Departing professor offers thoughts on Williams

If all professors could leave behind a legacy, Associate Professor of Philosophy Sam Fleischacker knows what we would like his to be. Fleischacker hopes to encourage openness – of dialogue and debate – on the Williams College campus. This is something he has thought a lot about, particularly since he made the decision to leave Williams for a new teaching job.

Last June, a year and a half after he was granted tenure by Williams College, Fleischacker notified the administration that he would leave Williams at the end of this upcoming semester to teach as a tenured philosophy professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, starting next fall. Although Fleischacker will officially be on leave next year, and has the option of returning to Williams in the fall of 2000, he said it is unlikely that he will opt to come back.

His decision to leave soon after receiving job security and a permanent position is the result of both personal lifestyle preferences and dissatisfaction with certain aspects of teaching and living in the Williams community.

While at Williams, Fleischacker has taught courses in moral philosophy, with an emphasis on the works of Kant. He has also attempted to bring the study of architecture into departments other than art. For the past two years he served as the Gaudino scholar, administering the Gaudino fund monies and attempting to institute programs which enrich campus life outside of the curriculum. In this position, Fleischacker has launched the Gaudino Forum, a weekly meeting where faculty and students gather to discuss topics of both national and local significance.

Fleischacker said his primary reason for leaving is his desire to live in a more urban environment with a larger Jewish community.

“I had never imagined that I would not live in a city or that I would live in a place without a significant Jewish population,” he said. “The prime reason for leaving is that my wife and I have always thought of ourselves more as urban people. We like the urban environment and we want a Jewish community. And that will never happen in Williamstown.”

Not enough time for scholarship

But Fleischacker added that frustrations about the amount of time allotted to scholarship at Williams and a general air of “secrecy” also spurred him to look for a new position.

“There are certain things about Williams that I find very difficult, and I have been frustrated in watching and feeling that they are not likely to change,” he said. “I want to be careful in saying them because I think there are also great things about Williams.”

Fleischacker cited a terrific student body and a commitment to teaching and discussing canonical works at a high level as characteristics of Williams that have always impressed him.

He added, “Even if Williams is absolutely terrific, there is always room for improvement. But I think there are some things where there is more than just room for improvement, that are quite problematic.”

Fleischacker said Williams does not foster and nurture scholarship the way it could. He said scholarship is weighed heavily in tenure decisions, but the College does not always provide ample time and means for assistant professors to pursue scholarly interests.

“[Students] want scholar-teachers,” he said. “I think it is a plus that scholarship has become more important and [Williams] has been able to attract people who love scholarship as well as teaching. But [the College] is not doing what it needs to keep people like that.”

Fleischacker said he disagrees with the conception that Williams professors have light teaching loads and plenty of free time. He would like to see more opportunities for professors to take time off for scholarly work and would like more scholarly debate and discussion outside of the classroom.

“As a whole I think there is a culture at Williams in which the energies you don’t spend as a teacher are meant to be directed into the administration [of the College],” he said. “I don’t mean that anybody is consciously doing anything bad here, but I don’t think the institution as a whole has thought about this issue. . . . We don’t do enough to treat our own faculty as scholars with whom we engage. There is not enough discussion.”

This frustration led Fleischacker to join together with other professors to found an informal reading group to discuss works of philosophy.

Alan White, a Williams professor of philosophy and the current director of the Williams-Oxford program, said he has appreciated Fleischacker’s role in furthering intellectual activity outside the classroom.

“I know of his Gaudino activities only second-hand, but I had a wonderful time during the year before I came to Oxford, reading Spinoza’s Ethics along with Sam, Georges Dreyfus, Rachana Kamtekar, and Dan O’Connor. Sam was responsible for setting up that group,” White said.

Max Weinstein ’00, a philosophy major, said he has been impressed by Fleischacker’s commitment to enhancing the college community outside of the classroom.

