Dear faculty, staff and students,
I’m pleased to share a summary of proceedings from the fall Board of Trustees meeting, held last Friday, October 9, 2020.
Our October meeting wound up coinciding with Mountain Day, so I unfortunately wasn’t unable to participate in campus events. But I heard good reports and have enjoyed seeing photos of smiling people safely enjoying themselves! A big thank you to Scott Lewis, the Williams Outing Club, and all the individuals and student organizations who found ways to continue this wonderful tradition in the midst of a pandemic.
Relatedly, Board chair Liz Beshel Robinson ’90 asked me to convey the trustees’ deep appreciation to all faculty and staff for your work to reopen the campus, and to students for your respect for community guidelines. The Board is so impressed with how all of you are embodying liberal arts excellence and the Williams spirit under extraordinary circumstances.
At their meeting, the Board focused on topics important to our community, including the college’s financial health; efforts coming out of Strategic Planning, especially related to our commitments to sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and to thinking about the potential role of technology within the liberal arts; and our efforts to plan the future of residential life on campus.
This summer, the Trustees created new standing committees focused on sustainability, DEI and technology and the liberal arts, which will enable us to partner effectively in all three areas.
We also happily welcomed three new members to their first Board meeting:
- Martha F. Hoopes ’87, Professor and Chair of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA
- Ethan W. Lasser ’99, Chair, Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
- Vidisha A. Patel ’85, founder of Peace of Heart LLC, Sarasota, FL
I hope you will get to know them when we can provide such opportunities!
Because the October meeting had to be virtual, the Board concentrated their agenda into one very full day. The proceedings are summarized below. You can find reports from past meetings on the News from the Board website.
- Provost and Class of 1969 Professor of Economics Dukes Love and Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Fred Puddester discussed the financial impacts of COVID and provided an update on the college’s financial response since last spring. Dukes and Fred reported that, overall, the college remains well-positioned financially, despite temporary decreases in revenues (for example, from our reduction to the 2020-21 comprehensive fee) and increases in costs (e.g., from building our COVID testing program). Dukes also provided an overview of the impact of COVID on both admissions and financial aid.
- Since this was the first meeting since the start of the semester, Fred recapped our preparations over the summer for the return of students to campus and in-person classes, including construction of our testing site, the student arrival process and details about contract tracing, isolation and quarantine. He also gave the latest in a continuing series of updates to the Board about our testing protocol and results. Finally, he discussed the transformation of our dining program and the remarkable efforts undertaken by staff in Dining and so many other operational areas, including Facilities, Campus Safety, the Health Center, Student Life, Human Resources and Benefits, Information Technology, Athletics and the Children’s Center, among others, all of which made it possible for Williams to open this fall.
- Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Psychology Safa Zaki offered an overview of how faculty have adapted their teaching in the fall by reimagining courses, integrating technology, and sharing expertise and insights with each other. Safa also discussed the pandemic’s impact on faculty research and creative work.
- Dean of the College and Hales Professor of Psychology Marlene Sandstrom shared data about students’ decisions for the fall semester (on-campus, remote, and leave or gap years); the redesign of our pre-orientation and First Days programs for virtual platforms; student health and wellness, including adherence to our public health guidelines; the creative ways that RSOs are adapting to this semester; and students’ overall successes and challenges in our new environment.
- Dukes led a discussion reviewing our progress and challenges to date in sustainability, including work toward the Board’s 2020 sustainability goals, many but not all of which we have now achieved; and our intentions for a new college-wide sustainability plan, which we hope to complete by the end of this academic year. The new plan will focus on climate action, emissions reduction and carbon neutrality, including the issue of college travel. As you may know, the Working Group on Sustainability defined an ambitious but achievable vision for sustainability at Williams in their report last spring. The new plan will now establish concrete goals on the path to that vision, with backing and commitment from the Board and the administration.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
- Vice President for Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leticia Haynes ’99 led a comparable discussion of our ongoing efforts to further diversity, equity and inclusion at Williams. Leticia described the huge range of efforts in which her team (encompassing the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; the Davis Center; and the Office of Special Academic Programs) is involved, across campus and beyond. She reviewed the DEI Working Group report and talked with the Board about strategic plans to advance our commitments further, touching on topics ranging from inclusive learning environments to restorative practices and support for students and student groups of all kinds. Our continuing commitments to recruitment and support of students and to hiring, retention, and support of faculty and staff also formed part of the conversation. Finally, Leticia summarized our plans for the recently-reactivated Davis Center building project, as well as efforts to further racial justice on campus, regionally and nationally, through philanthropy and co-curricular opportunities.
- Marlene hosted a session on our future aspirations and goals for residential life at Williams. They include a living-learning residential system that is integrated across all four years; offers students an intentional set of skills (e.g., community-building, health and wellness and personal development); decreases the college’s reliance on Campus Safety staff to help students navigate interpersonal conflicts, and instead emphasizes the development of dialogue and conflict resolution skills; emphasizes belonging, inclusion, and respect for all members; and allows students to extend their academic and/or personal interests into their residential community. This includes thinking about issues of inclusive and participatory process, staffing and team structure, the role of JAs and other students, and long-range planning for our expanding population of non-traditional students, including veterans, community college transfers and others.
The Trustees also heard several routine reports on the college’s health:
- Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Fred Puddester updated the Board on this year’s budget, and on adjustments to the Fiscal Year 2021 budget.
- Chief Investment Officer Collette Chilton reported the endowment performance for fiscal year 2020. The results will be published later this fall in the Investment Office’s annual report, to be available on the Investment Office website.
- Vice President for College Relations Megan Morey shared the college’s FY20 fundraising results and the FY21 goals.
Finally, the Trustees voted on several items, including approval of the final FY21 budget. They had previously authorized us to operate with a provisional budget until reopening costs could be accurately calculated in the late summer and early fall. They also voted on a related motion to approve a debt issuance, as part of our financial strategy
Unfortunately, since the Trustees have had to continue meeting virtually during the pandemic, they haven’t had the usual opportunities to meet with faculty, staff and students. We’ll continue to explore ways that the board can engage with campus during this period of remote meetings. Your ideas are and input are welcome via the Board’s comment form.
Meanwhile, I’m deeply grateful to the Board for their support, advice, and careful stewardship of the college, and to all of you for your equal commitment, which has got us to this point in the year safely, in sound health and with an impressively vital academic program.