Falk looks back, prepares to face new challenges

Incoming President Adam Falk visited campus last week in preparation for his transition to the College. He spent the day meeting with senior administrators and plans to return twice more this semester, before beginning his weekly visits next year. Below are excerpts from an interview with the Record, where Editor-in-Chief Lina Khan ’10 tried to elicit a sense of Falk’s experience as dean at Johns Hopkins and his approach in learning about current issues facing the campus.

On learning about ongoing concerns at the College:

You can imagine the position I’m in – I’m coming in, and there are some issues that matter a lot to people, and there are some strong views. What the community needs to find a way to do is have as robust a conversation as possible. And that’s hard because people’s feelings want to harden, they want to get into camps, and you’ll find that once people get into a camp then you can’t get out of that. So I think that I have to be careful not to even signal that in my ignorance I have some particular view because I have to preserve this space where I learn about these issues, and that’s challenging, especially when it’s a really hot button issue and everyone wants me to come down on their side of it.
Another important thing is that I’m not the president yet. Bill Wagner is the president, and he’s not here to be a caretaker till I get here – he’s here to lead. I’m very cognizant of that. When I come on April 1, I’ll be the president, but on March 31, Bill Wagner will be the president.

On thinking about the neighborhood system:

With neighborhoods, it’s easy for it to become a “keep the system or ditch the system” question, and if you ditch the system to go back to some pre-agency system. I come at it from a different angle, because at Hopkins the system is neither neighborhoods nor the system you used to have, so maybe there’s an opportunity to have a wider conversation about housing for upperclassmen. But there’s an enormous amount that I don’t know that is critical to understanding this issue.

For example, I don’t know nearly enough now about the infrastructure that exists – the dorms, the eating. All of those kinds of things are really important parts of the conversation because it’s not theoretical – the whole question is, “What is the quality of people’s lives?” and the whole thing is based on facilities and where you go to meet your friends. You can’t design a system like this in the abstract, and yet here are the things I don’t know anything about, so I have no business having a view on what you should do next until I know more.

On handling undergraduate life at Johns Hopkins:

There have been issues with undergraduate student life at Hopkins. It’s a place that is very focused on research and doctoral education, and it’s provided terrific undergraduate education but not paid much attention to the quality of undergraduate life outside the classroom. By the time I got there it was known as a “where fun goes to die” kind of place – it was pretty bad. But there were a lot of students who were quite happy; they were the students who had found smaller communities. The physics students, for example, were very happy.

I remember there was one of these magazine that ranked 300 colleges from most to least fun and Hopkins was number 299. And I asked the physics students, “Is this your Hopkins?” And the said, “No, we love it here!” Why did they love it? Because it was a strong community of physics students, the few and the proud. That’s how it was at Hopkins – lots of micro-communities that were really happy, yet without a sense of a larger community.

One of the things we’ve worked on is how to get a larger sense of student life, and one of the things was that the housing stock was inadequate in that everybody had to move off campus after their sophomore year. Students moved into Charles Village into these row houses, and a lot of them really liked it.

But it had a dispersive effect; it had an effect of really diluting the larger sense of community. So one of the projects that we built was this wonderful residence facility next to the campus, and that’s been a tremendous success. It gave us an opportunity to think carefully about housing and dining and the relation to the campus – the way that a particular configuration does or doesn’t support larger community, and what sorts of housing arrangements are appropriate for students at different stages in their progression.

You have to think all of these things together, and I think facilities are a big piece of that. My sense of this is that it’s a question of, “What is the character of your largest community?” That is not just a question of, “Can I live with my friends?”

There are larger issues that go to the nature of a community that have to be engaged in thinking about the appropriate residential life program. And that doesn’t point you to one answer or another, but it means that you can’t forget that, because we had people who loved living with their friends at Hopkins and had no sense of being part of something larger. That’s the problem we were trying to solve there, so I’m very sensitive to that sort of larger problem.

On addressing questions of diversity and inclusiveness on campus:

Any place that tells you diversity is not an issue is not telling you the truth. I mean, this is a huge issue. I don’t think Hopkins and Williams are that different in that way – both of them have made strong commitments to bringing in a diverse student body, and that’s something that you can do if you’re aggressive about it in a relatively short period of time. There are also commitments to diversifying the faculty, which are harder and take longer because you turn the faculty over much more slowly. Both have built programs to diversify, and both are struggling with what is the much harder next step, which is: how do you create a community where people live “diversely”? That’s kind of a lousy word for it, but you know what I mean.

Look, we’re in America. In case you hadn’t noticed, America hasn’t solved this problem. There is racism in this country, there is homophobia in this country, there are the difficulties of being an immigrant and various kinds of xenophobia that play out in different ways in different parts of the country. We can’t expect that there are any kinds of simple answers on a college campus.

The advantage that you have here is that we can control more variables, we have the opportunity to be intentional about these things. But that doesn’t make it easier to provide answers. Within the goals that led to the neighborhood system was an understanding that the campus needed to be intentional about undergraduate life in various ways, or else diversity would be something you brought in the door and would only be a value of the College in a sporadic way.

At Hopkins in the last few years we had an incident that was truly unfortunate, where there was an advertisement for a fraternity party that was racially incendiary. The fall-out of that was very difficult for the community, very difficult for the African American students, but what it did was make clear to us very quickly that the conversation was not about this online invitation.

It laid bare these larger tensions about living diversity on a campus and the ways in which racism was felt very strongly by African American students. It was a horrible incident, but it grabbed us and forced us to realize that the experience of African American students at Hopkins was not what we wanted it to be, but also not what it was all-too-easy to pretend it was.

So the incident forced us to recognize that. But it didn’t give us answers. I think we often want answers so badly, and that since we don’t know how to solve these problems or think about them, we want to pretend that they’re not there. We want to find ways to tell ourselves that they’re not there, and that’s what we have to find a way to resist.

On the most contentious issue he confronted as dean as Johns Hopkins:

The toughest issue was probably changing the schedule of classes. Hopkins had a class schedule that was unique, classes met either Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday for one hour, or Thursday-Friday for an hour and a half. Pedagogically it was great as you could teach consistently and then let students go off and do problem sets.

But some people liked it for not so good reasons, where you could have four-day weekends, or faculty could live in New York and just commute for two days. More generally there was a “binge learning, binge partying” culture that was encouraged as in, “I’m going to work really hard for three days and then disappear and do stuff and drink, but when I come back to campus I’m so busy that I’m just running around.” So it created a culture of very intense engagement with classes and academic work that was separated from fun, and that encouraged people to spend less time on campus.
A report by the Student Life Committee warned how the schedule raised the stress on students and it created this culture, and yet when I went to change it the opposition to change it was enormous. We had a very long process that took a year and a half, and what came out was a schedule that meets Monday-Wednesday-Friday for one hour, or even just Monday-Wednesday for an hour and a half. But that was a real tough one.

One lesson from that was that there were voices that the students and faculty weren’t listening to and one of them was the counseling center, which was saying, “We really think this is important for student mental health; the students don’t think this it’s important for student mental health, the faculty don’t understand, but we’re telling you this is critical to student mental health.”

And since changing the schedule the counseling center has come back and said, “This has really made a big difference.’” That’s been really important to me – that comment from the counseling center makes me think it was right. But it was a very controversial thing to do.