By President Adam F. Falk
The Induction of Adam F. Falk as the 17th President of Williams College
Convocation, September 25, 2010
I am honored and humbled to stand before you as the seventeenth president of Williams. I’m deeply grateful to Greg Avis, the Board of Trustees, and the Search Committee for allowing me this remarkable opportunity. I follow in the steps of previous Williams presidents who set the highest standards for academic leadership and I’m especially pleased that two of them – Frank Oakley and John Chandler – honor us with their presence today.
I’m touched deeply by the greetings extended by Ifiok and Emanuel, Eiko, Danielle, Chris, and Peter, and am particularly glad to have the local community represented on this stage in acknowledgement of the College’s deep and expansive roots in the Berkshires soil. The extraordinary welcome that my family and I have received from faculty, staff, students, alumni, and neighbors has left us feeling, already, that Williams and Williamstown are home to us.
And my warmest thanks to all of you for being here today to share in this wonderful celebration of our Williams community and to the many people who’ve worked so hard to plan this day and continue to attend to its every detail.
This day is not about an individual person but about a college. For many of you – alumni, faculty and staff, residents of the Berkshires – Williams has long been in your very bones. For others – students, visitors, recent arrivals – you are, as I am, still discovering this singular place. And for some of you, although you know Williams by reputation, this is the first time you’ve stepped onto this campus and into this valley. But however you have come to Williams, and however well you know it, I hope that by the end of this remarkable day you will appreciate more deeply that not only is Williams a wonderful sort of institution – a superior liberal arts college – but that it’s characterized by certain commitments and by its own vision for the liberal arts that demarcates a particular space in the landscape of higher education – a place we continue to hold dear after more than two centuries.
We learn a lot about ourselves and our communities through the stories we tell about who we are. These stories are important not because they represent the only true history, but because in returning to them we are choosing what we wish to reaffirm in our identity. Some of the great stories of Williams, and the lessons we draw from them, are worth recalling as the College enters a new era.
The most resonant is James Garfield’s describing “the ideal college” as “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.” His point was that education is fundamentally an interaction between committed teacher and engaged student. Everything else that we do supports that relationship. While hardly an unusual philosophy, at Williams we hold it at the very core of who we are. We use it, a century and a half later, to orient our educational priorities. Among the finest accomplishments of Morty Schapiro’s presidency was expansion of the tutorial system, the modern manifestation of this ideal.
What should happen on that log? No one has better described it than Mark Hopkins himself, who said:
We are to regard the mind, not as a piece of iron to be laid upon the anvil and hammered into any shape, nor as a block of marble in which we are to find the statue by removing the rubbish, nor as a receptacle into which knowledge may be poured; but as a flame that is to be fed, as an active being that must be strengthened to think and to feel—to dare, to do, and to suffer.
Liberal education strengthens the mind and spirit so that a human being may more fully engage the world. Since Mark Hopkins’ time a string of Williams educators has further developed this idea. In the middle of the last century Professor Robert Gaudino pushed his charges to learn uncomfortably, in India, in rural America, in situations within the classroom and without that challenged the safe and familiar worlds they’d brought with them. If Mark Hopkins was the first professor to ask his students, “What do you think?” then Gaudino and others, including faculty of today, have raised the asking of that question, with all its implicit challenge, to a form of art.
In the simpler time over which Hopkins presided, virtually all adults on campus were faculty. In this modern age, we are now blessed with staff who, through their support of our academic core and their own interactions with students, are all educators themselves, influencing students lives in ways seen and unseen. None of what Williams has accomplished would have been possible without them.
