Merrill, Schapiro on the Record

In two separate sessions last week, the Record sat down with President Schapiro and Dean Merrill, respectively, to discuss the past semester and the months to come. Below are excerpts from those conversations.

How have you gauged the College’s progress with the sustainability campaign?

Morton Schapiro (MS): We certainly have gotten some good news, when we received the results of the audits we did on energy use and all. That was certainly good, but we’re still pretty early in the process. It was nice to be able to announce the Zilkha gift. This was something that had been in the works for sixty years or something. It’s something that after we reacquainted with him, and it had been about 58 years, it was immediately clear that he had the interest to support us with really thinking about common goals, and how he can support things that we think are important. And it didn’t take long to figure out that the institution and the family both have a passion for environmental issues. So that was nice, and as you know we just announced Stephanie Boyd as the interim director while we do the search.

A group of us met with another potential donor a week or two ago about various aspects of sustainability, and I think we’re going to get some more support on a few things. So we’re gearing up … I think that if it’s 100 yards to go we’re on the ten yard line. Starting, not ending. So it’s just really the beginning and I don’t want to declare victory because we got some good environmental audit numbers. I realize this is early on but I think we’re gearing up to make the Zilkha Center an important part of what we do here.

Karen Merrill (KM): I think another important thing is the amount of student work that is going into Focus the Nation event coming up in February, working to engage faculty in the effort. I think those are kind of the two signature campaigns this semester.

How do you think the construction on the Stetson-Sawyer project has been progressing?

KM: The academic buildings are on schedule. It’s positive that it’s is off to the side. We’ll certainly feel the impact of the Stetson-Sawyer library project, but it’s going to have less of a central impact obviously than these two academic buildings. Everything’s moving in a timely way. There’s been a lot of revision in the way the college actually does construction projects since Steve Klass came on board, and I think it’s a positive difference … with these two building moving along on time and on budget. It’s not what you often hear with these projects.

MS: It’s nice that it’s on time and on budget, and we’re hoping for the major construction to be over in early to mid July and have the faculty move in at the beginning of August. We want to have time for the faculty to get used to their offices. We’re pretty happy. It’s going to be great, before long, to have students and faculty, we’ll have some classrooms in there, language labs and all kinds of great things, exhibition space – it will be really nice to have those things on line soon. Every time one of these projects is completed it’s nice because, A) you don’t have the construction, and B) you have the functionality of the place. One great example is the student center – it’s hard for me to remember what it was like pre-Paresky.

A lot of students have noticed the raised profile of mental health services on campus in recent months. What considerations went into this shift?

KM: Well it’s certainly come out of the health center, in that outreach has been a real goal for them . . . I think they’ve felt really good this semester about being able to do the depression awareness week. Looking ahead to the spring, they’re going to be doing more with mental health – education, outreach and so forth. And I think … obviously we’ve had two high profile cases of bipolar illness …  that’s made questions of bipolar highlighted. It’s one of those things we see as important on campus, but also needed in the broader community . . . Paresky has made it easier.

In terms of liability, we’ve set ourselves up a set of rubrics or guidelines for what kinds of information are appropriate at given times. I would say we’ve done this very much in relation to a national dialogue that emerged after Virginia Tech, about students’ rights to privacy. I feel really good about what we’ve done this semester in sorting out at what points we share confidential information about a student suffering from mental health issues. I think we’ve got a really good system in place, and a lot of that work certainly got started under Dean Roseman, in terms of how we respond to students that are at risk.

What are some of the results of the heightened awareness of alcohol and bio-cleanup issues on campus?

MS: I don’t know whether we’ve just been lucky since a tough start to the semester, or whether something happened, but it sure seems like things have gotten a little better. But it was tough to get some bad publicity, but I always feel like you should be brutally honest about what’s going on. You can always try to sweep things under the rug, but that’s not the Williams way . . . A number of people said oh, you made it a story, you could have spun it differently. And I said, you know, we’re not in the spinning business, we’re not running for public office. I think the way we handled everything, and how public we were about it, was good.

