Two long-serving and valued administrators to the College are retiring at the end of the year. Dean of Admissions Phil Smith and Director of Financial Aid Phil Wick will leave behind decades of work committed to an open and equitable liberal arts college. Although their official duties with Williams will no longer occupy them, both plan to continue their work in other spheres.
Smith and Wick both attended Williams as undergraduates, Smith graduating in 1955, one year ahead of Wick. They soon found their way back to the College, with Smith returning in 1959 as assistant director of admissions and Wick following him in 1962 to take the same position. Their careers eventually diverged, while at the same time remaining closely related. Smith became director of admissions in 1971 and Wick rose to the top of the financial aid office in 1979.
In their half-century at Williams, both men have also worked well outside their office walls. Smith helped coach freshman soccer for ten years alongside Hank Flynn, and, in Hank Payne’s words, “may well be the most accomplished flower gardener in Berkshire County.” He has also extended hands to public schools in inner cities, such as Roosevelt High School in the Bronx. Wick is heavily involved in the Catholic Church, and, like Smith, has published article after article to support his vision. “He is a professional’s professional,” said Payne, “nationally known for his command of the issues and technicalities of financial aid, and in his passionate advocacy of need-based aid programs.” Their work at Williams has been invaluable.
They have seen a lot of changes in their careers, so strongly centered on the college during its most tumultuous years. “When I was at Williams as an undergrad,” Wick said, “sixty to seventy percent of the students were from prep school, and the fraternity system was very big. The fraternities really took front and center, and you started to wonder what Williams was here for: to get an education or to get into a fraternity.”
Both Smith and Wick came to Williams out of public schools, and Smith too felt the weight of “independent schools” on the campus in the fifties. This was only one of the factors, combined with their natural mindsets that defined their decidedly democratic missions. Upon their return to the school both Smith and Wick soon found themselves a part of the Jack Sawyer administration, which presided over one of the most important stages in the development of the institution.
“He was absolutely brilliant as a president,” Smith declared. Sawyer, who was president of the college from 1961 to 1973, oversaw the abolishment of the fraternities and the introduction of co-education, thus laying the groundwork for an institution larger both in size and vision. Early in his administration Wick spoke to the president and felt Sawyer was leaning towards a decision on the fraternities, among other things. “I sensed that he would lead Williams in a better direction. He was a visionary, but he also tried to maintain the stability of the institution—he wasn’t a radical.”
“Williams is largely where it is today because of the decision [on the abolishment of fraternities]. It helped us to shake off some of the insular shackles,” Wick said.
But this was also only one piece in a larger jigsaw puzzle, pieced together so carefully in those years, with the final picture being a much more diverse and open-minded college. “We have expanded geographically, nationally and internationally,” said Smith, “and we have diversified too.” He sees several important changes in the admissions process as catalysts for these developments. “Admissions was very much a closed circuit,” he said, “with the applicant pool coming out of Eastern independent schools. But in the mid-sixties we introduced early decision, opening up to everybody across the country.” This approach helped attract a broader cross-section of students and strengthened the student body as a whole. However, Smith said, the idea of early decision, which has become so powerful in recent years, has come under “great suspicion recently—especially at Harvard and Princeton.”
The same sequence has played itself out in financial aid as well. “I’m certainly proud of what I was able to do in attracting minority students and broadening the socio-economic base of the student body, which cuts across racial boundaries. I think our commitment to need-blind admissions and need-based aid was the force behind these changes.” These policies, highly controversial in the sixties and seventies, have, in Wick’s mind, become important aspects of the school’s ethos.
However, as with early decision, need-based aid has come under heavy fire recently. “I believe the federal government has eased off of social issues that the Great Society was based on,” referring to the legislation pushed through in the Johnson administration. “The idea of access for all students has become less of a force, now with the intense political interest in the middle class.”
Smith and Wick both strongly believe in the worth of a diverse liberal arts campus. Smith eloquently described the sudden changes in the student body which took place in 1969, which he called the “summer of 42.” He explained that at that time, 42 black students had graduated in the history of the college, 42 black students were enrolled in all four classes at that time, and 42 black students were a part of the single class arriving on campus in 1970.
Wick was the first minority recruiter for Williams, taking up the post in 1967. “It was a great job, to visit inner-city schools, to be a part of those exciting years, to be able to see the face of the college change for the better so drastically.”
Being involved in two separate but interdependent offices, Smith and Wick both take upon the responsibility of looking outside the boundaries of Williamstown and into the eyes of the nation’s young students. “The financial aid office has the responsibility to be the eyes and ears of the college throughout the nation’s schools,” said Wick; while Smith noted that “the admissions office is the early warning system of the college, looking at the trends in high school and interpreting them.” There are signs of a friendly rivalry, but there is no question that a shared ideology unifies the two.
“There was often a split between the two offices,” Wick said, “but back in the eighties we devised an instrument to pull all the facts and figures together in one document—the ‘Freshman Financial Aid Admissions Survey.’” The title sums up its purpose.
Smith also presided over a move to a more open admissions process. “Admissions used to be a very closed circuit, very secretive, based in independent schools. There were a lot of ‘state secrets.’ But we started printing up a profile open to everyone, and it gave us a much clearer view of the patterns in society and students.” Smith was very concerned with “openness of information and the need to use research responsibly.”
Along these lines, Smith tried to look beyond SAT scores and into the hearts and minds of the students with whom they were trying to build a diverse student body. “We were asking the question: what factors predict a successful student? Using several studies and research responsibly, we saw the worth of good essays, good recommendations, and so forth.”
These ideas were instrumental in building the modern Williams. The college has gained so much in their careers, and with retirement new horizons open up to both Smith and Wick. Smith will continue to work on many of his creations, the A Better Chance (ABC) program being one. A strong believer in the worth of reaching out to underprivileged students in decaying urban cores, Smith is experienced in the trade.
Wick plans to stay involved in his religion. Actively involved in the Catholic Church, Wick plans to spend his retirement working with young students and teenagers in rural and urban areas. Both he and his wife feel strongly about the worth of such pursuits.
However, retirement and the future are also uncertain times—especially for the school. “Williams is entering a new phase,” Wick said, “something of a growth spurt. We’re yearning to be larger without really knowing how—and someone will have to oversee that.”
Smith, being at the head of the “early warning system,” sees a rising student body who feels the pains of a “lack of community and a lack of belonging.” He cites the entry system, as well as a diverse campus, as the college’s greatest strengths in this respect.
“We make sure this college gets a broad cross-section of the best available students.” But the pressures of the modern world are mounting.
“The larger world now is beginning to have an impact on Williams,” Wick echoed, “and we’re not necessarily well-protected from that. It’s a reason for concern.” But these worries do not change the “dynamic, exciting” student body which both Smith and Wick believe Williams will continue to bring to its campus.
Wick summed up the commitment to diversity and accessibility which both he and Smith so preciously prize. “I’ve always been a supporter of those who came from different backgrounds. I’ve always looked to those who can make a difference for different reasons.”