A second story follows the defection of President Zephaniah Moore that led to the founding of Amherst College. Our two institutions have been siblings, and rivals, and great friends for almost two hundred years, and the rumor that the secret to my appointment here was the promise to beat Amherst always, all years, in every sport, has been greatly – well, somewhat – exaggerated. Yet what’s important, and what we remember and talk about to this day, is what occurred after Moore and his colleagues departed. The alumni of this College, perched on what was thought to be an impossible, barely habitable frontier, rallied to not just save it but enhance it. The formation in 1821 of the first society of alumni in the U.S. was an act both of gratitude for past experiences and of faith in the possibility of a future. It was a commitment that students in perpetuity should be able to share the unique and remarkable experiences available only in this College in this valley. And it’s in this singular spirit that Williams alumni have long expressed their love for alma mater. It’s a passion – at times, we all know, a possibly subclinical fanaticism! –not simply for the Williams of the past but for the Williams of the future. It’s a continuing, shared responsibility for the preservation and advancement of this College drawn straight from the existential crisis of 1821.
A third story also informs deeply who we are. At the Haystack Prayer Meeting of 1806, five Williams students, led by Samuel Mills, conceived the American missionary movement. In doing so, they identified the purpose of their time at Williams as preparation to serve the world in the way they best knew how. A Williams education, as this history indicates, provides not merely a private good, found in the betterment of individual graduates, but a public good, measured in the impact those graduates have on the world. Since the days of the Haystack Movement, we’ve celebrated our alumni above all else for their betterment of their communities, their nation, and this world. Scan the list of Bicentennial Award winners – numbering now more than one hundred, and five of whom we have honored today – and you’ll see men and women who’ve made our world better in myriad ways. We show our truest values through those we honor – the good, the purposeful, and the true, not merely the rich and famous.
These stories tell us both who we’ve been and who we aspire to be. We aim to prepare students for service to the world by providing them learning experiences that are intimate, personal, rigorous, and modern, in a community committed to educational leadership by example. This aspiration demands our best efforts, while attaining it requires us to contend with competing forces familiar from our own history.
For example, what it means for Williams to provide a public good has changed dramatically over time. In the generations following the Haystack Movement, Williams became increasingly a place for affluent northeastern gentlemen to mature to adulthood far from what were thought to be the dissolute influences of the big cities. (In fact, these young gentlemen brought much dissolution with them!) This was at a time when society was thought to be advanced most efficiently by the preparation for leadership of a white, male, Protestant elite. Many of our graduates went on to do great things for the country and the world, but the public aspect of the College’s mission during that time now seems muted. The greatest, and most beneficial, change at Williams has been its opening to the wider world, which began in the 1960s and continued in the decades since with the growing gender, ethnic, cultural, national, religious, and economic diversity of the College community. We now recognize that the future leaders of society will come from all its many parts, and that the highest manifestation of the public good we provide is to be a college for all of the United States, and of the world. One year ago, I was drawn here because I saw this aspiration at the very core of Williams, and in the years to come I assure you that our commitment will only grow.
This evolution of the College community represents profound change of a kind that, in truth, has sometimes proven difficult to achieve. There is in academia a certain resistance to seeing things change too quickly, often in the form of a wisdom that recognizes that the great staying power of colleges and universities derives at least in part from not giving up easily practices that have long proven effective. We shouldn’t, after all, pursue every new idea that comes along. And yet, Williams’ greatest advances have occurred when we led, rather than followed, our peers. In this regard, Jack Sawyer stands as the exemplary Williams president, building the consensus and the coalitions that enabled the College to transcend its then fraternity-dominated culture. This change, as painful as it was to many, laid the groundwork both for coeducation and for the much more deeply egalitarian community that the College had to become. Sawyer’s genius was to understand that change at Williams cannot be accomplished by a lone leader, but must involve the community as a whole: students, faculty, staff, and, critically, trustees and alumni. This doesn’t mean that everyone agreed with the direction Sawyer led the College, far from it. But he made sure that all voices, including those most likely to dissent, were heard clearly and brought, where possible, to the side of change. Through it all, he tapped, wisely and skillfully, into that purple-blooded passion for the Williams to come that so especially characterizes our alumni — the desire we share that the Williams we love forever evolve to meet the future. Like education itself, change at Williams is a social activity – one that we engage in together, talking to each other on the log.
