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Petition for renewal of visiting professor Cliff Williams’ contract gains over 900 signatures

April 5 2018
Students are petitioning to extend the contract of visiting professor of philosophy Cliff Williams, who is not scheduled to teach class in the fall of 2018. Williams has been teaching at Wheaton since 2013. On Monday, the philosophy department gained official administrative approval for a full-time tenure track position in the philosophy department that will focus on social and political philosophy.
Williams’ contract was not renewed because the department will now be hiring for this new position. As a visiting professor, Williams covers the “release time” of full-time professors on a year-by-year basis, explained philosophy department chair Sarah Borden. Visiting professor positions are re-evaluated yearly and in this way differ from the new tenure track position being offered.
“I have loved teaching Race and Justice, and I hope that conversations about the topic continue. They are much needed,” Williams told the Record.
Senior Elim Shanko, junior Sade Bamimore and junior Hope Wood started the petition for the administration to renew Williams’ contract after Bamimore learned that his contract would not be renewed. Shanko said that before the petition was formed, two students had approached Diddams to explain the importance of Williams’ work. Following that meeting, Williams received permission to teach one section of Race and Justice during spring 2019. “Our question was, ‘If it only takes one conversation for the Provost to add a class, a) What is the reason? b) What could more conversations do?’” Shanko told the Record.
From there, the three decided to encourage students to write letters to Borden, Diddams, President Philip Ryken and other administrators. “It will be a reminder of what is being lost when Cliff’s voice isn’t included,” Shanko said. They then created the petition as well as a Facebook page called “Justice for Cliff Williams.” Seniors Kalena Wong, Hannah Garringer and Katie Thornton, as well as Beth Yan ‘17, also contributed to the petition, which has since gained more than 900 signatures from students and alumni.
Borden explained the need for a new tenure-track position. “In our department we have long known we need someone in social and political philosophy. We need someone doing philosophy of race … and we simply don’t have someone in a full line who has that as an area of specialization.”
Borden told the Record that this need was reiterated in the 10-year review of the philosophy department. “Having it put in a review really gave it weight. Provost [Margaret] Diddams immediately started finding funding for us and she has been working very hard to reallocate lines and think about where all the funding is.”
Diddams explained that one of the college’s goals is to hire full time, tenure-track faculty members “with the objective that they will be long-term members of the community.” According to Diddams, the college hires non-tenure track professors with the intention that the position will become tenure-track or be “absorbed into the work of existing faculty.”
“It has always been my goal to move the part-time visiting line in philosophy to a full-time tenure track position,” Diddams told the Record. “This will allow the department to be able to offer more in-depth coursework to address philosophical theories and real world applications to major social issues as well as develop a scholarly reputation in this area. It will also create an official advising load for the faculty member.”
However, for Shanko, Bamimore and Wood, the issue is not about whether the position is part-time or full-time, but rather about Williams himself teaching at Wheaton. “We’re making the distinction of why Cliff is so special and irreplaceable. I wouldn’t say that they shouldn’t hire this position at all but I would say if they do, it should be in addition to him,” Bamimore said.
“To expect that the whole Race and Justice program that he started from the ground up on his own is as simple as giving someone a syllabus is demeaning to the work that he’s done and the impact that he has,” Shanko added. “If the work is already being done by Cliff, why does it need to be done by someone else?”
Williams, affectionately called “Cliff” by his students, is known for his love of listening and his personal approach to his students. He has contributed to the Record with a column called “In the Margins,” in which he transcribed anonymous interviews with students who shared stories of their struggles with him. The three students shared stories of Williams attending students’ concerts and games and asking them to get meals. Shanko and Bamimore also mentioned that Williams checked in on them during their semesters abroad.
“Although Cliff speaks about minorities and writes his “In the Margin” series, the love of Cliff is a majority love. White, black, hispanic, straight, queer, male, female, everyone has an appreciation for what Cliff is doing,” Shanko said.
“Cliff is not just speaking on behalf of minorities that the typical minority that we think of, like students of color … [and] LGBTQ students but also depressed students, or suicidal,” Bamimore added. “He’s been able to have conversations with students about those tough topics that aren’t normally talked about … he really does create that space for students.”
Borden emphasized that she wants student voices to be included in the process of hiring the new faculty member. “I want to think together before we advertise our national search. I’d love to have input and make sure we’re putting together the ad in a way that’ll really solicit people who can work and have the trajectory to do work around issues that we really need to address,” she said. Students can provide input by emailing Borden or attending a meeting in Blanchard 339 on Tuesday, April 10 during chapel time.

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