Passing the Torch web

Adam Falk will leave Williams in December to become president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. When we sat down with him to plan the magazine’s coverage of his tenure, he made an important observation: “This story is about Williams’ ideals, principles and priorities; it shouldn’t be about me.” We took what he said to heart and realized the best way to tell the story of his presidency at Williams is to tell the story of Williams during his presidency. So we asked the people responsible for some of the most important changes during Falk’s time to share their thoughts. Their essays follow.

Illustrations by James Steinberg

Reaffirming Core Commitments by Gregory Avis ’80

I had the good fortune to head the search committee that recommended Adam Falk as Williams’ 17th president. Adam arrived on campus at an exceptionally challenging time, right after the 2008 financial downturn. Williams, like other colleges and universities, was facing both threats and opportunities. Our endowment had dropped by more than 25 percent, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were starting to disrupt traditional teaching, schools were opening global campuses in China, India and elsewhere, and there was a growing chorus questioning the value of a liberal arts education. Many people wondered if Williams needed to reinvent itself, too.

Head shot of Greg Avis
Gregory M. Avis ’80
is chairman of the Teach It Forward Campaign Steering Committee
and a Williams trustee, emeritus.

But Adam asked us to pause and consider what factors distinguished Williams, and then he steered us to double down on them. Given all the competing pressures, this approach was not as simple as it might sound. But it enabled us to reaffirm our commitment to the things that truly mattered, with an eye toward the future.

What were those things? One, of course, was our faculty, which is committed to excellence in teaching, scholarship and service to the college community. Because of a large cohort of retiring faculty, the college is intently focused on attracting the absolute best new professors while securing and providing resources to the faculty as a whole as they continue their outstanding work. We also dedicated ourselves to continuing to attract and educate the best, increasingly diverse group of students and to provide financial aid so that they may attend regardless of need. We needed to create or renew facilities where faculty and students could work together and individually to learn, research and grow. And we endeavored to expose our students to life beyond Williams through volunteer opportunities, business and social venture internships, and learning experiences.

After I left the board, I was fortunate to become chairman of the Teach It Forward Campaign Steering Committee. The core commitments we defined with Adam became campaign pillars. By encouraging us to affirm what was unique and important about this place, he helped us develop a vision that connected our past strengths to a promising future.

The campaign ends in June 2019, and we have already raised more than $560 million toward our $650 million goal. Even more extraordinary is the fact that we’ve reached 77 percent alumni participation—and it’s still climbing. And this campaign is about more than dollars: Parents and alumni are volunteering to help recruit students, offer career advice and create internships. Few colleges in the country have reached that level of enthusiasm and participation.

This work, under Adam’s leadership, has set the table for the next president and the decades to come. Williams is in the enviable position of being able to look ahead.

Adam’s leadership style is catalyzing. And while he is key to making things happen, he is careful to credit others around him. The campaign is a great example. Teach It Forward isn’t about him. It’s about Williams. The campaign is well on its way, and, thanks to the incredible generosity of the Williams community, we are optimistic about exceeding our ambitious goal.

The college has been exceptionally fortunate to have Adam at its helm. And I am blessed to have had the opportunity to work with him.

Learning by Doing by Paula Consolini

Before Adam took the job as Williams’ president, he came to campus for a tour. He didn’t tell anyone who he was or why he was there. Just like everybody else, he was here to get a sense of the place.

Head shot of Paula Consolini
Paula Consolini is director of the Center for Learning in Action.

That story always stuck with me. It’s funny to think of a future college president tagging along, incognito, with a bunch of teenagers and their families. But it also speaks to Adam’s understanding of the value of on-the-ground research, paying attention and looking closely and deeply. He seized the meaning of how well evidence-based research fits with a liberal arts education.

Early in his time here, Adam responded to student requests for more support for community engagement by commissioning a study. At the time, I was the coordinator of experiential education, working with faculty and staff to help increase the number of opportunities for and improve the quality of experiential learning in the curriculum. We were conducting a parallel study led by Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass about the challenges of getting students involved in local schools.

I sat on both committees, and we realized that the Rolodexes for engagement and experiential learning overlapped in terms of resources and relationships with community partners. What came out of the work was the vision for the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA).

