Falk embarks on presidency at College

On April 1, Adam F. Falk became the 17th president of Williams College. He came to the College after serving as James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University since 2006. Last Thursday, Falk fielded questions from Yue-Yi Hwa, editor-in-chief, and Laura Corona, managing editor, on the College’s mission, recent financial decisions, the neighborhood system and his hopes for the College.

How has your first week been and what has been keeping you busy?

My first week’s been great. I had the advantage of ramping up slowly because I came during spring break. It was a little weird to come first and not have any students here. I’m just more intensely doing the kinds of things I was doing one day a week before. It’s a combination of dealing with college issues that arise at this time of year – from faculty issues to budget issues; to getting out and about a bit – I went and watched the first half of the Butler-Duke game over at West because I was invited by the kids there and had some pizza with them; to just getting used to the area – I was here for the weekend and got my [Massachusetts] driver’s license and things like that. I also spent a lot of time responding to very warm messages of welcome that I got from people in response to the letter I sent out. It was a big moment for me.

What do you value most about President Schapiro’s term and what are you planning to do differently?

President Schapiro was a remarkable president for this place. The last decade, particularly with large growth in the endowment until recently, was a decade in which the College had the opportunity to make some very significant investments. The investments were made in the right sorts of things, and I think that’s the wonderful legacy that President Schapiro leaves. The money was invested in the academic experience, particularly in tutorials, the student-faculty ratio, new programs and access. Although we had to scale back a bit on the financial aid program, if you compare the financial aid program now to a decade ago there’s still much larger investment in it, as is appropriate.

The great contribution of President Schapiro was to make Williams a fundamentally stronger place in the things that really, really matter. I certainly don’t expect to be different – I hope I’m not going to be different in that. But I do think that we are in a different moment, where the endowment is not going to be growing, so we have to think a little differently about aspirations. We have to be a little less additive in the ways we think about what we do to keep the College strong … We need to be asking how we do the things that are core to running a college better, and as well as we possibly can. That might mean turning our sights to things like the advising system and student life. It’s just the times that we live in, and I think that we can make great progress that way too.

Could you comment on the retraction of the no-loans policy and of need-blind admission for international students, and whether we should expect to see anything similarly drastic with the next round of budgets?

First off, I’m not sure I would agree that either of those, beyond their large symbolic value, were nearly as drastic as some people feel. One of the things that we’re required to do in a situation like this is to look past the symbolic bumper-sticker impact of decisions like that. Let’s look first to no-loans. In my view, the purpose of the financial aid program is to ensure that we enroll at Williams as diverse as possible a cross-section in the student body, in particular that people from all socioeconomic backgrounds have access to a Williams education. The question is, is asking middle-income students to take out modest loans something that will affect, in a material way, the distribution of income and the distribution of students across the campus? And that’s something that we can answer empirically. Certainly that program itself was only a few years old, and if I thought that we were making it impossible for middle-income kids to come to Williams and afford to do it, I wouldn’t have supported that change … And so the real question there is, are we still as committed as ever to a diverse student body? And the answer is yes.

Again, with international students, I think that “need-blind” is a technical term that actually doesn’t mean much particularly beyond the shores of the United States … It’s important to not get too rhetorical and symbolic about these things and really look at the student body we’re going to have. My personal experience is that the larger question is how we are communicating to international applicants that they should be applying because there is financial aid available, and not just the existence of that buzzword. What not being entirely need-blind means effectively is that there’s a budget for international students. That budget is still incredibly generous. If you look at how international applications are going to be handled, most of them are going to be done on a need-blind basis. You can manage to a budget two ways: You can look at every applicant and pick applicant by applicant the ones that need less aid or you can not do that. And we are not going to do that. International students, not surprisingly, typically require a lot of aid. You just have to recognize that fact, and there will be a significant number of international students on full or close to full scholarships, as it should be, and that will be the case next year as well.