KM: I think the dialogue is starting to progress. When any campus decides to take on a discussion of alcohol and to try to make some changes, whatever outcomes that come out of that take a while to see. I think the one thing that has come out of the dialogue is that it’s turned everybody’s focus to the issue of hard alcohol-drinking on campus. Where is it being done, how is it being done, the fact that it leads to most of the problems that we in the Dean’s office worry about – and I assume many students worry about – whether it be students taking a lot of shots and doing property damage, hospital visits, the dreaded bio-cleanup problems. I do think it’s been a focusing, almost like around a public health issue, on hard alcohol, and that’s precisely where I think we need to be. We’re in the really early stages of talking through that, thinking about policies and health outreach … That should be at the center and it does seem to be coming into focus, in terms of discussing things with JAs, with first-years.

How do you feel the neighborhood system has been functioning this semester? Seven years has been tossed around as the amount of time it will take for this system to really take hold.

MS: If it takes seven years, then it’s a disaster. I know everybody says it takes seven years, but how many generations of kids are you going to mess up when you’re trying to get it right? I’m not very patient.

I think we’re making progress. If you can’t get this thing in good shape in four years, something’s wrong. You certainly can’t change the culture overnight, and there are still aspects of the Williams that I joined in 1980 that were much better than now in terms of life outside the classroom. I think that faculty involvement in residential life was in a really good place. Maybe because I ate in the dorms every week and I was very involved, but there was somewhat of a different mentality and you can’t just restore that. Once you give it up, it’s hard to get it back. But that said, I think you’re right that we’re moving in the right direction, and I hope that we can accelerate that movement over the course of the next year.

KM: It’s a major issue to make sure that the neighborhood governing boards and CC understand their relationship, or decide what they want it to be. Should they all be involved in all-campus issues? Should there be a sort of parceling out of what these governing structures should do? I like these issues since I’m a political historian . . . but we’re in a really early stage of that. The neighborhoods are going to have a greater and greater place in terms of campus life, the way people think about campus life, and that’s great, but it raises questions for Council in terms of their role beyond budgeting out money for student activities and so forth.

How would you define the overarching goals of the neighborhood system at this point?

KM: Making sure that residential experience has the sort of diversity that we want students to experience, that there are a wide variety of options for student programming, that outside of academics the neighborhoods become a generator of a variety of activities. On these kinds of things the neighborhoods are having a real role. I think the piece that’s left is involving faculty. It’s certainly a goal of the College to figure out how to build stronger relationships between the faculty and the neighborhoods. The discussion is happening this year, and I don’t know where it will end up concretely but it’s definitely something we feel like we need to make more progress on.

At the end of last semester, there was talk about the Campus Life Office reexamining its role on campus. Has there been progress on that front?

KM: That work is happening. It is complicated for Campus Life. It’s a relatively new office on a campus that has prized student autonomy, and I think that it’s likely that we’re not going to be able to come up with one sentence that’s going to describe precisely that relationship between Campus Life and students, but I think that Campus Life is working really hard to figure out what that right relationship is. The discussions that need to be happening are happening. They’re a new office that has been put in charge of a new neighborhood system. I think that just as students are trying to figure out what neighborhoods can do and should be doing, they also are thinking about that and talking with students.

How was the transition to Dean? Were there any surprises?

KM: There were plenty of surprises. I think any of the deans who are now back in the faculty will say that the first semester as dean, you can anticipate a little bit of it . . . but needless to say there was a lot that I hadn’t anticipated. I certainly was aware of a lot of alcohol issues on campus, though I didn’t come into this semester thinking that it would be an issue of such importance for me, but it’s quickly been put on my map. It became very clear it was an issue of tremendous longstanding importance to a lot of people within the dean’s office and that we could use the events as an opportunity to really move forward in thinking through potentially new strategies. That’s probably been the biggest surprise, in that I’ve spent an enormous amount of time talking with people about it. I didn’t think it was going to be my number one issue.

In the end I have to say it’s been really satisfying to try to think through these different strategies. We are signing up as an institution that’s taking part in the dialogues. It’s a small group right now, but I hope there will be some momentum to build strength among the schools. But the general impulse behind this is to help us all articulate a common vision about how we deal with alcohol use and alcohol abuse, from education, outreach, whatever kinds of services we provide, to enforcement and things of that sort. So I’m really excited to be tied into people who are working on this issue at schools that are similar to ours. I think that’s been a really positive outcome of this. That’s been a huge surprise to me. You get hit with all sorts of issues you don’t anticipate. I feel really fortunate that I have lots of experienced people to help me work through these issues.

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