Interim President Wagner discusses expectations, role

Starting his first semester as interim president, Bill Wagner met with Record Editor-in-Chief Lina Khan ’10 to discuss the nature of his temporary role on campus, as well as how he plans to help the College navigate through financial uncertainties and other challenges until a new president assumes leadership sometime during the next year.

Does your role as interim president involve active steering and presenting your own vision, or is it mostly staying the course former President Schapiro had set out?

There’s not a lot of time and it wouldn’t really be appropriate for me to undertake significant new initiatives because that’s the prerogative of whoever is going to be the next president. Primarily, I think my fundamental task is to hand over the College to the next president in as sound a shape as possible so he or she can start thinking about the policies and initiatives that he or she might want to implement. On the other hand, there are a lot of decisions that have to be made and a big part of that is ensuring the financial health of the College. So I’d say it’s an activist caretaker role.

That said, I think we can move forward on a number of fronts. There are several studies that emerged last year that will continue, but we shouldn’t be making a decision about the results until the next president comes. For example, there is a review of the neighborhood system underway, the first part of which is simply to assess how well the system is working, so there was a lot of effort to gauge student opinion. That fact-finding part of the report should be ready for distribution some time early this fall, and that will then be the basis for an extended review about what to do about what we find. Similarly, there’s also a committee looking at our advising system and beginning to think about ways that that could be improved. So there are a few semi-new initiatives that we’re undertaking that will provide the next president and senior staff with the information needed to make decisions.

Are there any projects or decision that will be delayed until the next President arrives?

There might be a few decisions, for example, in terms of the budget and finances. Although the market has been better for the last few months, we still have some very serious challenges. And there are various options for how we go forward in dealing with the financial challenges of the College. We would be reluctant to take a decision that hems the next president in and commits him or her to a particular course of action without that person’s consultation. So that’s the sort of decision that would be put off.

But the ability to defer those decisions depends a lot on the timeline of your presidency, no?

Yes, definitely the nature of my role will change depending on the time. My hope and expectation is that we may have the next president by some time this academic year. I don’t want to predict that, given that I’m not part of the process, but if you look at the average time it generally takes to complete one of these searches, it’s not inconceivable that we would have somebody by the end of the academic year.

If that’s not the case then I’ll have the responsibility and opportunity to take some initiatives in areas that I feel strongly about, like international education, something I’m strongly committed to. Another large area that is more invisible to the community is alumni relations and fundraising, and if I’m interim president for just a few months I’ll play less of a role in that – there’s always some role, but I think those audiences are waiting to see who the next person will be.

Being an economist as well as president, Schapiro was a central figure in analyzing the College’s finances and setting the budget. How do you see yourself being involved in that process?

As dean of the faculty I was very involved with the budget anyway, so the difference is mostly shifting the altitude from which I’m involved. As president I have to be much more engaged with the budget setting process in all areas and more involved managing the endowment.

We already have the budget for this year and we have a soft budget for next year, and that’s soft in the sense that we have a pretty clear target for the amount of resources we can take from the endowment. We have agreed with the Board of Trustees on an amount that we can take out next year, so we have a preliminary budget, but what we will have to do over the next few months is assess the different ways of getting to that amount.

What will your priorities be in reaching that number?

The main criteria that we’re using will remain constant. We want to make sure that Williams remains an excellent institution that provides a first-class education, that it remains accessible to anyone who’s able to be admitted, so a deep commitment to financial aid, and a desire not to have to rely on involuntary layoffs. Those are core values that we determined very early on and we’ll see no change there, but even within those parameters there are different ways of constructing the budget, and to some extent that will depend on the environment that we are a part of – it’s going to depend on what happens in the market.

Having been dean of the faculty for the past three years, how connected do you still feel to the student body?

As dean of the faculty I didn’t do any teaching so there wasn’t as much contact with students as in the past, but I don’t feel distant from them given that I’ve been here for almost 30 years. You guys are almost infused in my blood. I don’t think three years is long enough to purge it. I’ve had less contact, but I don’t feel distance in the sense of separated. I think I am in tune with the campus, but Karen [Merrill] will set me straight on that when I’m not.

What are some of the challenges you see in the upcoming year?

I think the main challenge is going to be the financial one and all of its ramifications – working at how we can provide the education and experience that we all want with fewer resources is going to be a challenge. I think we still have a long way to go with building an inclusive community. A lot of work has been done with different groups on campus in that area, but it’s a process that will never be done. We’re in the process of changing who we are, and that’s exciting. It enriches the College in enormous ways and it connects us to the wider world in really interesting ways, but it also creates tensions that we’re going to have to continue to work through.

Ensuring that we continue the process of diversification of the community is important. If you divide the campus into three very broad parts, then the student body is far more diverse than the faculty and the faculty is more diverse than the staff, so we have to work on all three of those areas to try and continue to move forward, so that’s going to be a challenge. Given the way in which higher education is changing in very interesting and challenging ways, Williams as an institution is going to have to not simply articulate but be a leader in articulating what the value and meaning of a liberal arts education is in a global environment.

What’s the transition process going to look like between you and the next president?

We’ll have to work out a way to introduce that person to all different parts of the community, so even before he or she is in place, he or she will have a sense of how the institution actually works, and we’ll set up mechanisms that person could call on for advice to help smooth the transition. It’s a process that’s on our agenda and we’ve started talking about it but we really don’t have it worked out. The president is going to want to meet students, and we’ll involve College Council students to find out how that should be done and what kinds of contacts early on would be most helpful to the president. The same is true for the Faculty Steering Committee to see which faculty groups should be part of that process, and the same goes for the staff.

What might be some of the difficulties of the process and what’s being done to ease or pre-empt them?

A lot depends on who the person is. We can’t really create a more articulated process until we know how familiar the person is with Williams. If it’s someone who has had some association with the institution – an alum or someone – who knows a fair amount, then that shapes what the process is going to be. Or it could be someone who’s had no association with Williams and is coming from a different kind of institution, from a large research university with many schools and so on. So to some extent it will have to be calibrated to who the person is and we have to also be sensitive to the fact that who the person is – his or her own views, what kind of help they want – will also shape the process.

In what area do you see the greatest need for change or improvement at the College?

I think that’s for the next president to decide; I don’t want to make that determination. If I was going to focus on one challenge, I would focus on the process of becoming a more inclusive community . . . As a whole I think Williams is a pretty great institution – not to sound smug or complacent – but we do a lot of good things here and we have a lot of very intelligent people who are working hard across the community to try and make things better, so we do a lot right that I don’t think fundamentally has to be changed. Mike Reed [Vice President for Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity] has a great phrase, “for each student Williams should become his or her own,” and I think we still have a way to go in terms of achieving that.

It is a truism that everybody experiences Williams in his or her way, but one could still categorize, notice general trends among certain groups, whether ethnic categories, socio-economic categories or national-international. It’s still a more difficult process for some groups than others.

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