On the Record: Merrill addresses year’s changes

Yesterday, Record staff Laura Corona and Yue-Yi Hwa met with Karen Merrill, Dean of the College to discuss how the College is moving forward, with respect to the future of Claiming Williams, the financial uncertainty and the presidential transition.

What are your thoughts about this year’s Claiming Williams?

I was incredibly enthusiastic about this year’s Claiming Williams. I thought the day itself was a really significant day for the College. I think, like a lot of people, it wasn’t a culmination or an endpoint, but it was an opening of a door onto what I hope will be events like it.
I don’t know whether we’ll continue wanting to do things during the year that are building off of CW, but I just love the fact that on that day people were out going to these events and talking to each other, being in rooms and forums and talking about things that hadn’t been talked about so openly.
What do you think its campus role will be in the future?

I think we’re all interested in what the fac meeting is going to produce tomorrow. I think that if CW can happen again, in a fresh way, and stays a kind of living organism, I think it would be wonderful to be able to do it again.

Do you think Claiming Williams addressed what the problems that sparked it?

On one hand, yes. The program that came out of it was trying to address not just the events itself that sparked it (racist graffiti in Willy E), but other issues that came out of the Stand With Us group.
I think it addressed it, but that’s why I say it has to be seen not as a conclusion, but an opening up of discussing issues openly, hopefully in creative forms.
I think the important thing if we do go forward with CW next year, is that it is the creation of the campus at the time it comes together so that the same kind of really robust process takes place so that there is another set of events that feel fresh, feel meaningful to people on campus. I don’t think anybody on campus, least of all the folks involved in CW, think that there’s a stock way to run events next year.

How do you think the reduced budget and more generally the financial uncertainty will affect the College in the long term?

I think one of the biggest changes that we’ve had – maybe something that not everyone feels in the same way – is that we’re doing a lot more scrutinizing of how we set our budgetary priorities and how we spend out money, and really trying to separate out the core things we do, the things that are desirable, the things that we might be able to live without for a few years, what we may be able to cut back on. I think it’s been a really good thing – one benefit that can come out of a budget crisis is that it really forces you to look through your program, look through what you’re doing as a college and try to sort out what it is that really needs to get done.

In what areas do you see need for reevaluation or change?

Putting budget issues aside – if you want to talk about the neighborhoods – that’s more an evaluation of how students live now with the neighborhoods. That really has been fascinating in the sense that we’re able to get qualitative and quantitative data that will be really helpful in the fall when we finish the first stage where we’re just evaluating it against the original goals set for it.
In terms of reevaluation, I think this is a long process that a budgetary crisis sets into motion where I think we’ve engaged this group – the ad hoc budget group – that will be helping us sort through priorities and out of that process, there may come recommendations that things can be evaluated.
The other piece that I’m excited about in our realm is advising. We’re going to be having a faculty-student ad hoc committee starting next year that will be starting to look at the overall goals of the advising system – first year advising going into “pre-major” advising.
How are you preparing the College for the presidential transition?

I think the transition from my perspective is something I haven’t given a huge amount of thought to, partially because we have a senior staff that’s worked together now for at least two years – and we’re really comfortable working with each other and talking about College level priorities, so we haven’t really talked about the transition per se in part because we haven’t had a whole lot of time to do that, but obviously we’ll identify what the issues are and figure out how to make the transition as comfortable and easy as possible.

What are the next big steps for Williams, moving forward?

Well, I think there are a couple things that come to mind – even if the economy gets better, we’ll still need to be thinking about how we budget and prioritize, and thinking about that in terms some of the goals that we’ve been very specific about institutionally – that’s probably the big picture we need to keep our eye on.
So what are some of the things that come to mind? Obviously diversity and inclusiveness – making sure that even with perhaps not a great economy and strain on the endowment, that we’re still aiming to do as much as we can to make this as inclusive a place as we can.
As well, we want to think about other goals that we’ve had – for instance around sustainability – to what degree can we keep those goals and values going.
And I think most importantly, at the core, are our academic programs. We have changing trends and things going on in higher education, and where does liberal arts fit in that, and where does Williams fit in that, are questions to keep in mind.