Falk’s colleagues, friends paint a presidential portrait

On Sept. 29, students, faculty and other members of the College community gathered to hear Incoming President Adam Falk’s first official speech on campus and, afterwards, to shake his hand in more personal, if brief, encounters. During the past few weeks since his debut on campus, snippets of first impressions, excitements and apprehensions have generated an air of anticipation about Falk’s April inauguration. Here, by speaking with his colleagues and friends, the Record tries to decode the mystery and offer a sense of what kind of president Falk may be at Williams.

Leadership style

“Adam’s style is that he really gets into the details and knows what he is talking about,” said David Bell, dean of the faculty at the Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences (KSAS), noting Falk’s meticulous organizational skills. “In a meeting [in which there are] six people each covering [a different aspect], he knows each aspect as well as they do.”

Bell accepted his position at KSAS approximately two years ago, in large part because he wanted to work with Falk, the current dean of KSAS.  “He’s not a person who would come into Williams with preconceived ideas about how to change [the College],” Bell said. “He’s willing to learn and wants to see what makes the place tick.  I guess you could call that his ‘philosophy of management.’”

Remembering back to when Falk first chose to transition into the realm of administering, physics professor Benjamin Grinstein, a friend of Falk’s since Grinstein was a junior faculty member at Harvard and Falk was a graduate student, said that Falk viewed administrating as a vehicle for enacting beneficial change. “From what I remember when we talked about it briefly a long time ago, there were problems in the administration, there was an opening [and Adam] thought he could make a difference,” Grinstein said, referring to when Falk first took on a role in administration. “Soon he realized he could stay an administrator, that is, he found it to be interesting and satisfying.”

Bell explained that, as is true with many administrators, Falk first encountered administration as part of his duties as a faculty member, demonstrated leadership skills and, as a result, was given more administrative responsibilities. Falk served on the Academic Council at Johns Hopkins, became vice-dean of faculty at KSAS in 2002, dean of faculty in 2004 and, after filling the interim position in 2005, dean of KSAS in 2006. Bell named Falk’s enjoyment of the challenges of administration as a reason for his staying in the field.
“The need to think quickly, to interact with a wide variety of people, to regularly make judgement calls with very tangible consequences – I would think these would be very appealing to [Adam],” said University of Toronto Physics Professor Michael Luke, a friend of Falk’s since 1987, when they met as Harvard graduate students working for the same PhD supervisor. “It was certainly no surprise to any of us that he went that route. He’s a great scientist, but he’s always been very broadly interested in the academy and education.”

Grinstein noted that while Falk’s educational philosophy remained constant as he shifted from working predominantly as a professor to as an administrator, how those views manifested did change. “[Before becoming an administrator] he already had a deep appreciation for the value and place of the different moving parts of the great apparatus the University is,” Grinstein said. “But surely he changed his priorities. Once he told me that as dean he wanted to make sure he knew every single member of his faculty, not just by name or by recognizing their face, but wanted to know about them. Hence he made it a point to meet with individuals constantly.”

Steven David, vice dean for centers and programs at KSAS, echoed this sentiment. “Because he [previously] was dean of faculty, he really has a sense of just who was on the faculty, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what they want to see happen on an individual basis,” David said. Reflecting back on when Falk became dean of KSAS, David recalled, “Adam Falk really got into the roots. When he entered the deanship he had a very good sense of the school.”

Jonathan Bagger, a fellow physics professor at Johns Hopkins who, many years ago, taught Falk when he was a student at Harvard, noted that Falk’s commitment to fully understanding situations converges with his focus on remaining involved with projects through till their completion. “[Falk] brought some stability; his term was only five years, but that was a long time compared to the ones before him,” Bagger said, referring to a string of short-term deans that had preceded Falk. “By doing that he was able to provide some continuity of vision. I would say he was very successful at channeling the aspirations of the faculty and students, and more importantly he stayed to do it,” he said.

As dean at KSAS, Falk has supervised a variety of developments, including increases in admissions selectivity, the renovation of one of the school’s flagship buildings, the creation of a new Office of Multicultural Affairs and the introduction of new minors in theatre and museum studies. David has worked with Falk on projects associated with various programs, including in Africana studies and women’s and gender studies. The two deans collaborated to oversee the progress of these undertakings. “He had a very good sense of judgment,” David said. “You can’t please everyone all the time, but I always got the sense with him that when people had decisions go against them they still had the sense that their point of view was considered fairly,” he said, noting that some people remained dissatisfied in a few instances.

Several colleagues repeated this observation, underscoring Falk’s commitment to listening to all opinions offered on an issue. Bagger highlighted Falk’s focus on incorporating varying points-of-view. “Adam’s not afraid to make hard decisions, but doesn’t come in with a predetermined answer to a problem,” Bagger said. “He listens to a lot of people and finds the common ground between them. He’s able to seize that ground and make it his own, and advance beyond it productively.”

