Schapiro, Merrill analyze transitional year

President Schapiro and Dean Merrill spoke with the Record on Monday about the issues and events of the year.

As the second year of the neighborhood system comes to a close, do you think the system is having its intended effect on campus life? Is it working?

MS: I think it’s hard to separate the neighborhood system from a number of other things. We built a student center. That has a certain impact on the dynamics on campus. We took Lehman, Morgan, Fay and East out of first-year housing and we put the first-year students in Mission. And then we have the changes in the way we allocate students and when we allow them to reallocate themselves. So there are three things that are happening. It’s hard to figure out exactly what is attributable to what. I think … the student center has been a great addition to campus; having a place where you know you can run into other students has changed the dynamics … having the snack bar back, everything else. It’s certainly an important change. I go to snacks quite often on Sunday night and it’s really very different going to snacks in Dennett 3 [from what] it was in Fay 2. I wouldn’t say by any means that we’ve solved all sorts of life outside of the classroom dilemmas we’ve been facing, but I think things are much better than they were a couple of years ago. But that said, there are certain obvious disappointments that have come along with the housing program. We haven’t been able to integrate faculty the way we had hoped yet. And that’s why Karen and others have a whole kind of new program to engage faculty in the future. I think we keep taking steps to improve it. There’s a long way to go obviously.

KM: There are a number of goals in the neighborhood system, one was about forming an identity, one about diversifying, the way students live with each other, another about producing inventive, creative programming that’s on a slightly smaller level than the all-campus level. We’re probably going to move along those in uneven ways, I think. I’ve really liked having the neighborhood presidents there. That was a very useful group of people to have in terms of their being in touch with students in a different way than College Council. I think we’re certainly not there, but … [this year I saw students being] active in the neighborhoods and taking pride and responsibility over for what’s going on there.

MS: We had a large alumni function Saturday night … and I gave a little talk about what is going on at Williams and took questions. The context for one of the questions, exactly like yours, about the neighborhood system … I said I’m absolutely convinced that the classroom experience at Williams now is better than in the so-called glory days in the early 1980s. But that life outside the classroom isn’t yet as good. The reason I said it is because I really do believe it. We aren’t declaring victory by any means in any aspect of the housing.

Speaking of other changes in campus dynamics, the racist graffiti incident in Willy E sparked discussion along with the Stand With Us movement. How do you think that incident and the subsequent reaction has changed or not changed the culture at Williams?

KM: Any kind of culture change doesn’t happen instantly. There was a great focusing of energies on certain projects, and I think students and faculty and staff have followed through on those, some of which were seen just at the end of the semester: the Claiming Williams proposal for faculty meeting on Wednesday, the Web site [Williams Speaks Up]. Some of this we’ll be seeing next year – the Committee on Community Interactions (CCI) will get going next year. So the groundwork has been laid down for continuing discussion. What makes it different is that there are some structures in place for having these discussions, and I think that’s a good thing.

MS: The only thing I’d add is that we thought a couple of years ago about adding [members of senior staff with real] expertise in questions of inclusion. We were thinking that person could play a really big role and Mike Reed [vice president for strategic planning and institutional diversity] has played a very big role … I can tell you that it was extraordinarily helpful to have someone who really has a lot of experience in very difficult issues.

How does the administration see itself working with Stand With Us to address issues of campus disrespect in coming years?

KM: [At] the Chapin gathering a couple of weeks ago that Wendy Raymond [professor of biology and associate dean for institutional diversity] and the Committee on Diversity and Community put together, Zoe Fonseca [’08] was really articulate about that, and it’s kind of the nature of political movements, you know, a movement got going. [Stand With Us] propelled certain processes, and Zoe thought Stand With Us had to think about its place on campus given that these things were now working through the College. So I think the Stand With Us movement has been setting in motion a number of initiatives people have been taking up. So you know, in terms of the future Stand With Us, we’ll see what their role is, but certainly what they’ve set in motion has been set in motion.

On another note, the party scene has taken a lot of flack this year. How do you see administration working with the students to improve social life on campus in the coming years?

KM: [Since the 1980s], a lot of things have changed in terms of parties with alcohol on campus. Things are a lot more complicated, whether it’s the drinking age, issues around noise complaints, the fact that we live in a more litigious society … It’s part of the external truths about it. But I think the question has really opened up in the second half of the semester. In September, we’ll see what it will be like to have Goodrich back on line and what that feels like. I think there are ongoing questions about the Log that we’re very open to talking to students about. I think seeing how neighborhoods are responding to the party scene and so forth will be important. At the same time we understand the limits of some of that. Obviously, when you have a tent party in a neighborhood, there are likely going to be noise complaint problems (although Currier lasted until 1:45 on Saturday). … So we know that it’s a problem, but students still have to reckon that if they want especially large parties, they live in a small town where the witching hour is midnight, and noise complaints are going to start to come in more after midnight. There’s going to have to be some flexibility on all sides.

