The class of 2014 arrives today. Welcome! As a service to future historians, here (pdf) is a permanent copy of the schedule for First Days. Notice any changes from your First Days? I am pleased to see that my classmate, Professor Katie Kent ’88, is headlining tonight’s main event about “Claiming Williams.” Perhaps she will include a few words about those Ephs among us with unusual political views . . .

Below the break is my annual letter to the JAs about teaching themselves (and all first year students) “The Mountains.” Perhaps this is the year . . .

To the JA’s for the class of 2014:

At the 1989 Williams graduation ceremonies, then-President Francis
Oakley had a problem. Light rain showers, which had been threatening
all morning, started mid-way through the event. Thinking that he
should speed things along, and realizing that virtually no one knew
the words to “The Mountains,” President Oakley proposed that the
traditional singing be skipped.

A cry arose from all Ephs present, myself included. Although few knew
the words, all wanted to sing the damn song. Sensing rebellion,
President Oakley relented and led the assembled graduates and guests
through a somewhat soaked rendition of the song that has marked
Williams events for more than 100 years.

Similar scenes play themselves out at Williams gatherings around the
country. At many of the Williams weddings that you will attend in the
future, an attempt, albeit a weak one, will be made to sing “The
Mountains.” At reunions, “The Mountains” will be sung, generally with
the help of handy cards supplied by the Alumni Office. It is obvious
that most graduates wish that they knew the words. It is equally
obvious than almost all do not.

We have a collective action problem. Everyone (undergraduates and
alumni alike) wishes that everyone knew the words — it would be
wonderful to sing “The Mountains” at events ranging from basketball
games in the gym to hikes up Pine Cobble to gatherings around the
world. But there is no point in me learning the words since, even if I
knew them, there would be no one else who did. Since no single
individual has an incentive to learn the words, no one bothers to
learn them. We are stuck at a sub-optimal equilibrium.

Fortunately, you have the power to fix this. You could learn “The
Mountains” together, as a group, during your JA orientation. You could
then teach all the First Years during First Days. It will no doubt
make for a nice entry bonding experience. All sorts of goofy ideas
come to mind. How about a singing contest at the opening dinner,
judged by President Falk, between the six different first year dorms
with first prize being a pizza dinner later in the fall at the
President’s House?

It will not be enough to learn the song that evening. Periodically
over the last dozen years, attempts have been made to teach the words
at dinner or at the class meeting in Chapin. Such efforts, worthy as
they are, always fail. Until a class of JAs decide as a group to learn
the words (by heart) themselves during their training and then to
teach it to all the First Years before the first evening’s events,
“The Mountains” will remain a relic of a Williams that time has passed
by.

But that is up to you. Once a tradition like this is started, it will
go on forever. And you will be responsible for that. A hundred years
from now the campus will look as different from today as today looks
from 1909, but, if you seize this opportunity, Williams students and
alumni will still be singing “The Mountains.”

Congratulations on being selected as a JA. It is a singular honor and
responsibility.

Regards,

Dave Kane ’88

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