Wed 21 Jan 2009
Sorry folks for the delayed posting, got caught up in Obama fever. My post deals with a wide variety of topics: Library and Other Information Resources, Physical and Technological Resources, Financial Resources, Public Disclosure, and Integrity. I am going to skip Financial Resources, as (a) I know nothing about finance, (b) that topic has been discussed ad nauseum on Ephblog, and (c) again, that topic has been discussed ad nauseum on Ephblog. I am also going to skip the Library section, because that ship has, in large part, already sailed: while it may be slightly delayed, for better (as I tend to think) or for worse (plenty of others) the Sawyer project is basically in final or near-final form.
Instead, I am going to focus on physical and technological resources, which in many ways dovetail nicely into public disclosure. I read through the report and found it to be, for the most part, backwards looking on these issues, so I decided to focus on areas for potential improvement. In essence, in my view Williams, once at the forefront of its peers in terms of technological innovation, now lags substantially behind in several key areas (many of them previously discussed at Ephblog). Remember the 1990’s, when Williams was graduating the likes of Bo Peabody, founder of Tripod, who received enormous assistance from (sadly, since-deceased) faculty member Dick Sabot? Reveling in the success of AOL led by alumni Steve Case? Working with North Adams as an incubator of high-tech start-ups? When students created WSO, a first-of-its-kind, truly pathbreaking student-run virtual campus nerve center? When Williams featured the first class taught via teleconference across the Atlantic? Those days seem to be long gone. Williams now appears to be a follower, and a reluctant one at that, rather than a leader in the world of technology. And that is a discredit to its students, who will need to be increasingly fluent in that world to survive, let alone thrive, in the coming decades.
First, the school makes far too few events and far too little information readily accessible to alumni and the public at large. For a small, fairly isolated college with relatively little name recognition outside of elite academic circles, this represents a massive missed opportunities. The college blog page is amazingly skimpy. Why not an Admissions blog (as some colleges have), something with compelling and relevant content that will serve as a great (and basically costless) advertising tool to reach out to non-traditional and foreign applicants? How about an administration / President’s blog? I am happy to see that, to its credit, Williams finally has a truly fantastic virtual tour (though oddly not as fleshed out as it could be), but it took Williams several years to finally catch up to peers in this regard. Why aren’t more art history lectures, or football and basketball games, or Chapin Hall acappella concerts, or guest speakers, webcast in real time, or at least available via podcast (to be fair, the college has finally made some great strides here, but again as a follower rather than a leader among its peers, and still has a loooong way to go)? Why is the Williams webpage so pedestrian, uninspired, and lacking in aesthetic appeal? Feel free to list other suggestions via comments; these are but a few. Since sunlight is the best disinfectant, the interests of public disclosure (obviously) and integrity (less obviously, but no less forcefully) will also be served via these suggested changes. [Update: thanks to DK for providing links in the comments section to previous threads where some of these, and some other, technological initiatives were proposed and discussed]
The second major arena for potential technological innovation lies in the connectivity realm. The alumni networking database is ridiculously outdated and incredibly unwieldy, with basically no useable search function. There is no reason for this to remain in its current form, both in terms of content (the college needs to be at least half as aggressive soliciting alumni as volunteers and for updated contact information as it does for money, especially because the former is generally far more appreciated) and functionality (again, embarassingly bad and it has been that way for years). Why not make annual giving fun, not to mention a far more visceral / interactive experience, via this brilliant idea from Jonathan Landsman? Why not save trees and allow folks to opt-out of receiving class notes in paper format? Going electronic will not only better serve the environment, but also allow for more timely distribution of news and enabled embedded photographs, links, and videos of interest. Moreover, the college could do more to facilitate, or at least refrain from obstructing, networking, information sharing, and general communication between students, applicants, alumni, parents, basically all current, past, or prospective members of the Williams community. Others more creative and more technologically fluent than myself could surely provide some specific ideas here — but really, the point is not a paucity of creative ideas, but rather a lack of initiative in implementing bold, off-the-beaten track suggestions. And as the college that made purple cows cool, shouldn’t Williams be a leader when it comes to quirky, inventive, maybe even slightly offbeat technological innovations? This may require less administrative control over messaging, and more trust in the college’s individual students, faculty members, and alumni, but isn’t that generally a good thing?
I want to raise one additional point within the ambit of my assigned arena, but outside the scope of my central theme: what capital projects do folks believe Williams should embark on over the next 20 years? Fortunately, this is one arena in which Williams is far, far ahead of its peers, or at least it will be once the Sawyer project is completed. But, there are still a few campus eyesores / deficient facilities which could be remedied. All of these projects figure to be far smaller in scale and cheaper in cost than any of the recent massive construction projects (Unified Science Center, Paresky, 62 Theater, and Sawyer/Stetson). In no particular order, I nominate: (1) getting the football field project back on track as soon as financially feasible, (2) reconfiguring Chandler gym to be far more accessible and have better locker room, training, and weight facilities, (3) expanding / replacing the Fieldhouse, (4) excising the tumor that is Bernhard from the side of Chapin and building a new, more attractive, largely underground music facilities, (5) demolishing Tyler Annex and replacing it with better (and likely more) housing, (6) working with the town to create a true pedestrian connection / flow between Spring and Water streets and insure construction of more apartment style housing and student-friendly businesses, and (7) repurposing existing space or via creative remodelling of space [the new field house]? create a large scale music venue that can host semi-regular major concerts in an attractive setting with great accoustics. Any other nominations?
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