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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CIA agent Jack Platt ’58 and KGB operative Gennadiy Vasilenko forged a secret and remarkable friendship at the height of the Cold War

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Making Friends With the Enemy

CIA agent Jack “Cowboy” Platt was assigned to recruit KGB operative Gennadiy Vasilenko to spy for the United States. Instead, the Cold War enemies forged a secret and remarkable friendship that lasted the rest of their lives. Read a graphic novel inspired by their story.

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Williams President Adam Falk Named President of Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

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Williams President Adam Falk Named President of Sloan Foundation

Contacts: Mary Dettloff, Williams College, [email protected]
Nathan Williams, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, [email protected]

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., June 29, 2017—Williams College President Adam Falk and Williams College Board of Trustees Chair Michael R. Eisenson ’77 today announced that Falk is stepping down as president on December 31, after eight years of service.

Falk has accepted the presidency of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, a position he will assume in January 2018. The foundation makes grants primarily to support original research and education related to science, technology, engineering, mathematics and economics.

“I arrived in the Purple Valley in 2010 and the ensuing years have been among the most gratifying of my career,” Falk said in a message to the campus community and alumni. “It makes me genuinely happy, looking back, to see what together we’ve achieved. Williams is attracting even greater numbers of passionate, insightful and diverse students. We’re making this place accessible to people who couldn’t consider coming here otherwise. We are renewing our campus and making major investments in its sustainability. We’re hiring and supporting the deeply committed faculty and staff who define this college. And our loyal alumni are giving and volunteering in ways that help students thrive at Williams and build successful and rewarding lives after graduation.”

“Adam has been an exceptionally fine president for Williams,” Eisenson said in a message to the college community. “He has demonstrated a keen ability to appreciate and retain the best of Williams traditions, while encouraging the College to grow through a genuine openness to innovation, always with the education and wellbeing of our students foremost in mind. His departure will be a loss for the College and the community, and I will personally miss his wisdom, friendship, and his deeply thoughtful and principled leadership.”

Under President Falk, Williams has flourished, Eisenson said, pointing to Falk’s efforts enhancing the college’s national leadership in liberal arts education, maintaining and growing its commitment to access, recruiting accomplished and sought-after scholars to join the faculty, building highly effective leadership teams, opening the award-winning Sawyer Library, launching work on a major new center for the sciences, and inspiring record-breaking alumni support for the Teach It Forward campaign.

Falk came to Williams in April 2010 to become the College’s 17th president. From 2006 to 2010 he served as the James B. Knapp Dean of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins, following four years of service as Dean of the Faculty and Interim Dean. A high-energy physicist and award-winning teacher whose research focuses on elementary particle physics and quantum field theory, Falk is a fellow of the American Physical Society and a winner of awards from the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, the Research Corporation, and the Sloan Foundation.

Falk was as a Morehead-Cain Scholar from the University of North Carolina, graduating with a B.S. in 1987, and he earned his Ph.D. in 1991 from Harvard University. He held postdoctoral appointments at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and the University of California, San Diego, before joining the faculty at Johns Hopkins in 1994.

A search committee chaired by Eisenson will be announced at a later date.

Read the announcement by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

END

Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions on U.S. applicants are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.

Online:

Williams.edu
Facebook.com/williamscollege
Twitter.com/williamscollege
Instagram.com/williamscollege

 

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Elissa Brown ’09 and Robyn Goldman Fisher ’01 are making a living making ice cream—one in an unusual place, and the other using an unusual technique

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Two Scoops of Ephs

Elissa Brown ’09 and Robyn Goldman Fisher ’01 are each making a living making ice cream—one in a seemingly unusual place and the other with a seemingly unusual technique.

Elissa Brown, Class of 2009, owner of Wild Scoops Ice Cream in Anchorage, Alaska
Elissa Brown ’09, owner of Wild Scoops ice cream company in Anchorage, Alaska

Brown first started making ice cream when she was a middle school science teacher in North Carolina. “The experiments I was doing in my kitchen were a practical application of everything I was teaching my students, from controlled experiments and learning from mistakes to taking detailed notes and making observations,” she says.

