On the Record: Morton Owen Schapiro, president of the College

Scott Moringiello, a Record executive editor, talked with recently inducted president of the College Morton Owen Schapiro last week. Interview excerpts follow.

Record: Obviously, the question on everyone’s minds is the theater and dance complex and the changes in plans for it. Is it simply a question of renovating the AMT, or using the space behind Greylock, or will some of the money be used on other projects?

Schapiro: Well, one of the things that we all love about Williams College is that we make these decisions as we communicate. We do. I was on the Committee on Priorities and Resources for years. We have groups of students and faculty and staff come together to provide a vision and an ownership over what we do. Moving forward especially with recognizing that we have a strategic planning exercise going on should be a big part of it. This is a chance for the community to come together and decide what is in its own best interest.

A lot of the old discussion about the theater and dance complex related to Mr. Allen giving money for a specific purpose. Does the current discussion about the facility include the donor himself?

Oh, yeah. I mean, Herbert has been an amazingly generous person; he’s been incredibly supportive of Williams College over the years in many ways, and he gave this remarkable gift because he really believes that Williams College should be known for excellence. Herbert, I think, is correct in saying that the image that Williams College portrays to the outside world in theater and dance is not as good as reality.

We look at dance, and how starved it has been for resources, has mourned for the remarkable talents of Sandra Burton on a shoestring. Having this incredible program – I’m sure you’ve seen it, and that students are well aware of it – and forced to have our dancers literally around buckets catching the rainwater, it’s incredible what this woman has been able to do. Herbert is very well aware of that, thinking that “boy, we should have the venues and facilities to really be first-class.” If we’re going to do it at Williams, we should do it right. And that’s really what drove his gift.

So it’s unclear exactly whether it’d be an AMT renovation or a building behind Greylock.

Yes. Or next to AMT…I just read the quote from Bill Wagner, who chairs [Committee on Priorities and Resources], and he had a good point. He said that one thing that his committee was worried about was that they did not want to replicate all those facilities – the property offices, the two theaters, the BackStage operations which are extensive, obviously, in theater and dance. Over at another part at campus without a specific plan, what are we going to do with AMT? It seems to me that Herbert identified a need on the campus, or he supported a need on campus that had already been identified by Priorities and Resources and others, that we should do something in the performing arts, in the music and theater and dance. And that’s why he gave this remarkable gift: to support it.

Everyone is worried about our image; everyone is thinking about our market niche. I’m on the road every week talking to alumni groups, and almost every time when we talk about our image, somebody says that there’s a downside to being so well known for half of our students playing varsity sports. There’s a great upside. If you are really smart and a talented athlete, then we’re competitive with any school in the country: Harvard, Stanford, whatever.But, there’s the question that the other half don’t play a varsity sport – and I’m not saying that there aren’t athletes who are interested in the performing arts, because there are lots of them who are – but I think we have to portray an image to the outside world that Williams defines excellence in undergraduate education, and that everything we do is first class.

What sort of plans are underway for the renovation of Baxter?

I think that in conjunction with planning theater and dance and what we’re going to do with AMT, we should definitely have on the table exactly what we want to do to improve the student union. We did Goodrich, which I think is wonderful, and the Log, which I think could be much better than it currently is by giving it more resources and more support and solving some of the problems it has. I also am really excited about redoing Baxter in a wonderful way so we have a first-class student center. But we might also think of planning in the theater and dance complex some student union aspects to that building as well, which a lot of campuses have done.

What about for Stetson and Sawyer?

Well, there’s the question of classrooms: where are you going to build these smart classrooms? I love the fact that Hopkins Hall has classrooms in it. The old Hopkins Hall where I used to teach a lot had them, and the new one does. I wish we had even more. I think that we want to have classrooms where there are faculty offices; we want to have classrooms where the students hang out, and I think we need classrooms in the performing arts building.

I think we need cafes. One of the buildings they just redid at Harvard has faculty offices and departments and programs, and there’s also a cafe there so the students come and I think that’s what you want, that you have to plan these places being mindful of the fact that we want to maximize interaction between faculty and students.

Do you have a certain timetable for the planning? For example that, by March, we’ll know what we’re doing with Baxter, or by November, we’ll know what we’re doing with the dance the complex?

It’s a good question. The clock is ticking because we’re having a trustee retreat with the heads of the key committees and the members of the coordinating committees, and that’s going to happen in January. It’s not going to be a final plan by any means, but we want to be far enough along so that we can engage the trustees and get their input on where we’re going.

What will this year’s freshmen see the fruits of?

We’ll start seeing changes by, I hope, as early as next year.

Is there a specific direction that you’d like the curriculum to go?

