As she begins her sixth year as president and faculty member, Maud S. Mandel discusses how the college is actively addressing the challenges and harnessing the opportunities shaping Williams, higher education and society.
As an educator, I love challenging students to answer difficult questions. And as a lifelong student, I love being challenged to answer them myself. Wrestling with complex issues is a pleasure in its own right and an opportunity to hone important skills: the ability to assimilate information, assess evidence, think creatively and communicate clearly. Regardless of who we are—from the newest student to the most senior faculty member or administrator—the experience makes us into more nuanced thinkers and fuller versions of ourselves. At the end of my first five years as president and faculty member, I can happily confirm that Williams continues to excel in challenging our students. Over and over I see them, guided by faculty (and often staff and alumni), contending with intellectual and ethical complexity. In disciplines from art to economics, today’s students bring to bear on the big questions of the day the same earnest curiosity, hunger for learning and yearning for truth that we have long valued and sought to nurture. It is our duty and privilege to support each new cohort in developing these qualities. The demands of a rapidly changing world require that we reaffirm our commitment and make sure we are using this education to prepare students for their lives and careers.
To this end, I have developed a set of questions that I think we, as a great learning community, should be asking ourselves. The answers are distilled from our strategic planning process and societal conversations about the present and future of higher education. And they include examples of our ongoing efforts to become, as it were, a fuller version of ourselves.
What should a well-rounded liberal arts education look like today?
As a president, a professor and a parent, I cannot count the number of times I have benefited from my training as a historian. It enables me to look at evidence, consider precedents and parallels, and imagine how human processes unfold over the longue durée. Like many humanists, I also think such an education prepares students extraordinarily well for the world of work. Williams, with its investment in small class sizes and high faculty-student ratios, intensive learning and advanced research opportunities, is especially well equipped to introduce students to the virtues of the liberal arts.
We do this particularly by inviting students to become partners in the process of discovery: changing them from consumers of ideas into producers of them. We are expanding labs, tutorials, funded research and other hands-on learning opportunities and investing in experiential learning through long-standing programs such as Winter Study and new opportunities like the Summer Arts and Museums Immersion Program, in which students gain experiences with careers in the arts during nine weeks of full-time, paid work at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA).
Indeed, Williams’ commitment to the arts is central to our model. Many of our alumni in finance, medicine or media have told me about being transformed by encounters with art at Williams and how those experiences opened them to new ways of understanding the world—often while helping them in their careers, too. WCMA is a center for this work on campus. In the Object Lab, for example, faculty and students in 14 courses this year engaged with our world-class collection in an endless variety of ways: from considering the importance of perspective to studying the properties of materials. Demand for access to the collection from courses across the curriculum has expanded beyond our current capacity in Lawrence Hall, which is no longer ideal for continued display and conservation. A new museum and center for education in the arts will be capacious enough to support our superb program in art and art history, enable use of WCMA’s holdings by students in a vast array of disciplines and invite public consideration through opportunities for innovative work in collections, exhibitions and community programming.
UPDATE ON WCMA AND THE ARTS: As the centerpiece of an arts-infused community that cultivates close relationships among scholars, artists and students, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) is a catalyst for studying art and, by extension, the world through a lens that spans time and discipline. As the college’s approach to teaching art history has evolved (see “Art Work,” p. 12), so too have the museum’s collection and the opportunities for all students to engage with art regardless of their academic interests. After years of planning, Williams has partnered with SO-IL, an architecture firm that thinks boldly about arts and education and is a leader in sustainable design, to develop a new museum building designed for teaching to replace the historic facility it has outgrown. Located on the site of the former Williams Inn, at the intersections of routes 2 and 7, the new building is slated to open for the 2026-2027 academic year in celebration of WCMA’s centennial.
How can students be taught to appreciate their connections and responsibilities to their communities, both local and global?
The “Purple Bubble” is and probably always was a myth. New members of our community have never abandoned their beliefs, relationships or identities at the campus gates. For decades, the Davis Center (previously the Multicultural Center) has served as a campus home where students can explore who they are and who they want to be in the world and to engage with peers—often across quite significant types of personal differences. With a major new home slated to open in the fall of 2024, plans are underway to expand these programs further and to support the vibrant development of both campus community and campus communities, plural.
Complementing the Davis Center’s work on campus and regionally, our new Global Scholars program will give students extraordinary experience exploring critical global trends and issues via a multi-year, cohort-based combination of interdisciplinary courses, intensive language studies, research, travel and study away opportunities, and post-graduate projects [see “Global Scholars,” p. 2]. Students are already showing strong interest. Sixty-eight of them—12% of the first-year class—applied for one of 12 spots in the inaugural cohort. Starting in the fall, those students will take a course on global perspectives together as preparation to spend Winter Study in Paris. They will then move as a group through the rest of their time at Williams, taking four or five foreign language courses and completing an independent study project, among other work. The potential learning opportunities from this cohort-based approach are tremendous.
UPDATE ON THE DAVIS CENTER: A $20 million expansion and renovation of the Davis Center (formerly the Multicultural Center) is due to be completed in early 2024. The three buildings that served nearly two dozen student groups on campus will grow in size by nearly 8,000 square feet, creating an inclusive, sustainable and accessible hub of activity and programming.
The growth of the Davis Center’s physical home and the expansion of programs and initiatives within it reflect Williams’ deep commitment to ensuring that students, faculty and staff of all identities and perspectives thrive.
Learn more about the Davis Center Initiative at giving.williams.edu/davis-center.
How should Williams equip students to become independent thinkers, resistant to the pressures of categorization and polarization?
