Thu 7 Jan 2010
It’s that time of year again. In Williamstown Winter Study has arrived. January is when athletes suffer through two-or-three-a-days (the idea of Winter Study as a pleasant little wintry jol was always a myth to me), when seniors want to live life to the fullest but also wonder where they will be and what they will be doing in just a few months, and when acolytes of David Kane fall in love, or at least try desperately to. I miss Williams this time of year even if I would not survive the first morning workout. Then again, I miss Williams at every time of year.
At Ephblog we have developed our own January tradition, our own Winter Study program. We have taken the “Cross Generational Community of Learning,” Professor Robert Jackall’s felicitous phrase for what we all might aspire to for Williams, as a model for our own winter study seminar. This year’s theme for CGCL VI is “A New Presidency.”
David Kane asked if I would start off as the ringleader for the first discussion, which will be on the College’s Presidential Search Prospectus. (I’ll wait for you to go read it . . . Ok, you’re back.) We know a great deal about the process and the outcome of the search and many of us have strong ideas about every step along the way as well as what we hope (and fear?) will come from President Falk’s tenure.
Here are my very tentative and episodic thoughts. Once I am done, you will carry the day with the quality of the discussion.
My first impression of the prospectus was and is not especially astute, insightful, clever, or scholarly: Wow!
We get so caught up in the minutia
Williams could beat a Division I sports team! [New Building X] is a monstrosity! The way Williams students go through the housing process is different from how I would do it! I would spend money this way! A random alum hates the Yankees! Etc. etc. etc.
that we often miss out on a larger truth: Williams is a special, transcendant place and we are lucky, whether as alums, current students, parents, members of the Williamstown community, or interested observers to have had any affiliation with the college whatsoever. Four years pass by in my life in what seems like no time these days and yet those four years in the Purple Valley seem to loom ever larger and somehow seemd to have lasted longer as the years go by.
The Presidential Search Prospectus is divided in to five sections, though one of these, the last, is the application process itself. The other four are “The Williams Community,” “Williams: Essential Facts,” “The Leadership Challenge,” and “Qualifications and Experience.” I will address these subsections only briefly and then the floor is yours, my colleagues in this cross generational community of learning.
The Williams Community: This is the most inspiring part as far as I am concerned. It is a beautifully-written narrative that captures how most of us think of the college and would like for others to think of it. It captures the sense of community that envelopes Williams; the advantages of its location; the strength of its students, faculty, and staff; the importance of its history in shaping its present state; and the role leadership has played in turning the college into the institution it is today. This section inspired the “Wow!” response I noted above.
Williams: Essential Facts: This section is a great deal drier, the nuts and bolts. It is also all of the material that we know by heart because it seems to find its way into every mailing from the college, particularly those that we alums get in hopes of inspiring our financial largesse. Far less inspiring than the section that preceded it, this section also probably gives the sort of information that might most interest a prospective president. I would have supposed that someone interested in applying for the job of Williams President would have a pretty good idea of what Williams is about, but then again, I’ve sat on enough search committees in which it took fewer than ten seconds to realize that the applicant was utterly unqualified for the post and they should have recognized as much from reading the ad. (Even with all of this, I bet the folks at Isaakson, Miller received a few applications that left them scratching their heads.)
I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was no mention of the college’s rankings in US News and its ilk. The prospectus made passing reference to the college’s success in the Director’s Cup, but in a sense that surely was intended to provide a specific and perhaps not as well known context about the college (sporty, successful in small-college sports, but with priorities in order) that truly should be unnecessary for the college’s academic standing. My university received nice mentions in Newsweek and US News for real but modest accomplishments a few years back and we still keep yammering on about it at every turn. I really appreciate that Williams could provide a solid sense of itself without descending to that level of crassness.
The Leadership Challenge: This brings us to the nutmeat, as Stephen Colbert might say. And I would surmise that both in this discussion and over the course of the month it will provide the most grist for discussion. Perhaps it can be summed up as: “You now know that Williams is awesome. Now make it awesomer! Oh: And you’re inheriting some money troubles.” At the same time, this section also reminded me again of why Williams is such a special place. The various priorities all come back to the idea of sustaining the Williams community, of serving students and faculty and staff, of having a vision far beyond fundraising even if fundraising is part of the job. Trust me when I say: Most places do not see leadership in the way that Williams seems to, and if they do, it is boilerplate and perfunctory.
Qualifications and Experience: It comes down to this: You should be brilliant and charismatic and funny; You should understand the liberal arts model and especially the way Williams has perfected it; You should enjoy students and faculty and administrators (oh my!); Oh, and: that money thing again.
For as long as I have been affiliated with Williams (and by all reckonings long before) Williams presidents have fulfilled these long-standing objectives and have left an imprint on the college so that presidential terms really do embody their eras of Williams history. I suspect that Adam Falk will do the same.
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