instrument of violence.

EDWARDS: Suicide bombing as a technique began not in Afghanistan but in Sri Lanka and among the Palestinians.

BERNHARDSSON: And also in the Iran-Iraq War. The Islamic Republic of Iran manipulated traditional notions of martyrdom to justify specific war strategies and tactics. They introduced human wave attacks to strike fear in the Iraqis—the people they were fighting against—and to involve their own population in fighting a final battle against the godless Iraqi.

EDWARDS: For Iranians, though, martyrdom was embedded in the DNA of the religion. The central origin story of Shia Islam is around the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

BERNHARDSSON: But in the military sense, it had never been mobilized like that before. The Iranian government framed the Iran-Iraq War as the enactment of what happened in Karbala in the 7th century. Thus they nationalized the 7th-century martyrdom of Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, for modern purposes.

EDWARDS: Afghanistan didn’t have that tradition. Martyrdom wasn’t encoded in the culture the way it was in Iran. Afghans were far more concerned with showing bravery in battle than in dying for their faith.

BERNHARDSSON: Yes. And the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan provided a lesson for the Afghans about the power of the fear of death. The Soviets felt they couldn’t sacrifice their people anymore. It wasn’t really worth it for them. And so, when the war against the Soviet Union was over and the Americans began to play a bigger role in Middle Eastern affairs, bin Laden had the idea that the U.S. would not have the stomach for a long battle. He believed that the U.S. had a very low tolerance for death, post-Vietnam, and would prove to be a relatively easy enemy to defeat, particularly given the eagerness of his adherents to die in battle.

A photograph of a Muslim man covering his face with his hands. A small part of his eye is still visible. Taken after he chose not to blow himself up in a vehicle but turned himself into police instead.
Habad was 22 years old and living in Waziristan when he was sent to Afghanistan in 2009 on a suicide bombing mission. He planned to blow himself up in a vehicle after encountering American troops, but when he saw the many Afghan officers there, too, he decided he couldn’t risk killing his “Muslim brothers.” He turned himself in to local police and expects to be in prison for 20 years.

EDWARDS: Bin Laden was especially influenced by the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993, where the U.S. immediately left Mogadishu right after the failed rescue operation in which a number of soldiers were killed. Many say the legacy of the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia was a continuing reluctance on the part of the U.S. to be drawn into other trouble spots.

BERNHARDSSON: Bin Laden was also influenced by the 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marine compound in Lebanon. The bombing was a simple operation traced to Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist militant group and political party based there. And the superpower—the U.S.—left.

MUNEMO: So now sacrificial violence has evolved from being on the fringes to something much more central.

EDWARDS: In the late 1990s, the Taliban were mounting public executions in Kabul stadium, the soccer stadium. At the time, it seemed so outrageous, so out of bounds. ISIS has exceeded that in terms of horror, in terms of clearly intending to create public spectacles that trample on every norm of human decency and civility. ISIS seems to be trying to imitate the worst kind of genre horror pictures. Students come into our class with this image of ISIS, and one of the things Magnus and I try to do—and I do this in the book as well—is bring the conversation back to the idea of sacrifice itself, why sacrifice matters, why every society I’ve ever encountered has within it rituals involving sacrifice or at least some notion of giving something up. It may be the simple idea of killing a sheep to please God. Or it might be evident in a turn of phrase—a sacrifice fly ball to left center field to score a base runner from third base. It’s important for students to have a theoretical framework within which to understand the power of sacrifice and its universality.

BERNHARDSSON: We want students to understand the concepts that led to the rise of a movement of this nature at this particular time.

EDWARDS: And to give them enough background in Islamic history so that, when they watch ISIS propaganda videos and hear, for example, a word like “tawhid” that signifies the oneness of God, which ISIS uses over and over again, students will know where that concept came from and what it means.

BERNHARDSSON: Same with “takfir,” the pronouncement that someone is an unbeliever and no longer Muslim.

EDWARDS: ISIS is a particularly good topic for collaboration between an anthropologist and a historian, because it has a deep, historical dimension. It hearkens back to this ancient time in wanting to recreate the political system that existed in 7th-century Arabia. At the same time, ISIS is using social media and recruiting followers from all over the world. And so it’s very much a modern political movement, and the subject matter lends itself to this kind of collaboration.

MUNEMO: Is there a way back from sacrificial violence?