I have my own ideas about interdisciplinary teaching, which I’ve done to a certain extent. But I don’t have any special standing; I’m just one more faculty member who’s serious about teaching. I think we’ll turn over the whole [November faculty] meeting to [Heatherington] and the CEP. We’ll have some great discussions on things like whether we want sophomore seminars. These things will emerge. I don’t think in a couple of months we’ll be able to come up with everything we can possibly come up with in the long run. On the other hand, students are here, and we always have to be working as quickly as possible, recognizing the deliberate processes that make Williams College so special, but also recognizing that faculty stay around and students don’t. When we get good ideas, it’s our obligation to implement them as quickly as possible.

A lot of the issues we’ve been discussing relate to campus culture and community interaction. Even though fraternities are gone, there’s this perception, whether or not it accurately reflects reality, that there’s this sort of lingering “fraternity culture” here at Williams. I’m wondering if you think this is the case, and if so, is this something we want to remedy, and how?

I’ve only been back for a short time; I’ve been gone nine years, and I really don’t know what the answer to that is. One of the things I loved about Williams during my 11 years was that, unlike some other schools, it was very civilized. I think it was civilized because we got rid of fraternities and adopted coeducation at a very good time.

I’ve heard some faculty complain about the division of the day: from 8 to 4 as school time and 4 to 6 as play time. Is our Williams experience too divided between the academic and the athletic?

I think the broader question is what you do when you have a tremendous amount of responsibility to the students, with the JA system and the like. As a typical economist, if you have to force someone to do something, it probably wasn’t in their interest, the way many economists feel about things, myself included. On the other hand, I hear from students that they want more engagement with faculty, that they want more programming in their lives on the weekends and greater links between what happens in the classroom and what happens outside the classroom.

I’m hopeful that that will be a theme that will emerge – ways that we can better integrate what happens inside the classroom with what happens outside the classroom. What happens in a Williams education is that many students educate each other, and it happens just as much on Friday and Saturday nights as it happens on a Wednesday morning in class. I think we have to recognize, that and we have to try to relate what happens inside class to what happens outside class, whether through a series of lectures that are coordinated with a freshman or sophomore experience, or whatever. I don’t exactly know the solution.

I would also like to discuss admissions.

We have a public obligation to be affordable to students, regardless of family background. If a student is brilliant enough to contribute to the Williams community we have to figure out how to make it affordable for him or her to come here. [We need] to educate people to thrive in a new economy and a new society, the one that America is becoming, and the way we educate better reflect that. And you don’t do that if you don’t have diversity.

I tell you as president of Williams College that the promotional material we have in the viewbooks and that we put out on the web page and elsewhere, we’re either going to change it or we’re going to deliver. We’ve talked to a lot of students and they’re happy to be here and they don’t regret coming here, but they think there are certain disappointments. One of them is the size of the classes, and another is the engagement with the faculty outside of the class.

This is what we sell. We’re in the business of convincing people to come to Williams instead of, say, Yale. Yale has a bigger name throughout the world but we focus on undergraduate education. We monitor class size, we give a special experience, so we better do it. This has all sorts of ramifications for the stuff we discussed before; it also has implications for the number of faculty we have and the number of students we have, if we’re really going to be concerned about the seminar experience. We’re looking at both aspects of that. Because we’re doing with this with coordinating committee, we’re looking at it in a coordinated way. And we are looking at whether we have too many students are here.

And lowering the number of people that are admitted, too?

Right, that lowers the number of students who ultimately matriculate here. Here’s a question: do we have an infrastructure or type of faculty and staff that can accommodate 2,089 students? I don’t know if it were a conscious decision to go from 490 students in the freshman class to 520 or 530. It has an impact. [Dean of the College] Nancy Roseman and I, with [Director of Housing] Tom McEvoy, spent a day this summer touring all the dorms. We looked at hundreds and hundreds of rooms; it was an eye-opening experience.

And I’ll tell you, we came away looking at some of the spaces that freshman are stuffed into thinking that we have a real problem here. With the bunk beds and the like, it’s like the steerage on a ship. You have the two beds on top of each other and the two dressers and the two desks, and you have two square inches to turn around. I think you have to treat people in a civilized way if you expect them to act in a civilized way.

And I know that with our relative isolation, in order to have enough people with diverse interests, and we have 2,100 students, and places like Swarthmore have 1,500, you wonder if we should be as big as we are. I have some grave concerns whether or not we have the infrastructure and the faculty to meet our great promises given the number of students we have. So we’re looking at that. The Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid is looking at that right now, and we’ll see if maybe we should be a little smaller.

I think we need more faculty. We probably need fewer students, and we have to deal with this. People are always saying we don’t care about U.S. News, that we’re ranked number three, and I don’t care because it’s a beauty contest and all that, except that the reason we’re number three has to do with class size among other things.

And if it really is the case that Amherst and Swarthmore are the schools ahead of us, and they deliver the seminar experience more than we do, then we have a problem. And if addressing that puts us back at number one, then that’s fine.That’s not why we’re addressing it, but if the reason why we’re number three is because something that was really peripheral to our experience, something that we really don’t care about, then I’d say I don’t care. But if it’s because of class size, and the interaction between students and faculty, then it’s a problem.

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