This year, the College hosted Focus the Nation and started the Zilkha Center among other sustainability initiatives. What do you see as the College’s greatest accomplishments in terms of sustainability and what do you think still needs to be addressed?

MS: We have a fair amount of money budgeted for next year for environmental initiatives, and that’s going to be a core part of the budget. We had next to nothing; now we have a lot of money [for those initiatives]. So that’s good. We’re now building buildings, designing buildings, getting them LEED certification recently. We’re really excited about the Zilkha Center. We’re going to be doing a whole bunch of things. We’re about to get a big grant … that will allow us to increase our investments and environmental studies program. We’re really excited about. We might have been a little late to the game, but we’re in it now.

KM: [We’re also] realizing the benefits of the transparency of our energy use, waste, recycling, things like that … so when we have these debates about building, any person can go online and do these comparisons of energy use for 24-hour periods, multi-month periods, or whatever. That we have access to that information may seem in a world of 24/7 and the Web that it should be there, but it took real people real effort to get that stuff online, and it’s incredibly informative when you think about our discussions about Paresky and keeping it open. Those questions going ahead, the fact that we can actually use data to make our decisions and that everybody can see that data, is really important.

MS: I hope that the students have noticed the changes in Dining Services. Bob Volpi is really on top of that, you know, organic food, fresh food, all kinds of things, composting – even in the menu preparation. It’s nice to be in a place where we take food pretty seriously.

Dean Merrill, has your first year as dean been harder than you expected?

KM: Yeah, I got lots of advice certainly from Dean Roseman. I shadowed her last April, which was quite a month. Even still, there’s nothing like actually having to be in the seat making decisions, [seeing] the complexity of it. … Every day, you can’t necessarily predict what’s going to come through the door, the variety and the amount of it from plain managerial stuff to, you know, hard human nature issues. I haven’t worked any harder, even writing my book.

Were there any challenges that made the year particularly difficult?

KM: You know, I think the hardest thing was getting used to going into the beginning of the week, thinking you were going to be able to do X, Y and Z. As a professor you’re used to doing that, being in control of your time. [As a dean], certain things can happen over the weekend or early in the week that take enormous amounts of time, that you can’t predict and that you can’t control. So I think that learning that was the way the job worked was the hardest.

Switching gears onto the Dean and President dynamic, you worked with former dean Nancy Roseman for seven years, how has the transition been for you?

KM: Should I go? It’s not time for me to leave, right?

MS: Karen’s a lot taller for one – I’m still getting used to that. Karen’s wonderful. The Bills . . . [Dean of the Faculty] Bill Wagner and [Provost] Bill Lenhart replaced Tom Kohut and Cappy Hill [who had] been there for many years, and they’ve done an extraordinary job. So it’s great, it’s been really a joy working with Karen. We’ve replaced one extraordinarily good dean of the college with another one.

KM: I’ve enjoyed it tremendously. During some of the harder times, friends of mine have understandably asked me about the job, and there are definitely difficult parts of the job, but the particular personalities and passions that folks on senior staff have brought to the table have been great. And I think my point of view coming out of the faculty has been getting an immediately different view of the institution and being with very engaged people and sort of learning about their parts of the institution and seeing it from a different point of view has been really great.
MS: There are always challenges in these sorts of jobs. The interesting thing is … every week, I’ll hear it, sometimes from a faculty member, often from an alumnus, sometimes a board member, sometimes a student, when they say, this is the biggest challenge in a generation at Williams. And I always say, yeah, it’s the biggest challenge until next week’s challenge. You just learn to never get too upset. You take it seriously, but there’s only so much you can do. You get used to it. Most things you figured out a decent solution and if you get it wrong, you change it next year. Again, after a while, you say, not too much is going to surprise me, not too much is going to upset me.

Are you getting fatigued at all after eight years as President?

MS: Oh, I love my job. I actually like it more than I ever have. I think I’m a little better at it, too. I really love it. I love Williams College – we have fabulous faculty and staff, and I mostly love the students. I did a new class this semester with Will Dudley and teaching with him has been a tremendous joy, and we have a fabulous group of students in our seminar. I can’t wait until next spring. I’ll teach a tutorial in the fall, and I’ll do a course with Will again in the spring. Next year it will count for not only philosophy credit, but also economics credit, so we’re excited. Will is really excited about teaching in the economics department. So that’s really been a joy. A lot of really great things have happened this year. Homecoming was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever been a part of in my life. Part of it was [ESPN College] Game Day, part of it was just I love it when my students come back. It was a glorious weekend. We have a lot of weekends like that or a lot of weeks like that. I’ve never enjoyed being president of Williams as much as I do today. And I just love it, it’s a fabulous privilege and I enjoy it as much as I possibly could.