Across the country and around the world, educators and policymakers are asking what needs to be done to teach students to listen actively, think critically and debate their views confidently. Such work happens every day in Williams classrooms. In my own courses, I have pressed students to discuss issues such as the role of historical memory in politics and public policy.
Indeed, I think that our emphasis on small classes, intensive learning and research make Williams an appealing setting for such work. And thanks to the new Rice Center for Teaching [see “Excellent Teaching,” p. 22], faculty now have a place where they can exchange ideas and practices for teaching such skills and fostering intellectual exchange in their classrooms. Beyond the classroom, many students are also involved in campus conversations about how values that people often see as conflicting—such as free inquiry and inclusion, academic rigor and wellness, and participatory culture and effective decision making—can actually coexist and reinforce each other.
Going forward, I would like us to ensure that we are providing these opportunities to every student, equivalent to the way we provide experience with research, analysis, communication and so on. We can lead by demonstrating the value of principled exchange and by valuing such experience as an educational outcome.
How can we ensure that a Williams education teaches students to value their physical, psychological and spiritual well-being in parallel to their intellectual and professional aspirations?
A crucial role of a college is to prepare students to live well. We excel at this through our liberal arts approach to academics, and we are devoting similar attention and resources to providing students the skills they need to support their physical and mental well-being. Most if not all of our students participate in club and intramural sports, the Outing Club, yoga classes and other physical activities. Forty percent of students are members of our varsity teams, for whom we define success not only in terms of records and trophies but also character, capacity for teamwork and fair competition, leadership and strategic thinking. Our Integrative Wellbeing Services team does field-leading work in supporting our students’ mental health and wellness.
Their efforts are complemented by our Chaplains’ Office, the Davis Center and many other departments on campus. We are furthering our investment in suitable programs and facilities—including an upcoming overhaul of our field house. All of this contributes to a campus-wide vision of student wellness that prioritizes care for mind, body and spirit in whichever ways a student feels are best suited to their life and interests.
Who should have access to this ideal of education?
The liberal arts emerged as a training ground for lifelong engagement in a democratic society. Thousands of years later, education is still a major gateway to career success and an engaged life. And now, more than ever, we know the role it plays in preparing students for the work of building an inclusive, equitable world. Those opportunities ought to be available to any student with the academic dedication and intellectual curiosity to succeed. Through our pioneering All-Grant Financial Aid program and commitment to a broad vision of what we call true affordability, Williams has again led the nation in reducing financial barriers to an excellent education for low- and middle-income families.
We are not finished. As I suggested in a speech at the University of Pennsylvania earlier this year, in education one never gets to the point of having all the answers. Our satisfaction comes from continually working toward the next set of still-better questions. Having taken a major stride forward with true affordability, we are now in a strong position to look to the next horizon for access. For Williams, this will include efforts to attract community college transfers, veterans and other nontraditional students whose journey to Williams may not be linear but who are ready to make the most of what we have to offer—and whose life experiences contribute to campus diversity in many ways.
VALUING ARTS AND HUMANITIES in the liberal arts. Teaching students to build campus and global communities. Cultivating inquisitive, independent thinkers. Encouraging the development of mind, body and spirit. Ensuring affordable access to all this and more. A central duty of leadership—and we are all leaders in this together—is to imagine timely approaches to such timeless goals. The projects I have just described here are but a few examples of how we are doing so at Williams.
I am often asked why I am so optimistic about this work, when the value of what we do is being challenged from every side. My answer is that I see that challenge as an opportunity rather than a threat—an invitation to freshly rearticulate the importance of our work and to ensure that our methods are both true to who we are as an institution and relevant to the needs of our students and society today. That responsibility includes the work, both angsty and joyful, of teaching students to engage with complexity. In lieu of simple binaries—black or white, pro or con, the metaphorical red pill or blue pill—Williams will continue to demonstrate the Power of Purple: an educational vision spacious enough to contain multitudes, visionary enough to educate each of them well and excellent enough to earn their devotion in exchange for ours to them.
UPDATE ON TRUE AFFORDABILITY: In April 2022, Williams became the first college in the country to eliminate loans and work requirements for all students receiving financial aid. The goal was to level the playing field so all students can participate fully in campus life while relieving pressure on families. The all-grant initiative increases the college’s financial aid budget by $6.75 million annually to $77.5 million—one of the most generous per capita in the nation. The all-grant initiative is just the latest development in the ongoing work to make Williams truly affordable. The college has long been committed to attracting exceptional candidates regardless of their ability to pay and to meeting 100% of students’ demonstrated need.
In recent years, the college has expanded its financial aid program to cover all kinds of costs beyond tuition, room and board, including career preparation, health insurance, study away and textbooks. Williams adjusted financial aid calculations to better reflect the financial circumstances of low- and middle-income families and expanded funding for unpaid summer internships, Winter Study opportunities and other activities that take place outside the academic year.
UPDATE ON NONTRADITIONAL STUDENTS: As part of its broader work to ensure access and affordability and to diversify the student body, Williams is committed to building a sustainable program to enroll about a dozen U.S. military veteran, community college transfer and other students who do not apply to college directly out of high school in each entering class. These students bring to campus real-world experiences and a commitment to pursuing higher education. The college is developing and strengthening partnerships with organizations that serve as pipelines for nontraditional students, including the Warrior-Scholar Project, which offers a summer “boot camp” for military veterans to learn about liberal arts colleges. In addition to allocating about $4.2 million annually in financial aid for this group, Williams is exploring ways to support students who need more flexible living arrangements and developing initiatives including a transfer student orientation and summer academic bridge programs.