The center will be five years old next spring, and we’re really hitting our stride. Participation has increased, with more than 800 students involved in experiential learning and community service in 2016-17. The number of courses involving experiential education pedagogy or learning grew from 80 in 2014-15 to more than 90 so far this year. The number of student groups engaged in community work increased from 22 in 2014-15 to 30 so far—“so far,” because we encourage and facilitate new ideas as rapidly as they come to us. And they keep coming!

IExperiential learning is critical to personal development. Study after study shows that when you’re personally, deeply connected to what you’re learning, it sticks. You’re able to address issues in a way that helps you understand not only the challenges but also how to navigate the complexity.

And our faculty members understand the value of this work. A huge team of economics professors teaches Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, a Winter Study course in which students are trained to do taxes for low-income residents. We have a social theorist inspiring her students to develop K-12 curricula using storytelling to bridge gaps in cultural understanding. A computer science professor is sponsoring students who applied for and received a grant to organize a high school technology club. There are so many examples.

The world is changing so quickly that there’s a need for students to help create new knowledge. Faculty and staff see our students’ potential. Students are hungry to start fulfilling it now.

Adam recognized that energy and the need to invest in and follow through on experiential learning and community engagement. When we help our students “learn by doing,” we are better preparing them to be full, engaged citizens of the world.

Building the Curriculum by Denise K. Buell

Adam’s presidency has coincided with an unprecedented moment in the college’s history. Our faculty is in the midst of a huge demographic shift.

Denise K. Buell, Cluett Professor of Religion, will return to her position as dean of the faculty in the fall, following a yearlong sabbatical.

Within 10 years, about 100 full professor positions will have turned over.

It’s a rare opportunity to bring a lot of terrific people to the college. Because we’re a small faculty, hiring just a couple of folks can make a huge difference, not only for an academic unit but for the entire curriculum. The current turnover in faculty empowers us to ask what our curriculum should contain and how we can teach it most effectively so that we can remain an outstanding liberal arts college in the 21st century.

We are being very thoughtful and intentional in our work. In recruiting the next great scholars and teachers, we’re working closely with individual units and with the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity and asking important questions. How do the what and how of the curriculum relate to who is teaching? How does this relate to historical dynamics of exclusion and inclusion as well as to changes in academic fields? What does it really mean to diversify the faculty, and how do we accomplish that goal? It’s something the college has been explicitly dedicated to for more than a decade, but it’s still a work in progress.

Early on, Adam expressed a formal commitment to inclusion and the benefit of multiple perspectives in the college community. He has dedicated resources to the work of diversifying the faculty and the academy. He has done a lot of work communicating to partners like the Mellon Foundation—which supports the college in so many ways—about the good work that Williams is doing. And he has asked questions that have led to some significant changes.

He asked me to lead a task force that led to the creation of the Curricular Planning Committee (CPC). The CPC’s mandate is to help advise the Committee on Appointments and Promotions by analyzing where the curriculum has shifted or is shifting and by looking for the gaps in the curriculum. That way, we can be thoughtful in staffing and curricular decisions going forward.

It’s exciting to see the recent changes in our faculty and curriculum. We’ve expanded significantly in statistics, computer science, environmental studies, Africana studies, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, among others. South Asia is increasingly well represented. We also introduced Arabic studies to the curriculum over the last 10 years.

Within and across academic units, our faculty are more interdisciplinary now. At its best, interdisciplinarity lets us see our blind spots or new possibilities within a department as well as innovations that might carry over across academic fields. Building on our differences in all dimensions makes the work we do in our particular areas stronger, and Williams is all the better for it.

Changing the Place by Rosanna Ferro

When I arrived at Williams, very few colleges or universities had senior-level staff focusing on first-generation students. That the Dean of the College’s Office created a position like mine speaks highly of this place and how important this work is. To this day, I get calls from colleagues at schools that are just starting to build this focus into their roles.

Rosanna Ferro served for four years as Williams’ associate dean of the college. On Oct. 30, she became the first-ever vice president of student affairs and campus life at Ithaca College.

