Tension surrounds $20 million donation from Allen

A few incidents in the past month have increased the tension surrounding the $20 million donation of Herbert Allen ‘62 toward the construction of a new theatre and dance complex. Specifically, some faculty members have been disturbed by recent articles in the Advocate and the Berkshire Eagle which have critically examined the faculty’s role in the planning process.

However, despite recent flairs of temper, both faculty members and administrators say they are optimistic about the project.

And many add that they regret that the recent publicity may have painted an exaggerated picture of the divisions betweenthe different parties involved in the planning process.

Ever since the announcement of the gift last spring, faculty and community members alike have expressed concerns about the project.

President of the College Harry Payne said the concerns have ranged from questions about the future costs of the facility to anxieties that the faculty members were left out of the early stages of the planning process last spring. Specifically, the Board of Trustees and Payne made the decision to accept the gift without first consulting the Committee on Priorities and Resources.

But more recently several of Allen’s comments about the faculty in the September 16 edition of the Advocate struck a nerve.

In the Advocate article, Allen explained the reasons why the project bypassed some of the ordinary review channels last spring, and noted that the Williams faculty “may have grown accustomed to getting things.”

Allen’s comments in the Advocate sparked a negative response at the September 16 faculty meeting, when Professor of History Robert Dalzell put forth a motion in response to Allen’s comments in the Advocate.

The motion read: “It is with dismay and sadness that the faculty has read the remarks of Herbert A. Allen, quoted in the Advocate article of September 16, 1998. Our hope is that the faculty steering committee, in consultation with President Payne, will undertake to prepare an appropriate response to Mr. Allen.”

Dalzell said although the motion was seconded, it was tabled until the next faculty meeting. He noted that when he put forth the motion, he suggested that it be tabled because of the full agenda of that week’s meeting.

When asked if he had any further comments about the Advocate article or the faculty meeting, Dalzell said: “I think the motion speaks for itself.”

“I found several of the remarks to be distressing, particularly those having to do with the faculty and its role in the governance of the College,” he added.

Last Saturday when the Berkshire Eagle published an opinion piece by Alan Chartrock, the chairman and executive director of WAMC public radio in Albany, N.Y. and a SUNY professor of political science and communications, feul was added to the fire.

In his piece, Chartrock argued that the faculty’s complaints have slowed down the planning process of the complex.

Dean of the Faculty David L. Smith said while many faculty members have been angered by the recent press, he still appreciates Allen’s generosity.

“In the spring some faculty were upset because they thought that a major commitment of resources had been made without consulting the appropriate faculty committees,” Smith said. “More recently Mr. Allen’s comments in the Advocate have aroused consternation.”

“We may deplore Mr. Allen’s comments in the Advocate,” Smith added. “But I can only applaud his generosity to Williams.”

Payne distanced himself from some of Allen’s specific comments. But he also noted that it is important to keep in mind the respect for the Williams community Allen has demonstrated in making the donation.

“Faculty have expressed concern about comments made by Mr. Allen in the local press, especially having to do with faculty procedures,” Payne said. “Mr. Allen has many opinions, enjoys challenging others with those views, and he certainly has a right to do that. I do not share his view of the faculty and its attitudes. The values of process and of open discussion are deeply rooted in our college culture, and properly so. As a faculty member and president, I share those values. Often, those outside the academy are impatient with our ways. So be it. The main point is Mr. Allen has shown his great respect for the College with this transforming gift which has provided us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create the theatre and dance performance center for the future. That’s what we need to focus on.”

Allen’s viewpoint

In an interview with the Record, Allen explained some of the reasons why the proposal didn’t progress through the normal review channels last spring. He also addressed faculty concern over his recent comments.

“As the donor it would have been impossible for me to have agreed to the traditional process,” Allen said. “A gift of this size can’t be held dangling while a group of committees go through their normal procedure. It would have been mayhem. This was something that Hank Payne was sensitive to and I wouldn’t have given the money if I had had to go through the whole routine.”

