Illustration of a drooping daisy. Illustration by Nicolás Ortega.
By Maud S. Mandel, President Illustration by Nicolás Ortega

On the surface, Williams looks different in 2021 from the way it did in 1921 or 1821. But something essential has been retained from one era to the next. A flame was kept, a torch passed, and we’re its latest keepers. Our job is to carry the light forward through new and sometimes challenging times so that we can pass it on, in full flame, to our successors.

What is that light? It’s the college’s mission to support the intellectual and personal development of our students and thereby nurture the entire Williams community. Every aspect of that work—our courses, co-curricular opportunities, residence life programs, even alumni programming—should contribute to a learning environment in which ideas are explored, scholarship developed and character and friendships forged.

How we do this work evolves over time and with intention, as it always has. One example of this principle is the curriculum. For almost the first half of Williams’ existence, disciplines such as economics and political science were unknown. Today, these fields and even “newer” ones like computer science and bioinformatics are staples of the curriculum. As educational torchbearers, it is incumbent upon us to ask: What areas of knowledge emerging today are likely to become core subjects for the next generation of students?

Residence life is another example of planned evolution. Williams’ very first students lived in local boarding houses, not on campus. Over the course of more than two centuries, we’ve constructed buildings and programs to support co-education, focus on first-year life and even create quiet spaces (a lesser-known innovation). Today, where and how students live is just as important to their development, and just as worthy of our attention, as their curricular life. As we look to the future, we must ask: How do we ensure that an ever-evolving student body thrives in a world whose contours are not yet known?

Such changes are essential—but they must be evolutions, not revolutions. And they must be planned in ways that stay true to our mission and values.

This work is never over, nor should it be. As you know, we’ve undertaken a strategic planning process that asks, in part, what a great residential liberal arts education should look like for the decades to come, so that we can sustain the spark that makes Williams Williams.

A number of ideas about how we might do this are outlined in Williams’ draft strategic plan, which we circulated for community comment earlier in the spring. These ideas include thinking about new areas of the curriculum and existing strengths; a coordinated approach to co-curricular and residential life; and ways to elevate our commitments to access, sustainability and inclusion. The plan also signals the importance of attention to crucial facilities like the Davis Center, the college museum and art department, and the field house, and it highlights our ongoing need to support the very best faculty and staff anywhere.

All the various tasks we perform as an institution are in service of one job: to give each student the very best education we can imagine. If we do that job well, our graduates will leave here intellectually bold and personally compassionate. Ethically courageous and culturally aware. At ease with themselves and welcoming to all. They will take that light with them out into the world, even as Williams nurtures the flame for generations to come.