President Emeritus Oakley has sent a note to EphBlog in which he expresses his regret that “I have been caught up since 2005 with a (perhaps overambitious) three-volume writing project, and with an impending deadline and the sound of time’s winged chariot drawing up behind me, I simply don’t have the time to engage the proliferating commentary of the real Ephbloggers.”

Details on the trilogy published by Yale University Press and wonderful reviews may be seen here.

However, in the true spirit of this gracious man, he has written what he labeled his ‘swansong’ on matters on which he can offer a unique understanding and perspective.

Thank you for joining with us, Francis Oakley. We wish you hail and farewell.

Dear Fellow Ephbloggers:

I must resist the temptation to involve myself once again in the whole big issue of the cost of an undergraduate education. (I should more properly say “price” because tuitions covers only about 60% of the actual “cost”).

I gave that issue my best shot in 1990, and at some length, in my President’s Report for 1989. As I am no longer fully up to date on the facts of the matter, I should leave it at that.

But, before I unplug from EPHBLOG (which I intend to do after this effusion!), perhaps I might be permitted to respond to PTC’s very thoughtful question/comment relating to the College’s economic role in the local community. A whole series of issues are embedded in, or entailed by, that comment. Let me take up just four of them.

1. The historical issue of the College’s response in the mid-1980s to the closing of Sprague Electric, the region’s biggest employer.

That closing was something of a disaster for the whole area, and, of course, those of us charged with responsibility for the College were well aware of the proportions of the crisis it represented.

Governor Dukakis put together a Task Force for the Northern Berkshires to see what could be done, and representatives of Williams played a significant role in that effort.

But the College really moved into the center of things in 1985-86 with the effort to save and rehabilitate the old Sprague Electric factory buildings to house a truly major museum of contemporary art. The idea, and initial energy, of course, came from Tom Krens, then Director of the Williams College Museum of Art, and he deserves great credit for that. But as an institution the College stepped in to lend the idea credibility and to give the project its full support—financial, for the great planning effort needed, staff time, influence, lobbying at the State House etc, etc. That mattered a lot.

It tends to be forgotten now that there was at the start a good deal of skepticism in the air about the MASSMoCA project. It didn’t help, for example, that The Berkshire Eagle’s editorial stance on the matter was bleakly and consistently negative.

But with the governor’s help, we got the necessary money from the Commonwealth ( a capital infusion of some 35 millions to work on the buildings), and that certainly and quickly benefited the local sub-contractors involved for several years in that work.

And, in the longer haul, of course, the museum has proved to be a great success and, both as an economic development project and an important cultural draw for out of state as well as regional visitors, has certainly contributed, not simply to the survival but also to the revitalization of North Adams.

I am very proud of the role Williams played in making that outcome possible. Without Williams, in fact, or so I firmly believe, MASSMoCA would not have come into existence.

2. A related and more general point: the impact of the College’s (and the Clark Art Institute’s) capital projects on the local workforce and economy.

While the general contractors for big construction projects tend to come from larger places like Boston or Albany, as many of the subsidiary contracts as possible are awarded locally.

This can have a very significant impact on local businesses, especially if the work is being done, as it were, counter-cyclically during an economic downturn. For almost thirty years now, I have been deeply involved in the governance of the Clark and am very pleased that we have been able to keep our big construction program going right through the current economic downturn when many another capital project had to be put on ice.

3. Another general point, but one relating now to the obligation that the College feels as the largest employer in the northern Berkshire region to maintain its long-standing record as a stable employer.

And that record is quite consciously maintained. During the 1990-91 downturn, when we were running deficits and had to reduce our workforce by some four percent, we did so via the less efficient route of attrition through retirement and non-replacement in order to avoid resort to layoffs. That last objevtive was a top priority that enjoyed general support on campus. And the same line of march appears to have been followed during the current, much more severe, downturn.

4. More specifically, responding now to PTC’s precise comment on growth in the College’s physical plant and the possibility that Williams was encroaching “on the ownership of prime business properties.”

Here I should note that, while there was a good deal of such growth in the early 1980s (all of it, I believe, on land long since owned by the College) and that it fell to me to see the gym and museum projects through to completion,

I wanted to give construction a rest and we did not, in fact, do all that much building on my watch. We built the Williams College Jewish Religious Center and an addition to Hopkins Hall—both, of course, on College land in the central campus.

We also began building the Spencer Studio Art Center, this last on part of the land left vacant by the Taconic Lumber Company after it had removed its business operations to a more convenient location.

The Williamstown Savings Bank, which needed room to expand, purchased the rest of that lot. To my knowledge, we two were the only bidders for the site.

Earlier on, we had purchased the old Grundy’s garage on Water Street after it had stood empty for a while. But there we created new business (retail) space and, as a bicentennial gift to the community, donated a new garage/headquarters building and the land on which it stood to the Williamstown Ambulance service which badly needed such a facility.

Again, we donated to the town for Spring Street parking the municipal parking lot at the end of Spring Street and later, after my time, constructed new (and, it seems successful) retail space at that end of the street. Given the town’s zoning ordinance, and with the exception of our book depository on route 7, retail space would seem to be the only business space we would be at all likely to encroach upon, and it is my sense that over the past several decades we have actually created new retail space rather than taken it away.

So I must confess to being a bit puzzled by the reference to the College’s “encroachment on prime business space.” But, then on such matters as on many another the devil tends to lie in the details, and I obviously cannot claim to being as well informed on such things as I was seventeen years ago when it was one of my day to day responsibilities.

(And) An endnote, which is at least of marginal relevance to these things and perhaps a bit more than that.

In my experience the College has been pretty sensitive to the need to avoid competing with local businesses, either in relation to land issues or to business operations.

A significant number (on my watch, a majority) of the senior administrators involved in setting College policy are, after all, themselves long-term Williamstown residents with as much claim to classifying themselves as such as any other non-native Williamstowner. They are not a bunch of outsiders and they hold the place dear. I know that I do.

This is my fiftieth year as a card-carrying Williamstowner. I’m here, among other reasons, because I love the place.

Francis Oakley
President emeritus

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