When asked if he was concerned about a negative response to his comments in the Advocate article, Allen replied that he respects the faculty, but noted that they are somewhat “overindulged.”

“I am friends with a large number of the faculty,” Allen said. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t comment on an existing condition. I think that we are all somewhat indulged and that they are too. If you take a school as wealthy as Williams and a town as nice as Williamstown and a faculty that enjoys the benefits of tenure and gets to teach some of the best students in the world in some of the best facilities of the world. . .if under those circumstances a simple little comment like that irritated some people than it is kind of fun.”

Allen added that Williams’ response to the project has been similar to what he would have anticipated.

“The institutional response is probably what I would have expected,” he said. “It is about 90 percent positive and 10 percent negative, and of the 10 percent that I have heard it seems that those most concerned are concerned with process and not with results.”

“So I would say that the difference in the ways that I would look at this and the way the College looks at this are normal differences between the way an entrepreneur looks at things and an established entity looks at things,” he added. “All well-established institutions are reasonably bureaucratic— whether they be the federal government or Williams College.”

Allen concluded that he is optimistic that the project will be done well.

“I think it will take too long, but I think it will get done right,” he said.

Faculty perspective

Faculty members have raised concerns about the process by which the project was decided on last spring, and several have registered some negative responses to Allen’s comments in the Advocate and the opinion piece in the Berkshire Eagle. But many agree that the College and community should now move forward with the project and focus on the positive aspects of the planning process.

Chair of the Music Department David Kechley, who is also a member of the building committee overseeing the planning process for the complex, said he fears recent press about the project may have antagonized and polarized various groups.

“To level comments against the faculty as being obstructive is not accurate and not fair,” Kechley said. “The faculty is not holding anything up at this point. The committee needs to be able to do its work.”

Kechley noted that it is “demoralizing” for the committee members to read newspaper articles alleging that the process has been held up by the faculty.

“The articles are not helping anything,” he said. “They are polarizing people’s views and making it more difficult to accomplish anything.”

Kechley added that he thinks it is important not to lump the college faculty and the community into separate camps when analyzing the issue.

“I think it is very difficult to distinguish between Williams faculty response and the town response,” he said. He noted, for instance, that many faculty members live in Williamstown with their families.

Smith, who is also a committee member, said he imagines the controversy of the past couple of weeks will be a “passing moment in what is going to be a very long process.”

“I believe most people will put it behind them,” he said. “(Allen) said some inflammatory things, but most people will forget about it. What is more important is that we develop some sort of collective vision for the future of performing arts at Williams.”

“I would urge people not to be so distracted by process issues and newspaper coverage that they overlook what a wonderful opportunity this is. . .to rethink performance and dance well into the future,” he added.

Meredith Hoppin said the committee, which includes representatives from the Committee on Priorities and Resources and the theatre and dance programs, will go about the process of planning for the complex in the traditional way. The committee will oversee the process by which the theatre and dance departments determine the future program of the building, and will ultimately make recommendations to President Payne.

Hoppin added that because of the unique nature of the project (specifically because the money was supplied before the idea had been settled on by the Committee on Priorities and Resources) the committee will try to operate in “high gear.”

Payne expanded on Hoppin’s statement.

“The surprising appearance of the gift and the lack of opportunity to vet the funding through usual college committee processes did cause understandable concern,” Payne said. “Trustees decided to accept the gift as an exceptional opportunity requiring some exceptional action. With the continuing good work of college committees, however, I believe that the project can feel quite ‘normal’ by the end of this academic year.”

However, Associate Professor of Theatre David Eppel, who is chairing the Buildings Program Committee, stressed that the new facility will be thoroughly thought out by the College and community.

“As far as the pace and nature of the decision making process is concerned, I believe we need the time,” he said. “I’ve learned that every aspect of such a facility needs to be thoroughly thought through. If we don’t do that, we run the risk of building something which will not serve us well. I know that we’re not going quite as fast as Mr. Allen would like, but I’m convinced that we will finally come up with a very exciting program.”

“We must get this building right and I think Mr. Allen understands that,” he added.

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