July 12, 2020

Dear Members of the Hobart and William Smith Community,

I write to you regarding a recent parent Zoom meeting I held about the Fall 2020 Opening plan. During the question and answer portion, I responded to a question regarding the safety of the hospital in relation to systemic racism. A portion of my response was videotaped and posted online. From both private and public communication with students, I have heard that it sounded as though I deny systemic racism exists at HWS and in Geneva. I am very saddened and sorry to hear that my comments affected anyone in that way, as I would not ever want anyone to feel they have been made less visible by my actions or words. It pains me deeply to think that any student was hurt or moved to anger because of belief that I am not acting in good faith, and it is difficult to hear that my meaning was interpreted differently than my aim.

This moment reflects a wider challenge of being clearly heard for what we intend to say while also acknowledging how our words are actually heard by others. This is a challenge of trust and one from which I will not shy. Beginning with myself, I pledge to be generous with your words and your intentions, and will offer back my own understanding. I am and will remain invested in dialogue with you.

I had hoped, in that moment, to assure all our parents that Geneva is a comparatively safe place with a reliable hospital, and a community that cares about their children and about students at the Colleges. To the best of my knowledge, Geneva is a relatively safe and diverse community based on my own lived experience here and in other places, and my own work as a social scientist who has studied race, ethnicity and gender issues throughout my career. But systemic racism exists here, as it does everywhere, manifesting itself in ways and degrees distinct to this time and place.

That is therefore true about HWS as well; to be clear, in my response to the question posed on Zoom about the hospital, I did not mention HWS because that was not asked. But in turning to consideration of the particulars of systemic racism as it manifests at HWS, we, including above all myself, have much work to do to become more inclusive and responsive to BIPOC student concerns. HWS is a learning community and this is an active but also an academic enterprise for us to understand what is occurring at the Colleges and in the wider world. I ask that we take a proactive approach to learning more about and working on solutions to difficult issues such as racism, classism and sexism. But I also ask that we be gentler with each other and not move in haste to judgement. For instance, in the last few weeks there has been a resurgence of discussion about hateful images in past yearbooks, including assertions that a particular person was in one of the photos and that a professor had identified the person. Upon investigation, neither of those assertions turned out to be true. It is important in this challenging age, when truth, facts and the quest for knowledge are under assault from many angles, that we investigate fully before moving to judgement, that we develop mutual and constructive approaches to move forward to a better world, and that we be kind and understanding with each other during what is a very difficult time for all involved as we continue to grapple with the ongoing pandemic.

HWS, as with all human constructs and institutions, has both current and historical faults and shortcomings, but also stands for principles worth defending and maintaining. As I wrote in the Colleges’ strategic plan: “The Colleges must hold true to their fundamental purpose of providing a life-changing education to students and preparing them to become life-long learners who continue the practices of critical examination and searching for truths. Hobart and William Smith also must continue to stand for willingness to engage in dialogue, treating all with dignity and respect, and working toward a better world. These are principles worth preserving and upholding, particularly in a complex world where the continuation of ideals such as these face many current and developing threats.”

I try my best to uphold these principles, and I know you all do, too.


Joyce P. Jacobsen