Catching Up at the Beginning of the Semester

To the Williams Community,

In thinking about this spring semester, there’s no better place to start than Claiming Williams. What a marvelous event—people from across campus engaged together with topics of such importance to us all and to the college. Every event I attended or heard about was either full or overly full.

In the opening session, Melissa Harris-Perry forcefully articulated what it means to bring our passions to our work, especially our academic work, and how exploration of the big issues in any field of study should lead to an ever-evolving questioning of what’s truly important. Grappling with those questions is so much at the heart of the academy and of Williams.

I was pleased to hear about the many ways that staff were involved with Claiming Williams, and in particular about the forums in which students and faculty expressed directly to staff, often movingly, their essential roles in what we do here.

The weekend’s deplorable act of racism—all the more appalling because of its timing just after Claiming Williams and at the start of Black History month—is another painful reminder that our work to make this the community we seek is both important and urgent.*

Our thanks go to the many people who organized Claiming Williams. These include Carmen Whalen, professor of history and associate dean for institutional diversity, whose dedicated work in the latter position comes to a close at the end of this semester. I’m happy to report that Karen Swann, professor of English and a long-time member of the Committee on Diversity and Community, has agreed to succeed Carmen. This relatively new position has brought great value to the college, as I know it will continue to with someone serving in it who’s as deeply committed to these issues as Karen.

A special event that I’m very much looking forward to takes place April 5-6. As you may recall, Williams is celebrating a series of 50-year milestones from dates of some of the most important developments in the college’s history. These include the phasing out of fraternities; the admission of women and the effort to begin diversifying the student body, faculty, and board of trustees; and the introduction of non-Western studies, environmental studies, and the graduate program in art history. These all occurred during the presidency of John Sawyer.

Our celebration is in the form of events on campus and articles in Williams Magazine that explore this era of our past, with an eye toward how it should inform our present and future.

The next event in this series is called “Daring Change.” On the evening of April 5, I get to moderate a discussion with people who experienced those changes firsthand. That’ll be the look back.

Saturday will be devoted to looking forward, in a process not of planning but of imagining. In a dozen or so short talks based on the model of Williams Thinking, a diverse group of faculty, staff, students, and alumni will try to imagine some aspect of the college’s future. We hope that the exercise will be by turns provocative and playful.

The group organizing the speakers is Leslie Brown, professor of history; Lew Fisher, director of development; Steve Fix, professor of English; John Gerry, associate dean of the faculty; Jim Kolesar, assistant to the president for public affairs; Kirby Neuner ’15; Angela Schaeffer, director of communications; and Rob White, deputy director of communications.

They’ve been lining up speakers to respond to the following questions: Who will we be? What will we learn? How will we learn? What difference will we make? Keep an eye out for details closer to the date.

Here’s another question: Could there be a letter from the president that didn’t mention buildings? The answer is “yes, but not this one.”

The first one I want to talk about is Kellogg—the former home of the Center for Environmental Studies and, once renovated and expanded, the future home of CES and the Zilkha Center. Thanks to ambitious planning by the Kellogg Building Committee (chaired by David Dethier, professor of geosciences) and the enthusiastic philanthropy of alumni, the board of trustees has agreed that we should strive to attain for Kellogg the extraordinary designation of “Living Building.” That means, among many other things, aiming for net zero use of both energy and water. Only a handful of projects in the world have attained Living Building status and none has been a historical renovation. So, how cool would that be?

The other building I’ll mention is the president’s house. When Karen, our children, and I first came to Williams almost three years ago, we expected to enjoy the lives that we would build here. But in fact we’ve come to love Williamstown as our home even more quickly and completely than we could have imagined. That’s led us to want to establish deeper and more permanent roots in this special community by becoming homeowners here. When we’ve relocated our family to a Williamstown neighborhood, we’ll be delighted to continue to host faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents, and community members at events at the president’s house (which it turns out was actually known as the Sloan House before it began housing presidents), keeping it as open and welcoming to all of Williams as it’s ever been.

To bring things full circle, the college’s first president’s house was Kellogg.

Over these coming months, as we all go about our work, and even as we take time to play, let’s keep in our thoughts Darryl Brown ’13, who has a long road of recovery ahead of him, and his family and friends, as they support him along it.

Meanwhile, all the best for the new semester.

Adam Falk


*Over the weekend, a racist message was found written on a student’s white board in a dorm. Campus Safety and Security responded immediately and reported the writing to Williamstown police. A full investigation is ongoing. Following the expressed wishes of the student, and in collaboration with campus student leadership, the college is continuing to work to address this act and make Williams a place of welcome for all students, faculty, and staff.