Another challenge through our history has been balancing for our students their academic activities and other learning experiences. While academic pursuits are at the heart of what we offer, it’s the case that artistic and athletic endeavors, religious and social justice commitments, along with simple play all contribute to student development. In case you suspect that finding the right balance among these is a new challenge, I submit the following words of Mark Hopkins:
But the truth is that students, in common with other classes of the community, not only do not exercise enough, but they live in the constant violation of all the rules of dietetics. Some have used, and still do, intoxicating drinks; a much larger number use tobacco, many of them are constantly loading their stomachs with raisins and almonds, and various kinds of confectionary. They eat too much, they sit up late under the excitement of novel reading, and perhaps for study. Let their food be of proper quantity and quality, let them avoid poisonous and narcotic substances, let them keep regular hours, and shun the predominance of an excited or polluted imagination, and they will find that there is an elasticity in the human frame that requires exercise.
The continuing need to recalibrate that balance has been, and I suspect always will be, a matter of some tension within our community. Since the days of Mark Hopkins, the worry has often lurked that if we don’t maintain a certain balance, our College will lose its way. But what students bring to the college experience and the ways in which they need to develop, change as continually as does our culture. It will always remain our work to understand our students’ shifting needs, and to help them balance work and play, sports and the arts, activity and rest, and even – yes – the consumption of raisins and almonds. After all, we are more than simply teachers of the mind, we are developers and nurturers of the spirit.
Even if we’re confident in who we aspire to be and aware of the conflicts long embedded in that aspiration, we now find ourselves at a precise moment in the college’s history, in which we face particular challenges. What must we do to manifest the essence of Williams in this new century? Let me share three initial thoughts on this.
First, we have not just the opportunity but, because of the advantages afforded us, the responsibility to be a national leader – maybe the national leader – in innovative and effective teaching. We have all the elements in place: talented faculty; bright, committed students; and, most important, an academic culture that places teaching at its heart. Our faculty walk in the footsteps of Hopkins, Gaudino, and so many others. Innovation does not mean chasing every fad and every new technology, despite all the possibilities that technology affords; often it means embracing the familiar in new and creative ways. Whatever some say, the traditional disciplines are far from obsolete, although they are in conversation and collaboration with each other more richly than ever before. What innovation does require is that we continually rethink how we teach our students, and what we teach them, using every new tool that deepens their engagement with our subjects and with us. It means broadening our teaching mission beyond Williams, to leadership on the national stage. It means arguing for the value of the liberal arts by sharing with the world the example of what we do. And when we tell students, and alumni, and the media, that the finest possible education in America is to be had at Williams, we must know that we mean it, and that it’s unarguably true.
Let me pause for a minute to say a word about the role of the faculty here. It recently has become quite fashionable in some circles – including, oddly enough, academic ones – to bash the professoriate as selfish and out of touch, more interested in perks and ostensibly esoteric research than in teaching students. I say to you now, categorically, that I reject this slander, certainly here at Williams and also widely across American higher education. In my six months here, I’ve been profoundly impressed by the depth of our faculty’s commitment to the mission of Williams, by their relentless energy in pursuing excellence in teaching and scholarship, and by the culture of mutual accountability that infuses their work. The quality of a Williams education, the transformative experiences that students have had over the generations, are the direct result of faculty leadership of the academic mission. This is the bedrock on which this institution was built, and on which we’ll continue, fundamentally, to rely.
