To the Williams Community,
On the first day of this spring semester, I’m thinking about the important work of building. There’s the literal kind, of which we’ve seen a lot lately, that has involved the reuse of some well-worn and beloved spaces on campus—Chapin Hall transformed into a magnificent performance venue, Weston Hall re-imagined as a new home for admission and financial aid and an important front door to Williams, and the Log restored and revived as a central gathering place for students, faculty, staff, alumni, and local residents.
Each of those renovation projects was demanding—complicated and challenging to design, engineer, and build—and each was entirely worth the effort. The ways in which those buildings are already enhancing our community make that clear.
We look forward to the day when a new building will allow us to enhance our educational and public programs in the visual arts, as well. But we realize that for a significant number of community members the idea that such a facility might be constructed near the corner of Southworth and Main streets is unappealing. So I’m pleased to report that the project’s building committee has decided to suspend its consideration of that site and focus on developing viable alternatives. We expect this work to take some time, after which the building committee will consider the various options and collaborate with the college’s administration and board of trustees in determining the next steps to be taken.
If it seems as though construction is perpetual around here, there’s another kind of building that’s truly ongoing, and that’s the building of community. Those recently renovated spaces move that work significantly forward, but it takes much more than well-designed physical structures to create and nurture the kind of community to which we aspire.
That work has been evolving for generations, and it, too, is demanding, complicated, and worthwhile. Indeed, it’s why we’re all here. Because, in fact, the measure of a Williams education is the quality of the citizens we produce, and those citizens are largely shaped by their experiences in our community. The access we enable, the opportunities we provide, the relationships we build, these are the ways we construct a community. And this kind of building requires commitment from all of us.
Tomorrow, we’ll start off the semester as we have for several years now, with Claiming Williams Day, which grew out of the student-led Stand With Us movement. Claiming Williams’ mission was and is bold: “By challenging the effects of the college’s history of inequality that are based on privileges of class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion, we will provoke individual, institutional, and cultural change.”
This year’s theme, “Examining the Williams Way,” invites us to consider our history and our history of change. It’ll be a day of critical questions and conversations, and I hope everyone will take part.
The spring semester will see us move forward with another important community conversation, the consideration of historical representations on campus. My thanks go to Karen Merrill and all of the members of the committee I’ve asked to think about how the college’s history is manifested in our campus environment. That’s not about tearing down everything that came before or turning a blind eye to our past. Quite the opposite, it’s about—like Claiming Williams—examining the Williams way, thinking together about representations of our history and their implications in a contemporary context, considering what they meant to our predecessors and what they mean to those of us who are here today. I look forward to the committee’s work, especially its engagement of the broader Williams community in this discussion, and to a resulting set of recommendations both general and specific.
We’ve been working hard on the initiatives we announced in the fall to address climate change, and by the end of the semester we’ll be able to share with you an update on the progress we’re making.
We’ll also hear soon from Dean Sarah Bolton with an annual update on the college’s work in sexual assault prevention and response, work that is urgent and continuing toward the essential goal of eliminating all sexual violence at Williams. This year the work has included, among other things, the further strengthening of student and staff training, changes in the disciplinary process based on feedback from those who have participated in it, and work to improve the safety of social events, undertaken with the support of a multi-institutional grant from the Department of Justice.
Finally, there’s another kind of building that I’m frequently working on, and that’s building support for Williams. As you know, we launched the Teach It Forward campaign in October—a groundbreaking of another sort—and I’m pleased to say we’re seeing broad support and enthusiastic engagement throughout the Williams community.
The single largest fundraising priority in the campaign is to build endowment for financial aid. Financial aid is the engine that fuels the diversity of the student body, helping us to bring to the college the best students from all walks of life and ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to thrive and experience Williams. Critically, the campaign will also build support for recruiting and retaining the next generation of Williams professors, for further diversifying the faculty and for providing opportunities for them to engage deeply with students in teaching and scholarship. Those two initiatives—financial aid and faculty support—represent $300 million in aspirations in this campaign.
And our aspirations for Williams are as ambitious as our aspirations for the campaign. The thoughtful, deliberate building of our community and the building up—rather than tearing down—of one another is maybe the most demanding work we’ll do. It’s also, by far, the most important. Thank you for joining me in it.