Some Thoughts at Year's End

To the Williams Community,

As we near the conclusion of another year, I thought I’d share some thoughts on several developments on campus and in higher education more broadly.

Before getting to campus news, I feel compelled to mention two national issues.

In recent weeks the media have been full of reports on new ventures in online learning and commentators heralding ever more confidently the inevitable demise of residential colleges like ours.

I got to take part this spring in a conference on “The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America,” well organized by Lafayette and Swarthmore colleges, and among the “game-changers” it sought to explore was the notion that traditional liberal arts programs are directly threatened by the increasingly “efficient” use of education technologies.

I was pleased to learn that most participants, including the presidents of many highly selective liberal arts colleges, didn’t share this anxiety. I certainly don’t.

The text of my remarks at the conference are available at but I’ll say here that I welcome how some kinds of learning are increasingly available online, and even how some of that learning can be documented in ways that help those learners advance in their chosen fields. Even better if those experiences convince learners, their families, and college admission committees that they’re prepared to pursue a fuller, more well-rounded educational experience. Perhaps most welcome of all is when those learners live in any of the many parts of the world where higher education is scarce.

But, as increasingly beneficial as those online experiences may be, they’ll always fundamentally differ from the education we offer at Williams.

For 20 years or more, prophets have announced the imminent, technology-driven end of traditional colleges, based on the false assumption that education is merely a matter of filling brains with facts or putting them through their paces. If that’s all that Williams and colleges like it did, we would indeed have died away long ago.

As wonderful as technology can often be, even for our own students, it can never replace, nor will it fundamentally alter, the holistic, broad-based, community-delivered education that Williams has long provided.

Until human nature changes, education will remain a social activity. No technology can reproduce the relationship between faculty and student that is our hallmark, or the deep and nuanced ways that students educate each other on a residential campus.

This false Armageddon can actually have at least two benefits for us. The first is in helping us identify and focus on what’s truly distinctive about a Williams education. The college did that when it expanded the faculty and curriculum, when it deepened the tutorial program, and when it diversified its students, faculty, and staff. We’re doing it now by building a new library, which will draw students, faculty, and staff together in ways that support collaborative learning. As we make future decisions on resource allocation, we’ll do well to concentrate on the experiences for students that Williams is best suited to provide.

A second benefit of this discussion is that it gives us an opportunity to explain to the world more forcefully than we have to date the role and value of the liberal arts, and of Williams, in our rapidly changing world.

Unless you’ve been visiting Jupiter the last few months, you’ve also been aware of growing public concern about student debt. News outlets are tripping over themselves to find the student who’s graduated with the most astronomical loans. While some students have clearly gotten in, or been lured in, over their heads, and some higher education sectors, especially the for-profits, need to re-think their positions, you should know the situation here at Williams. When our Class of 2010 graduated, 41% of its members had borrowed an average, cumulative over four years, of just over $8,000. The latter figure was the second lowest among peer schools nationally.

Our introduction since then of a low-loan program is unlikely to change those figures much. Williams students who are from families with up to $75,000 of annual income (and typical assets) still have no loan expectation in their aid packages. Some of our families chose to borrow even in those years in which we didn’t expect them to, and ironically some of those same families have been borrowing less per year now that we’ve put a specific loan expectation in their packages.

Despite the cost of keeping our loan expectations low, doing so must remain a priority for us.

This policy was among the contributors to our admitting a spectacular Class of 2016. The Admission Office has again recruited and matriculated almost exactly the targeted number of students, and academic indicators are up for this class, half of whom qualify for financial aid and 38% of whom identify as U.S. students of color—a Williams record.

We’ve had a similarly encouraging year in recruiting faculty. Nine of 11 tenure-track searches were completed very successfully, including our first-ever fulltime appointment to the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. A majority of those appointments were of women.

On the staff side, we’ve been pleased this spring to welcome Tina Olsen as director of the Williams College Museum of Art, as we’ve thanked Katy Kline for her strong service as interim.

On a different note, you’ll recall that I wrote to you early in the semester about the situation regarding sexual assault, which occurs on our campus more than any of us should be willing to tolerate.

The issue is complicated and multi-layered, and eliminating it from campus (the only acceptable goal) will require the effort of all of us over time. I’d like to report, though, on the steps taken this year, following the work of the students, staff, and faculty on two task forces. Here are some examples:

· Expanding Take Back the Night to a full week of programming, including, in addition to the rally, work on bystander training and support groups, and a speaker who discussed how men and the community as a whole can change the culture around sexual violence

· New initiatives such as the “Men for Consent” group, which works alongside the Rape and Sexual Assault Network toward preventing sexual assault and raising awareness of the impact of sexual violence

· Training of 20 staff members to teach bystander workshops, which train participants to recognize and intervene in unsafe situations and will be open to all students and required of many who work in aspects of student life (e.g. Baxter Fellows, party hosts, JAs)

· Improving the website on sexual assault to make it more useful to survivors and others seeking help or information

· Providing training to JAs from an expert from the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center

· Revamping the discussion of sexual assault that takes place in First Days and in meetings with every entry in January, led collaboratively by students and staff.

Going forward, the task forces will continue to assess the prevalence of assault on campus and the effectiveness of our work on investigation, sanctioning, support, and awareness.

I’m deeply grateful to the many students, faculty, and staff who’ve stepped up to help us address this issue collectively, which is the only way in which progress on such matters can be made.

In a similar way, though on a different matter, I’m also thankful to Students Against Silence, the Bias Incident Response Task Force, and all those who’ve worked this year to change our actions and our culture around such incidents. That we faced another such hateful occurrence this spring only underscores the importance of this work.

This serious work has come, of course, amid the great amounts of learning and of joy, friendship, and fun that are always very much a part of Williams. This year has been no exception. While never losing sight of our ongoing challenges, we can be deeply grateful for the many ways in which Williams supports, nurtures, and stretches us. I know that I am. And I’m thankful for the ways that each of you uniquely contributes to that.

Have a great summer, whether it takes you far away or keeps you here in our beautiful valley.

Adam Falk