EDWARDS: The analogy I use for sacrifice is that it’s a simple machine, like a lever or pulley, in that it harnesses and amplifies energy. Like other kinds of machines, it can wear out. It can be overused. And it’s responsive to circumstance. The machinery of sacrifice can be used opportunistically, but I don’t think it’s something that’s entirely ever controllable. It exists beyond ourselves.

Timeline of Events

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The college museum is expanding its African-American art collection, thanks to Clarence Otis ’77 and Jacqui Bradley

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Art and Inclusion

Clarence Otis ’77 didn’t become an art collector to try to correct the historical record, but he acknowledges that the art he and his wife Jacqui Bradley collect helps to tell a truer story about this country’s past and its politics. “When museums exhibit art that is not diverse, it is still political art,” he says. “They’re making a political and social statement, given the history and composition of the world.”

Otis grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. In the years after the 1965 rebellion there, two visual artists opened an arts center in the nearby Watts Towers. Otis took art and theater classes there, and as a Williams student he continued to take studio art classes and perform in theatrical productions. He majored in economics and political science and went into the business world after graduation.

Soon after Otis and Bradley were married, and early in their business careers, the couple began collecting art. They were living in New York City, and after seeing an exhibition of prints from the Bob Blackburn Printmakers Workshop at the Associated Collective of Black Artists in Westchester County, they bought their first pieces. “These were works on paper, done mainly by artists who were not generally printmakers, and they were affordable,” Otis says. “And we’re talking about really good artists—Elizabeth Catlett and Maren Hassinger, for instance.”

Today, their collection consists of more than 120 paintings by African-American artists and artists from the African diaspora. Most of those works were painted after World War II, “some of it right up to today,” Otis says. While pieces from their collection have an impact on museums around the country when they travel on loan, Otis and Bradley recently decided to make a more permanent impact on the collection at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) through a monetary gift earmarked exclusively for acquisitions.

The gift affirms the museum’s commitment to diversity and equity across its program and collecting. “We want to show the breadth of artists who made great works of art in the past and present,” Says WCMA’s outgoing director, Christina Olsen. “This gift allows us to deepen our holdings of African American art.” The museum has already begun to do just that, acquiring several ambitious works of art by renowned African American artists.

oil on canvas by Robert Selden Duncanson, a member of the Hudson River School.
An oil on canvas by Robert Selden Duncanson, a member of the Hudson River School, is WCMA’s first acquisition by an African-American artist working in the 19th century.

One is an oil on canvas by Robert Selden Duncanson, a member of the Hudson River School. “Duncanson was the first African-American artist to gain national and international fame,” says Kevin Murphy, WCMA’s Eugenie Prendergast Senior Curator of American Art. “In his lifetime, critics labeled him ‘the greatest landscape painter in the West.’”

Yet Duncanson was “basically written out of history,” Otis says. The Duncanson piece is the museum’s first acquisition by an African-American artist working in the 19th century.

The museum has also recently acquired a Sam Gilliam drape painting. Gilliam’s drapes are swaths of loose, painted canvas, often on a gigantic scale. They are bunched with twine and suspended from the gallery wall. This piece, Situation VI – Pisces 4, will be on view in March 2018. The museum describes it as “a signature work by an artist who helped shape the discourse around painting during the late 1960s and ’70s. Gilliam’s drape paintings look both backward to earlier Modernist movements and were very much a part of their time, if not ahead of it.”

"Walking," a sculpture made of 148 two-foot-high bundles of wire rope strands, by Maren Hassinger.
“Walking,” a sculpture made of 148 two-foot-high bundles of wire rope strands, by Maren Hassinger.

A third piece, which will also be on view starting in March, is Walking, a sculpture made of 148 two-foot-high bundles of wire rope strands, by Maren Hassinger. Hassinger’s early work, a brief foray into printmaking, can still be found in Otis and Bradley’s private collection.

Hassinger, who is originally from Los Angeles and once taught at the arts center in the Watts Towers where Otis took classes during his childhood, has said, “When I make work, all of me is contained within it. Of course I embrace the feminist struggle, of course I acknowledge the horrors of racism, but my work to this point has been more about timelessness. I want my work to offer an experience to look, to see, to contemplate.”

Otis places the Hassinger piece in conversation with Eyes, the permanent sculpture by Louise Bourgeois whose elements can be found on the grounds surrounding the museum. “We’ve always been impressed with WCMA’s efforts to be inclusive,” Otis says, “and they’ve had great shows over the years.” Now he hopes those efforts are reinforced with these—and other—new acquisitions.

By Julia Munemo

Photo at top of Sam Gilliam drape painting courtesy of Joseph Goddu Fine Arts Inc., New York

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