Making ice cream became a way for Brown to connect to the place she lived and the people who lived there. “I used to make so much ice cream that I began hosting tastings to get rid of it,” she says. “People would crowd into my living room every month and sample whatever seasonal flavors I had concocted.” She realized the gatherings were a way to build community. “People who didn’t know each other were bonding over something that at its essence is just a way to bring happiness.”

Today, Brown lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where she founded Wild Scoops, which blends fresh, locally-sourced and often unusual ingredients—including spruce tips, salmonberries and birch syrup—with ice cream. Brown moved to Alaska to join her fiancé after she’d spent a year studying experiential education in Norway. “I believe there is a way to combine my love for teaching with my love for ice cream,” she says. “I hope to figure that out in Anchorage.”

After two years of renting kitchen space and selling small batches of ice cream at farmers’ markets and pop-up events, Brown moved into a commercial test kitchen of her own. In the beginning of the summer she opened the doors of a small downtown scoop shop.

Fisher is the founder of Smitten, based in San Francisco. While earning her MBA at Stanford, she developed a business plan for a churn-to-order ice cream business that eliminated what she calls “unpronouncables”–preservatives, stabilizers and emulsifiers—and would “use technology to correct for industrialization.”

“I looked into the science behind ice crystal formation and learned that, despite the marketing power of terms like ‘slow churned,’ the opposite is actually true,” Fisher says. “The faster you churn ice cream, the better the texture can be.” Her plan called for a machine that used liquid nitrogen to churn each scoop to order, making fresh ice cream in less than two minutes.

After finishing business school, Fisher joined a design firm and then the FBI, as a special agent. But her business plan kept calling to her. Despite its lack of certainty—Fisher had done some initial prototyping and tested existing mixers only to discover that freezing ice cream with liquid nitrogen was harder than it sounded—she decided to take the risk.

“I was 29 years old, and I knew this was probably the only time in my life, as a completely independent woman, I could take such an enormous risk, and so I just went for it,” she says.

Robyn Goldman Fisher, Class of 2001, owner of Smitten ice cream company in San Francisco
Robyn Goldman Fisher ’01, owner of Smitten ice cream company in San Francisco, Calif.

Over the next two years, she put her life savings into building the prototype machine. “I teamed up with a retired engineer and we built a prototype of our ice cream machine, which we named Brrr.”

When her prototype was complete—and while the recession was in full swing—Fisher bungee-corded it to a Radio Flyer wagon, reconfigured a motorcycle battery to power the machine and began selling ice cream on the streets of San Francisco. In time, she developed a local following and, in 2011, opened the first local Smitten store. She now owns and operates eight stores, with two more opening “very soon” in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Both Brown and Fisher say that they wouldn’t have had the entrepreneurial skills to launch their businesses if they hadn’t gone to Williams. “My education prepared me to wear the many hats of an entrepreneur, where there’s always a lot to learn outside of my ‘discipline,’” says Brown.

Says Fisher, “Serving joy for my job? It’s pretty darn cool (pun intended). So, no complaints.”

Learn more about Wild Scoops and Smitten.

—Julia Munemo

 

 

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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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Students learned about sculptural costume—and made their own—in a new course taught in the spring

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Performing Sculpture

Amy Podmore, professor of art, and Deb Brothers, costume director and lecturer in theater, taught a new course in the spring: The Sculptural Costume and Its Performance Potential. Students studied visual artists such as Nick Cave and Hélio Oiticica and learned how wearable art is central to Bauhaus dance, Carnival and Dada performance. Then they made sculptural costumes of their own. View the photo gallery.

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Teach It Forward

The Campaign for Williams

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Teach It Forward

Visit TIF Today to read the latest news about the college’s $650 million comprehensive campaign.

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