Second, we must develop a deeper understanding of what it means for Williams to be an international institution. We must simultaneously be local and global, building a very specific, Berkshires-based Williams that could only be found in this valley, while reaching out far beyond to prepare our students to be effective citizens not only of this country but of the world. Many pieces of this process seem obvious – bring international students to Williams, send Williams students to study abroad – but our conception of a global strategy is still emerging. We are, after all, not a sprawling multiversity but a small college of two thousand students, each here for four years and some thirty courses. We cannot simply add every desirable experience to our curriculum or to student life. We must become global within our existing scale and scope, and without chasing fashions or being driven by our shifting anxieties about America’s geopolitical position. Grappling with this question will require the engagement of our entire community, as our strategies will encompass the curriculum and extend into so much of what we do. And we must think of the internationalization of Williams as something that happens here in Williamstown, capitalizing on what this campus and region can offer.
Third, the promise represented by the great broadening of our College community remains incompletely fulfilled. Our multicultural expression has been won with great investment in recruitment, financial aid, and programming. Though, as deeply proud as we are of this accomplishment, it is but the first mile on a path to the rich, vibrant community to which we aspire. Williams is full of wonderful students from every walk of life, and many corners of the country and the world. Perhaps nothing has inspired me more in the past six months than discovering the remarkable depth, commitment, and quality of our students. But how can all this difference flourish while at the same time we build a single community that welcomes and supports all? As we are discovering in society as a whole, the answer is neither assimilation to a single culture nor parallel coexistence. It doesn’t stop with access or tolerance but involves treating differences of all kinds as boundaries to be crossed in both directions. If we can accomplish this – internalize this perspective on difference – we can become truly global, and teach and learn as never before.
And of course, even now, we must make the case vigorously for the liberal arts – to students, to parents, to legislators, and to our colleague institutions. We live at a time when the national instinct is to confuse accountability with quantitative assessment, and to value increasingly only those outcomes that can be assigned a number, however misleading that number may be. We’ve become obsessed with the facts that our children memorize, rather than the development of their capacity to thrive as whole human beings. To steel our nerves for the fight, we do well to recall the eloquence with which Jack Sawyer threw down the gauntlet when he said:
This much we do know: that no training in fixed techniques, no finite knowledge now at hand, no rigid formula [students] might be given can solve problems whose shape we cannot yet define . . . The most versatile, the most durable, in an ultimate sense the most practical knowledge and intellectual resources which they can now be offered are those impractical arts and sciences around which a liberal arts education has long centered: the capacity to see and feel, to grasp, respond and act over a widening arc of experience; the disposition and ability to think, to question, to use knowledge to order an ever-extending range of reality; the elasticity to grow, to perceive more widely and more deeply, and perhaps to create; the understanding to decide where to stand and the will and tenacity to do so; the wit and wisdom, the humanity and the humor to try to see oneself, one’s society, and one’s world with open eyes, to live a life usefully, to help things in which one believes on their way.
If we are not at Williams for this very purpose, then what are we for?
These are the challenges we face entering the second decade of the century. We rise to meet them led by our most fundamental ethical claims. The deep commitment of this faculty, expressed over many generations, always to ask first what is in the best interest of students, is our moral center. It permeates the Williams tradition of faculty governance over what and how we teach – which is a foundational strength of our College. The second great commitment is that no inherited characteristic – neither gender, nor race, nor sexual identity – shall be any barrier to full participation in our community. The third is that, to the fullest extent possible, we will welcome here those born to every circumstance – whether economic background, or national identity, or religious tradition, or social class.
Six weeks ago, on vacation with my family, I hiked to the top of Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii. Mauna Loa is, by volume, the largest mountain on Earth, and I stood at the highest elevation in the middle of the largest ocean in the world. At moments like that you expect yourself to think great, perhaps even holy, thoughts. Yet I was drawn then to think of this moment now, and how – as beautiful, stark and inspiring as that place was – my work in life is here, together, with you. None of what we hope for Williams can be accomplished alone, nor will it spring from sublime mountaintop revelations. It will result only from our creative and communal work. We love the Williams that we know and have known, but we will love even more the Williams that we create. Let us join together, now and in the years to come, to bring that Williams forth.