I intentionally chose not to be “the first-gen dean,” because it can’t be about a single position or a single person doing the work. This year, nearly 20 percent of our entering class is first-gen. That’s 109 first-year students. I’m still in awe of that number. All of my colleagues in the dean’s office are involved in supporting these students. We work collaboratively across campus, too, so that students see the Career Center, the Davis Center and other offices as places that value them. I don’t do this work alone. It’s Williams.

And Williams does this work well. Resources help, but money alone won’t do it: You need people who will say, “I’ll be there.”

I saw an example of this while I was planning our annual first-gen meet and greet. The meet and greet is a space for first-gen students to get to know each other and to connect with faculty and staff at the college. I wanted to invite Adam. So I asked the dean at the time if she would ask him. She encouraged me to talk to Adam myself. I came from a big, bureaucratic school, so I thought, “I can email the president?” But he responded right away and said, “I’ll be there.” He has come to every meet and greet since to talk with the students. It sends them a strong message that the president sees them as important, that they are a critical part of the fabric of Williams.

We’ve created a culture at Williams in which it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your background is. Adam’s philosophy has helped make that possible. We don’t force first-gen students to change to accommodate the place. We change the place.

Places like Williams were built to be selective and elite. Now we’re a different kind of college, where anyone who’s committed to learning can get a great education. And if you need help, for whatever reason, we’re there for you, because we chose you, and we want you to be here.

Now, like Adam, I’m leaving Williams. This place helped set me on my own path. I’m happy to have built this environment with him and all of our colleagues—and to see how the students are benefiting.

Solving Problems Creatively by Tiku Majumder

Some of my most memorable and rewarding experiences have been in my atomic physics laboratory, where I’ve had the pleasure of seeing

Tiku Majumder, Science Center director and Barclay Jermain Professor of Natural Philosophy, will become Williams’ interim president in January

more than 60 students get their first tastes of research. It’s been the perfect Williams experience—combining one-on-one teaching, collaborative research and mentorship—as we conduct complicated laser spectroscopy experiments, design and build apparatus, analyze data and, ultimately, publish papers together.

That experience is replicated day in and day out in labs and classrooms across the sciences at Williams. It’s a recipe for science education that you don’t see very often. Many small colleges tend to emphasize teaching. R-1 universities tend to focus on research. What we do blends the best of both worlds. I like to call it research training, and we do it very well.

In the Class of 2018, roughly half of Williams students will graduate with at least one major in science or math, compared to about a quarter when I first started teaching here 23 years ago. Many of these students will attend graduate programs within these disciplines, and others will pursue interdisciplinary programs, benefiting from their basic science background at Williams and moving into new, exciting areas of inquiry. Williams ranks very near the top among undergraduate institutions receiving grant funding for pre-doctoral student fellowships in addition to faculty research.

None of this success is sustainable without a serious investment in the infrastructure of science, something Adam committed to early in his time here as president. And so we’re hiring young, ambitious faculty members who come to Williams because they really want to get involved with students—not only in the classrooms but also by engaging them in their research. We’re stepping up resources for equipment and labs.

And next summer, we’re opening a new laboratory science building that’s designed to be flexible enough to support current research and also lines of inquiry we can’t yet imagine. Some of the coolest things in science are happening not in the middle of a discipline but in the spaces between.

It’s all in the service of training our students to be able to solve the next problem they’ve never seen before.  What’s happening in the sciences mirrors what my colleagues across Route 2 are doing in the arts, humanities and social sciences. We’re all teaching students how to think critically and solve problems creatively.

Now I’m getting ready to assume a new role, as interim president of Williams while we search for Adam’s successor. He and I were in graduate school together as young physicists, but who could have imagined that he would be handing off the presidential baton to me at Williams so many years later?

It’s fascinating to begin to see this place from a new angle. And one of the things I’m seeing is how well Adam has everything running. His senior staff, and through them the whole administration, are encouraged to take responsibility for their work and the welfare of the college as a whole. It makes it very easy for someone like me to come in as interim after Adam, because he fosters a team approach and has worked hard to make sure it isn’t all about him. It’s about Williams and the good work we’re all doing together.