“Professor Fleischacker has provided an admirable example of moral behavior for this campus,” said Weinstein. “Out of moral considerations, he protested the honorary degree granted to a somewhat unscrupulous leader of Singapore at a time when he did not have tenure and absolute job security. I hope Professor Fleischacker will be remembered for his conscientious actions outside the classroom as well as his teaching.”

Faculty need more input

If anything, Fleischacker would like to be remembered for having opened up debate while at Williams, a goal which he has worked toward through the founding of the Gaudino Forum.

Fleischacker noted that he has been disturbed by the lack of openness at Williams College.

“This is a very secretive place; it is a very ‘top-down’ place,” he said. “That means partly that the top members of the administration hand down decrees to faculty and expect us to live with it. . . . But it happens on all levels.”

“What kinds of problems this secrecy may be causing I don’t really know, there may not even be a lot of them,” he said. “But the problem is that everything comes in such hidden ways we don’t even know what problems there might be.”

Fleischacker said he has heard of cases in the past, including lawsuits or instances when staff or faculty members have been dismissed, that he feels have been left mostly unexplained by the administration.

He added that he often feels disempowered as a member of the Williams faculty.

For example, Fleischacker said he would have liked the College trustees and administration to have solicited broader faculty input when renovating Griffin or when selecting the president of the College.

Dean of the Faculty David L. Smith disagreed with Fleischacker’s assessment in these particular instances. He said there was a long process of planning and discussing the details of Griffin in which the faculty were involved. Moreover, he said students, faculty and trustees worked together on committees during the presidential search process. He added that some aspects of the search process are kept confidential since candidates often have jobs at other institutions.

Unlike Fleischacker, Smith believes that the faculty are “more deeply involved in governance [at Williams] than at the vast majority of other colleges, which is not to say that every individual faculty member is always informed about what is going on.”

Smith added that he is sorry Fleischacker plans to leave.

“He is obviously a good scholar and teacher,” Smith said. “I respect his decision and understand the professional considerations that led him to accept an offer from another institution and wish him well.”

Although Fleischacker organized the Gaudino Forum primarily to increase dialogue between students and faculty, he also hoped that the forum would help prevent students from feeling disempowered and voiceless.

“I wanted it to allow for discussion of public issues that upset students,” he said. The Forum has addressed such campus issues as grade inflation this fall, but Fleischacker noted that attendance has been lower when the topic has been specific to Williams.

A renowned professor

Fleischacker’s impact in the classroom is also undeniable.

“In my opinion, Professor Fleischacker is one of the great professors at Williams,” said Raphael Rosen ‘00. “The section of Philosophy 102 I took with him the fall of my freshman year lingers in my memory as one of the best classes I have taken. I wish I could have taken his course on philosophy and the Constitution, which was not offered this year, and passed through the trial-by-fire which is his course on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.”

Jon Kravis ’99, a religion major, said Fleischacker manages to inspire a balance between creativity and precision.

“The courses I’ve taken with Professor Fleischacker and the work I’ve done with him on my thesis, have been some of the most challenging and rewarding academic experiences I’ve had at Williams,” Kravis said. “His admonitions to be creative and original but also rigorous and precise have made me, I think, a better thinker and writer. I don’t know why he has decided to leave, but if Williams could have done anything to keep him here, they should have done it.”

Alan White observed that Fleischacker has both an incredible breadth and depth in his teaching and scholarly capabilities. White noted, for example, that Fleischacker is comfortable dealing with both Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and is sympathetic to the analytic and the continental style of philosophizing.

“Often so much breadth is bought at the price of a lack of depth, but that is not so in Sam’s case,” White said. “As all of his students will know, he is an advocate of close, careful reading. . . . I’m sorry to see Sam leave. I understand his desire to teach graduate students, although having done so myself for four years, I have—as he knows—no desire to repeat the experience. I hope it suits him better than it suited me.”

Fleischacker said he has learned and grown himself in the Williams classroom.

“I would say that at their best the discussions that have come about have been some of the most exciting, intelligent exchanges I have ever had, and in fact have been richer and more educational to me than I would ever have been expected to have with undergraduates. And I am afraid I will miss that.”

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