I was sad to see that for many international students they somehow felt a much broader message of not being welcome at Williams. To the extent that that was a genuine reaction, I’m sorry that people felt that way. I think that if one looks a little closer, this place is very welcoming to international students and will continue to be. I hope that that’s a feeling that on reflection becomes a less intense one. Because, again, very few places have actually ever had need-blind international admissions.

With regard to next year’s budgets, once we meet with the trustees this weekend and finalize the contours of the budget, we’ll be able to talk about that.

One of the things that students have their minds on is part two of the Neighborhood Review Committee (NRC) report. What is your sense of this issue?

My first thought is that I’ve been very impressed by the quality of the campus conversation. In the initial documents that I read a while back, it struck me that this started out as a polarized debate between social engineering and free agency, and I didn’t think that it necessarily was productive. By the time this had been worked through by all the constituencies – and not every student body at every institution is capable of this kind of nuanced conversation – the conversation had been reframed as, how do we have a residential life system that successfully balances the universally agreed-upon desiderata of diverse living arrangements and the ability to live with your friends? The NRC found a series of smaller, incremental steps that could try to find that kind of sweet spot, refining this experiment within the bounds of the experiment that we’ve all agreed to try over these years. I’m very supportive of where the NRC report came out. I have not had a preview of the second part of the report, but what has pleased me was that we did find some things we could implement already for next year, in a context where that didn’t have to be the end of the kinds of changes that we might see.

Philosophically, I believe very strongly that we bring this diverse student body – and I mean diverse on every dimension – not just ethnically and socioeconomically, the athletes and the non-athletes, the artists – we bring that group together to this bucolic environment in order to be more ambitious about the nature of the community than simply a kind of free-for-all. What we’re signing up for when we come is a certain amount of what you can disparagingly call social engineering, but I would rather call it intentionality about the nature of our community. I also think that students at different points of their careers at Williams need different sorts of structure. But never do I think we’re going to be at a point where you bring this incredibly diverse student body and then you just say, go figure it out. That doesn’t mean that one answer or the other is the right answer.

What other things are going to be on your agenda for the rest of the semester?

One of the real advantages about coming in April is that you come in to the semester in full swing, and yet two months is not really enough to go implement your agenda. So it’s still a very high priority to simply get engaged with the life of this campus. I’ve been here a week, I don’t have priorities yet. I would say that looking over the academic experiences of students on every front is going to be something of particular interest to me. I think there are a lot of dimensions to that: what goes on in the classroom, how students make their way through the curriculum, how students integrate other sorts of academic experiences like study away and experiential education, how people who come from different parts of our society get into the curriculum and find their place in the curriculum, how we encourage experimentation. The Gaudino option is a fabulous experiment, in part because of the experimentation it will accomplish, but it also in part because of how it came about. I went to the faculty meeting where it was approved, and it was such a thoughtful conversation. There were some disagreements as there always are about how, but this is a faculty deeply invested in the academic experience of the students. I think they’re going to be great partners in [fostering the right academic experience], and that is something that is going to matter a lot to me.

What legacy would you want to leave behind, whenever the time comes?

I really hope that whenever the time comes that we’re looking back at my presidency, that we have a Williams that is strong in its core activities; that we have a clarity about what Williams is about; that it offers a superior, diverse, forward-looking education to an extraordinarily diverse and successful student body; that we have facilities that are not only modern and attractive but that foster all of the kinds of academic and non-academic interactions among students that we want them to have. A Williams that has a healthy relationship to a healthy Williamstown.

I don’t think of my legacy, whenever that comes, as being defined by this list of new things that we did or a list of new programs. There will be new things, there will be new programs, there will be new buildings, but I don’t think that my success is going to be defined by how many of those there are, or how big they are, or how pretty they are. I think that the institution needs to retain and enhance its clarity of mission.
If Williams is the place that every high school student in this country understands is the best place to go for the best possible liberal arts education and student experience, and that is the first place that every student thinks of, I’ll be thrilled. And however we get there is fine with me.