Faculty raise concerns about new arts center

The prospect of a new performing arts center is arousing excitement and controversy among Williams faculty. The center, which will not be completed for an estimated three years, was made possible by a $20 million donation by Herbert Allen, Class of 1962.

The Concerns

Some faculty expressed excitment about the donation, but at the faculty meeting on Wednesday, many professors voiced their concerns. For most of the faculty, the controversy is because of the sudden shock of receiving a gift of such magnitude. A primary complaint is that the Board of Trustees and President of the College Harry C. Payne made the decision to accept the gift before consulting the Committee on Priorities and Resources.

The CPR is a student-faculty-administration committee formed in 1980 to examine the broad ways in which the College allocates funds. Therefore, the CPR expects to be consulted on issues that have a large impact on the College budget. The 1998 CPR report which was released before the donation was announced stated, “There has been some expression of frustration on the part of current and past CPR members that the committee does not have much impact on the actual use of resources through the annual budget. The CPR learns about not insignificant uses of resources at the same time as the rest of the College community.” This fact is consistent with the role of the CPR as stated in the Faculty Handbook, but many feel this undermines the purpose of the committee. The CPR’s role is to advise the president on long-range financial planning and also consider trends in the annual College budget and other matters relating to priorities in fund raising and resources for capital expenditures.

The report also said “Large new capital projects do not fit into the existing capital or consoliodated budget and should be considered extremely carefully in light of this and the College’s overall objectives.”

Three years ago, the CPR was notified of the new science quad project at the same time as the entire College community. Chair of the Theatre Department Jean-Bernard Bucky, head of the committee at that time, complained of not being consulted beforehand.

Although the faculty came to an understanding on the situation because the project was much needed, many members of the committee complained about the lack of communication between the administration and the CPR.

The situation of accepting this $20 million donation gift appears more complex when the financial consequences of this action are considered.

The costs of maintaining a new facility are immense. Associate Professor of Anthropology Peter Just said, “When we build a new facility, we also have to set aside money to light it, heat it, guard it, keep it clean and eventually see to its renovation or replacement.”

The cost of maintaining new facilities is estimated at 2.28 percent of the initial cost. This means in the future, the College would face a budgetary commitment of $856,000 annually in order to maintain the new facility.

Allen donated the $20 million donation specifically for a performing arts center. He commented on why he chose the performing arts center. “The arts center was identified as one of the needs of the college. It seemed to me to be that their old facility is reasonably obsolete. The building itself is fine but everything inside is obsolete and they were due for something new. It is interesting to see if we can do something architecturally significant in the town. But basically it was a need identified by the College. I’m sure the College has 20 equal needs and ten percent of the faculty will be saying ‘Why not my department?’ That would be the norm. I can’t answer that. All I can answer is this one appeals to me and I find it interesting and I think we can do a lot with it.”

On what motivated him to give Allen said, “I think there is no simple thing but Hank Payne was extremely instrumental in identifying the need of the school and having the flexibility of having to deal with someone with obvious idiosyncracies. And I think he understands the aesthetic needs of the town. I think he may be the first person in a major position of power to deal with that subject in the last 30 years. I think the other people have done a great job with what they had to do but I think he is the first one who has looked around and said ‘We can do a lot better job with this town than what we are doing.’ That appealed to me. As far as the time, good luck, good stock market were very constructive.”

The amount of money is enough to pay for 6.8 full-time professors who could add 25 to 30 new courses to the curriculum. And it is enough to forego a 1.45 percent increase in student tuition fees.

Commenting on these alternatives, Payne said this example of giving will encourage others to do the same, and this increase in donations will cover the additional costs created by the facility. Payne estimates the maintaining costs to be $350,000 per year; less than half the $856,000 per year of the provost estimate.

Because the building program is in primary stages it is difficult to estimate the future costs—therefore, the issue will be thoroughly researched. Payne is quite optimistic about the project and he believes “there are more than ample off-settings to justify the costs.”

Another implication of accepting Allen’s donation is a curricular question. The new facility implies a significant expansion of curriculum and faculty in the dance and theatre departments. This expansion does not coincide with the evaluations of the Committee on Educational Policy. Several years ago the CEP did a major review of the College’s curriculum, identifying the priorities for expansion. Theatre and dance were not first on this list, which brings up questions of what forces determine curricular expansion at the College.

Just commented, “The misgivings I have are more with the process than with the outcome of this decision. A new facility like the one proposed has the potential to revitalize the performing arts not only at the College but for all of Northern Berkshire County and that is a positive outcome. The prospects are exciting.”

“I don’t think anyone believes that it is really possible to turn down a $20 million gift,” Frederick Latimer Wells Professor of Computer Science Kim Bruce said. “However, I believe we have an obligation to make sure the money is used in a way that genuinely helps the institution, and not in a way that does not meet current needs and creates future obligation on resources that may keep us from doing other things that are of higher priority.”

He continued, “The concerns expressed are legitimate. During the last week, a number of senior officers and I took them into account and after considering them we still think this is a tremendous opportunity.”

Hopes for the New Center

While many faculty members are voicing concerns, there are also those enjoying the possibilities of a new performing arts center.

“This is a transformational gift at many levels. It is a great opportunity for theatre, dance and music. It will help transform the look of Spring Street,” Payne said. “Also, it is four times the largest single gift and in this sense it is inspirational and sets a standard for philanthropy.”

Associate Professor of Theatre David Eppel said, “I think that the College is in a unique position, to nurture under its liberal arts umbrella, a much-needed research and experimentation in the performing arts. It is altogether appropriate that there should be a place, away from the restraints of the profession, in which performance artists of all kinds can pursue their interests.”

Eppel envisions the ideal center. “I would love to see two performance spaces for theatre, one of which would be a s
mall ‘black box’ with total flexibility, in which students and faculty, and hopefully visitors as well, have the freedom to experiment in whatever ways are most relevant to their work. A larger space with more sophisticated capabilities would provide the opportunity to mount performances which are bigger, perhaps more classical, indeed to use music in whichever ways might be suggested.”

The center will eradicate the inadequacies of the current dance facilities in Lasell. Assistant Professor of Physical Education Sandra Burton, who instructs dance, summarized the shortcomings of Lasell. There is a lack of backstage areas, uncomfortable seating problematic for senior citizens and those with handicaps, and the separation of the facilities from the other performing arts. She anticipates the new facilities will allow the dance program to bring in more guest performers.

Also from the dance program at Williams, Denise Connor ’99 and Clarissa Shen ’99 considered the possibilities of a new dance center. “One of the most exciting possibilities of the new performing arts center is that it will actually make it feasible to have a performing arts major and department with dance history or performing arts classes being taught for credit,” Shen said.

Connor stated, “The fact that the dance department is entirely separate from the theater department handicaps our ability to integrate the performing arts. Further, the lack of academic offerings surrounding dance history and thought is very frustrating.”

Although the new center does not include a music facility, Professor of Music David Kechley feels that music at Williams will benefit from the growth of focus on the performing arts. Also, he hopes that the possible conversion of the Adams Memorial Theatre to a multipurpose auditorium will take some pressure off Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall. This would allow it to be used primarily as a recital hall.

The summer Williamstown Theatre Festival will presumably benefit greatly from the donation. Micheal Ritchie, Coordinator of the WTF, said, “We look forward to it in the context that we’ve had a wonderful relationship with Williams College so far.”

Ritchie did not want to be presumptuous in his speculations and therefore did not wish to comment on what the new facility will mean specifically for the program.

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