Academic Involvement

According to Bagger, Falk approaches his physics research with the same ambitious drive present in his leadership approach. “He has a very rigorous style,” Bagger said, referring to a paper the two coauthored. “In physics it’s important to know what you’re talking about, and he didn’t put up with any rubbish; with that style we were able to get a lot done.”

Ira Rothstein, a physics professor at Carnegie Mellon who has been a friend and colleague of Falk’s since they met as graduate students in 1990, noted that Falk places great emphasis on clarity of communication, particularly while presenting his research. “He’s always open to questions and challenges . . . and is never defensive about his work,” Rothstein said, acknowledging that this openness is somewhat uncommon among theoretical physicists.

Numerous colleagues emphasized that one of Falk’s most distinguishing features as dean has been his commitment to undergraduate education. David noted that this priority departed from the precedent set by previous deans at Johns Hopkins. “[Focusing on undergraduate education is] probably easy to do at Williams, but a harder thing to sell at Hopkins – that was a courageous and a welcome position,” David said.

“Johns Hopkins has a history of not paying much attention to or not caring about it’s undergrads, but that’s improved a lot over the past 10 years,” Bagger added. “Adam has been a major part of that: he really focused undergraduate life, really reached out.”
In Bell’s opinion, the importance Falk places on understanding all perspectives involved before making a decision partly explains why he has prioritized undergraduate education at KSAS. “Although interacting with students isn’t the top priority [of his position as dean], he interacts with them more than other deans did in the past,” Bell said. “He loves to get out [into the student community] every chance he can, even when it means sitting in the dunk tank at the undergraduate spring fair.”

This commitment to undergraduate education has developed throughout Falk’s time as a physics professor. According to Paula Burger, dean of undergraduate education at KSAS, certain administrative duties, such as traveling for fundraising, have prevented Falk from teaching during the past couple of years. Referring to teacher evaluation guides written by students about Falk, however, Burger noted students’ deep appreciation of Falk’s teaching. In a section where students rated professors on a scale from one to five, Falk received almost exclusively fives, she said. An overall student review of his course on quantum mechanics, from 2005-2006 read, “Students loved Dr. Falk as a professor . . . There wasn’t much that they could think of to improve the course. The professor’s teaching skills seemed ‘almost unparalleled’ as he covered so much material and explained everything very well.”

According to Rothstein, Falk breaks the mold of a stereotypical physicist. “Most theoretical physicists aren’t exactly people persons, but he is,” Rothstein said.

In light of budget constraints, David said, Falk focused on prioritizing the unique strengths of Johns Hopkins. “His sense was we want to do as much as we can to keep academic initiatives that are at the core of the school’s mission,” David said, making note of an expensive public health program that Falk has supported. “Adam worked hard to make sure budget cuts didn’t infringe on things that at Hopkins we do best.”

Personal Interests

Outside of his work, Falk devotes his energy to his wife and three children, according to Bell. “He made it an absolute principle that meetings don’t go into dinner so he can get home to his family, which is something that those of us with families really appreciate,” Bell said. “He coaches soccer, is involved with his son’s Boy Scout troop and is a really devoted family man,” he added. Comic singer Tom Lehrer, Woody Allen movies, baseball trivia and lunchtime pizza also receive Falk’s affections, according to various friends.

Several colleagues mentioned another of Falk’s passions: the basketball team of his alma mater, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Last year, I went into his office to see him during a televised tournament game in which UNC was playing, and he was watching it live over the internet and got so excited at one particularly good play that he almost punched a fist through his computer monitor,” Burger said. “So, while he is always extraordinarily attentive in meetings, I would not plan to conduct any serious business at Williams while UNC is playing in the Final Four,” she said jokingly.

Falk enjoys getting out on the court himself. “As a graduate student he coerced me into joining the physics students in their intramural basketball team,” Grinstein said. “We took every chance we could to play one-on-one. The physics basketball team was really bad and, if memory serves, we lost all our games. We were much shorter and less athletic than, say, the law school team.”

According to Bell, Falk is enthusiastically awaiting his inauguration as president of the College. “He’s already been giving me mini history lectures about Williams, so I know how excited he is,” Bell said. “You can expect someone who already is enthusiastic, and whose enthusiasm is contagious.”

Bell said that Falk had never discussed an interest in liberal arts colleges before the Williams opportunity arose. “But then, he didn’t much discuss future possibilities at all – he was very much focused on the job he was doing,” he added. “The same qualities should serve him very well at Williams. In no sense does he see the job as a stepping stone to anything else.”

Additional reporting by Katy Gathright, Jared Quinton and Jonathan Galinsky, Record staff.

  • Christopher

    Hmm, Falk likes sports. No wonder they picked him.