Adam Falk, announced Monday as the College’s 17th President, smiled and waved as he strode onstage in Chapin Hall Tuesday afternoon to rousing applause from a standing audience of students, faculty, staff and community members. Announcing himself “delighted, honored and humbled” to have been chosen as the College’s next leader, Falk said that after a day spent meeting with students, faculty and administrators, Williams “already feels very much like home.”
Presidential Search Committee Chair Greg Avis ’80, who introduced Falk at the event, announced the selection of the Johns Hopkins University dean in an all-campus e-mail addressed to the community on Monday evening following the Board of Trustees’ official decision, made Thursday at a meeting in Boston. Although Falk will not assume the presidency until April 1, he will return to campus several times during the fall and plans to visit Williamstown once a week beginning in January.Â
In his speech, Falk vowed to lead the College with “energy, ethical commitment and, not the least of all, joy.” He said that he does not yet have specific priorities for his tenure but emphasized commitment to a set of core values, including academic quality, extracurricular life, diversity, sustainability and a global consciousness.Â
Falk also spoke about how he became attracted to the College, pointing to the strengths of its students, faculty, staff and alumni as central factors in his decision. He said that his “falling in love with Williams” occurred when he came to see the campus for the first time during the search process, posing as the uncle of a prospective student on an admissions tour. “The ability [of the tour guide] to articulate what Williams was about was amazing to me,” he said.
In an interview on Monday evening, Falk said that he still needs to become more familiar with the College and will engage with diverse segments of the community in order to do so. “Of course while I do know a lot about Williams, what I know doesn’t scratch the surface of everything I need to learn,” he said. “My first priority will be to listen as much as I can to all voices â€“ and not necessarily the loudest and most insistent ones.”
Regarding his vision for the College, Falk said that he comes to Williams with an open mind. “Williams already has a vision that I embrace: to be the best liberal arts college in the country. It’s there now, and the vision is to deepen the excellence at Williams across all dimensions,” he said.
During his brief visit to campus, Falk took 45 minutes to meet with a small group of elected student leaders, including the College Council officers and class representatives, the four neighborhood presidents and the head of MinCo. Falk began the meeting by walking around the table to shake each student’s hand individually, after which he asked the group to explain how students have engaged with the administration in the past and what they will look for in his leadership after he takes office. The students also spoke with the incoming president about a many of their own concerns, such as budget constraints, community building and curricular changes. While Falk did not commit to any particular course of action on these or other issues, he pledged to listen to and engage with students during the transition period and after he takes office.
“Given that it’s his first day where he’s meeting Williams students it was incredible that there was such a great connection,” said Mike Tcheyan ’10, CC co-president. “It’s great to hear that he’s willing to listen to the concerns of students and he’s willing to be a student-friendly guy, which is what we need at Williams.”
“I think that whenever there’s new leadership there’s a chance for serious change, but I like that he wants to get to know the community before [supporting new policies],” said interim Class of 2011 Representative Cadence Hardenbergh ’11.
A theoretical physicist who has received numerous prestigious awards, 44-year-old Falk currently serves at Johns Hopkins as dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences â€“ a position involving responsibilities similar to those of the College’s President, including budget allocation, fund raising and setting institutional goals. According to Paula Burger, Hopkins vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, Falk runs what is essentially a small college composed of roughly 3400 undergraduates and 970 graduate students. “Deans [at Hopkins] are very independent and operate in a highly decentralized environment,” Burger said.
“While Williams and JHU might educate different profiles, they’re more similar than you might think,” Falk said in the interview. “The Arts and Sciences College at JHU is smaller than most people realize and absolutely committed to undergraduate education, and it’s about using that smallness as an opportunity to foster tight-knit community and inter-disciplinary work.”
During his time as dean, Falk has increased funding for the Office of Student Life and, according to Burger, has been supportive of programs to promote the humanities at an institution that is often focused on science.
Burger also noted that Falk has avoided favoring graduate programs â€“ long a center of Hopkins’ resources â€“ over undergraduate ones and has been committed to strengthening undergraduate education. “I don’t think that there was a single initiative that we wanted to take in undergraduate education that he wasn’t forcefully behind,” she said, adding that “in a university where people have to deal with both, he was able to establish himself as a champion of the undergraduate program without devaluing graduate studies.”
Despite his central role in the administration, however, Falk does not seem to have been a visible figure for the majority of Hopkins undergraduates. Marc Perkins, president of the Hopkins Student Government Association (SGA), said that the University’s “bureaucratic” administrative structure means that Falk has been a “behind-the-scenes type of person” for most students, but that as dean he has effectively stepped in on occasion to engage with campus leaders when important issues arise. “I’m not saying that students don’t know who he is because he’s not reaching out,” Perkins said, “but easily students are more familiar with people beneath him” with whom they interact on a more regular basis.
According to Perkins, although the Hopkins administration has historically been largely closed off from students, “they’re definitely now trying to include students more than they have in the past.” Last year, for example, Perkins wrote a report on ways to improve student life at the University, prompting Falk to organize an inclusive gathering of administrators, faculty and student leaders to discuss the SGA’s concerns as well as how to best address them. Falk also hosts annual meet and greet receptions for SGA leaders that are meant to connect students with figures in the administration.
Falk, who has won numerous awards for teaching, has been absent from the classroom since becoming dean in 2005. He lamented the fact that he has been unable to engage with students in the classroom in recent years but said that he hopes to resume this role at the College. “I would love to teach here,” he said. “That’s not necessarily the first thing I will do, but once I get settled in I would love to be back in the classroom.”
While Sarah Bolton, chair of the physics department, said that she does not yet know when or whether it would be possible for Falk to teach classes, she speculated that running laboratory sections might be a difficult strain on his schedule. “I know [Former President Schapiro] sometimes taught as part of a team, and that might be something that in the long run would work well for someone who has a large time commitment to the administration,” she said.
Bolton added that members of the department are excited that the incoming president shares their discipline but see his selection as a boon to the entire campus. “It’s exciting that he’s a physicist, but I must say I really think of him as an exciting president for the campus as a whole,” she said.
Falk graduated with highest honors from the University of North Carolina in 1987 and earned his Ph.D in physics at Harvard in 1991. Prior to joining the faculty at Johns Hopkins in 1994, Falk conducted research at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and the University of California at San Diego.
In addition to his impressive academic and professional background, the search committee said that it was drawn to Falk’s nuanced thinking, infectious energy and strong commitment to the liberal arts. Committee members described Falk as personable, emphasizing his genuine demeanor and ability to approach issues with rigor and creativity. Introducing Falk in Chapin on Tuesday, Avis said that he “embodies the values we treasure at Williams.”