Last night (Wednesday), I joined approximately 150-200 of my fellow alumni, parents, and friends of the NorCal Alumni Chapter to listen to Chair of the Trustees Greg Avis ’80, interim President Bill Wagner, and incoming President Adam Falk. I came away from the evening more impressed by each of them than I had been previously. Before I go any further, I should thank Chapter Prez Shannon Walsh ’03 for pulling together the inaugural edition of this roadshow they’ll be shopping around the country to other chapters. I know they were in LA tonight, will be in San Diego tomorrow (Friday) and in DC on Feb. 22nd, but I haven’t a clue when they’ll be elsewhere. This is a good reason to check out the events calendar on the alumni page and/or subscribe to your regional alumni email list.
And now on to the event…(you’ll have to go below the fold for the juicy details)
After about an hour of tasty treats and tasty wine and some mingling with other alums, Sarah Underhill ’80, President of the Society of Alumni introduced Greg Avis, who served as a sort of panel moderator for the event. I was personally pretty impressed with the turnout on a Wednesday evening at the top of Nob Hill….to be honest, the setting was appropriately snobby for the image of Williams (seriously, the Fairmount Hotel?) but was indeed quite nice.
The format was Avis, President Wagner, and President-Elect Falk sitting around a table on stage. Avis asked questions, and each of them answered. The first (I think? Or second…) question lead to Wagner using a phrase that I think describes Williams Alumni better than anything I’ve ever heard. He described our active and very engaged commentariat, donor force, and fans as exhibiting “constructive loyalty.” Falk echoed the feeling of this phrase in one of his answers about what attracted him to Williams. We are a group of people committed to the excellence of the school and to improving it to offer the most possible to its students. I think that phrase should hopefully describe what some people (ahem) do on this blog – such fierce loyalty and love for the institution that we loudly proclaim the changes and improvements we’d like to see to get it up to the ideal in our own minds.
But I digress – Avis asked some softballs but also some good questions, including why we should trust/respect/like/hope in a new President who is not “already purple” and seemingly doesn’t have a path that would lead an outside observer to think “Williams.” Falk described how he followed the thread from Hopkins to Williams: a commitment, no matter what else happens, to find a way to connect teachers to students. That whatever it is, whatever magical thing happens when you get good teachers together with engaged students, is the key to higher education. In other words, he basically descried Mark Hopkins and the Log without using those words. He is fully aware of the difference between the schools, but felt that within the School of Arts & Sciences there was a similar commitment to connecting in that way.
And in a move that would have made David probably jump up and cheer, in a discussion regarding being President in the current economic climate, he candidly admitted how low the endowment per student is at Hopkins, and how they were often strapped for cash. He discussed making choices of only being able to do 1 of 6 amazing projects/programs that were proposed. Falk seems aware that cuts will need to be made, although he also admitted to being grateful that many of those cuts will have already been decided for the short-term and he hopes the economy will improve! Anyway, seemed aware of the need in that area, but also well aware of the very committee and faculty-driven culture at Williams. He had a funny phrase to describe the committee culture that I wish I remembered. Anyway, he’s done is homework about how the school functions.
Now, I know this blog has speculated repeatedly about the Search Committee process, who met whom when and where, etc. What they did say is that Adam did a videoconference from Europe (while he was suffering from H1N1 btw). The Committee was on a schedule to do interviews, and so he made it work despite those problems. Even with the difficult circumstances, apparently they were interested enough to continue the process, and he then (to make up for it) did several interviews with small groups of committee members around the country. He mentioned how privileged he felt to get the chance to talk more in depth and learn more of the various perspectives as he did that. Avis told a cute story that he was impressed that his daughter (age 20) stayed for the entire 3 hour dinner and remained engaged in the discussion the entire time…and how getting a 20 year-old to have dinner in the presence of her parents over the summer for that length of time was in itself impressive.
Let’s see…I didn’t take notes, so I apologize if I’m not quoting or being too detailed. Oh, the other major topic (as always happens whenever anyone governance-like at Williams answers questions) was athletics. Bill Wagner discussed his time dealing with NESCAC and the NCAA, and how there were positive changes (partially driven by Williams) in NESCAC, and that he was somewhat horrified by the way Div I & II folks at the NCAA meeting/conference were pretty blunt that the kids are entertainers as much as athletes and the role that played. Then Falk had his chance to weigh in, and I was rather impressed. He recognized the importance of athletics at Williams and mentioned the important, in his mind, of Williams labeling/treating its coaches as faculty. He thought that reflected well the idea that coaches are teachers and athletics is/should be another form of a learning experience for students. In responding to a few related audience questions, he emphasized that he appreciates the well-rounded ideal of a student, but he would resist the idea of academic credit for athletics. He called himself a bit of a “purist” when it comes to academics. He supports sports and other outdoor/indoor activities, but thinks they are a good supplement to academics as part of the educational experience. He did mention being aware of the division of the day and how to allow students to do both.
Last thing I’ll note is that Avis ribbed him a bit about being only the second scientist ever to helm Williams College (the other was a biologist in the 19th century, I apologize I can’t name the prez off the top of my head). Falk joked that a biologist was really just a lexicographer back then (SAT word, nerdiness, and humor all in one…in other words, a Williams guy). He also mentioned re: distance learning, tech, etc. that he supports finding ways to reach out more to alumni in terms of allowing interaction with faculty. He encouraged any alumni chapter to bring individual profs out to speak. He mentioned that there are a couple of profs (sorry, again, forgot names) who will have lectures/speeches in podcast or similar form upon on the website in the near future.
My overall impression of Adam Falk is that he is a very outgoing, friendly nerd. He strikes me as someone I could have known at Williams actually. He is well spoken, funny, and obviously smart as hell. I would have *loved* him as a professor…if I’d ever taken physics, that is. I can see how he won teaching awards at Harvard and at Hopkins. He can speak very astutely and carefully about higher education today, and particular liberal arts education. He wasn’t thrown by the questions from the crowd, cheerfully took jokes about his tie being the “wrong” shade of purple, and willingly mingled with alums both before and after the discussion panel.
I am again grateful for Bill Wagner’s willingness to helm the ship in the mean time. I never took classes with him, but he is the very image of the small college professor.
For anyone who can get to one of these meet & greet sessions, I’d highly recommend it. As I said above, I know he’s going to DC on Feb. 22nd. A quick check just now of the alumni calendar shows they were in LA tonight, and they’ll be in San Diego tomorrow night (Friday 1/29). I’ll happily answer questions if you have them, to the best of my memory. If we have any other NorCal lurkers reading this, please chime in.