New construction projects attract interest of prospective students

Williams College’s two major construction projects, the renovated science facility and the new performing arts center, are expected to have immediate effects on Williams admissions, although changing the makeup of the admissions pool was not the original intent of either project.

“There will be students who take a tour of the new science center this summer who are going to say, ‘Gee, I thought Williams was good for teaching and the humanities.’ But when they see this extraordinary science center they’ll say, ‘Maybe these facilities can compete with Ivy League schools,” said Director of Admissions Thomas Parker.

Similarly, Dean of the College Peter Murphy predicted that “The new [performing arts] facility will have a palpable effect on the students we attract.”

Yet neither project began with the goal of attracting certain types of students.

Administrators and faculty stress that the new science building is an attempt to correct the mismatch between Williams’s strong science program and its antiquated facilities.

“Our basic goal is to provide fine facilities appropriate to the quality of faculty, program, and students we seek,” said President of the College Harry C. Payne. “The inadequacies of our current science facilities were long obvious.”

Professor of Chemistry Dave Richardson commented, “Our feeling, and we felt this going into the project … is that we are not going to be impacting admissions distributions across campus by virtue of having a new facility.”

The new science building was intended to serve those students the College already attracts. “We didn’t build it to gain a net number of square feet for teaching more students but simply to teach the students that we typically get in Division III in a better and more up-to-date way,” Richardson said.

Parker emphasized that the plan for the new center was independent of the admissions process: “At no point did someone come to admissions and ask, ‘Do you want us to build a new science center to attract more science students?’”

Similarly, admissions concerns did not influence plans for the new performing arts facility, though concerns about existing facilities did. Adams Memorial Theater “was built well before we had a program in theater or in dance, and was never designed for the modern teaching and development of those enterprises,” Payne noted. “We knew we had to improve our facilities in that area, and the gift of Mr. Allen has made it possible to think boldly.”

Murphy said he sees the construction of the new theater space as a natural extension of Williams’s commitment to its liberal arts agenda. “I think the performing arts are potentially a very powerful part of liberal arts education,” he said. “I’m happy about making those programs bigger and better.”

Although neither the science nor the performing arts projects were undertaken with boosting admissions as their primary goal, few doubt that they might have dramatic effects on the number and quality of applicants strong in those areas.

Phil Swisher ’01, a Williams tour guide, confirmed the impact of the new center on prospective applicants. “I get a lot of science-oriented students on my tour,” he said. “And they are impressed by the initiative Williams is taking by upgrading its already good facilities.”

However, the admissions department may not see large increases in the number of “science” applicants because the science departments here are already of such high caliber.

The new center “won’t have such a palpable effect … only because we could already in good faith advertise our sciences as some of the best programs in the country,” said Murphy.

Biology major Sylvia Englund ’99 said she believes that new facilities are less important that the program’s overall quality: “I was drawn here by the excellent reputation and faculty, not the facilities per se.,” she said, adding that the new center “will only improve sciences that are already strong.”

Richardson suggested that the quality of the applicant pool may increase without affecting the number of science-oriented applicants. “We anticipate that we will get the same numbers of students applying with interests in science, but that maybe the net quality — which of course is already stunningly high — may still even go up higher,” Richardson said.

However, many college officials expect that the effects of the new performing arts center will be more tangible than those of the science center.

Murphy looked to the impact of Spencer Studio Art Building as a parallel of what the College might expect from the new performing arts center. After Spencer’s construction, “the caliber and number of people interested in art increased immediately,” Murphy said. “In performing arts, there will be a close parallel to Spencer art.”

Parker explained the impact that the studio art building had on admissions. “The very first year Spencer existed, we saw a significant increase in top-rate portfolios that were submitted,” he said.

“The public perceived that Williams had improved its studio arts facilities, and as a result a significant number of extremely talented artists applied, the likes of which would not have applied before.

“I suspect that we may see an even more dramatic effect in the performing arts.”

Murphy agreed. “Spencer was an opportunity to declare art as a program the College really did value and wanted to invest in, and now we are communicating a much more ambitious message in the performing arts,” he said.

Parker is excited about what the new theater can do for the College’s reputation as a whole. He sees a potential similar to Williams’s strong athletic program. “Just being a good academic institution isn’t newsworthy,” he said. “If you have a great football team at a great academic institution, that attracts attention. If extraordinary things are happening in the arts, it may be analogous.”

“Our core values are academic,” he added. “If the arts, like athletics, bring focus to the academic orientation, that’s great from my point of view.”

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