Falk, Merrill review the College at transitional juncture

On Monday, President Adam Falk and Dean Karen Merrill spoke with Yue-Yi Hwa, editor-in-chief, about budgets, Claiming Williams and residential life in a transitional year. Falk has been President of the College since April 1. On July 1, Merrill will be succeeded in the deanship by Sarah Bolton, professor of physics and department chair.

What have been the most difficult and the most rewarding parts of the financial crisis?

AF: What’s difficult is that this is a college that has made very good choices over the last 10 years about what to invest in. You simply have to make your budget. You simply cannot spend more money than you have. To do that in a situation where the endowment is falling, it was necessary to make cuts, and many of those cuts were painful because these things were of value.

Having said that, there’s a creative impulse you get when you have to make choices. We’ve looked at things that we wouldn’t have looked at otherwise. One of the examples, frankly, has been dining. Dining was put on the table because we needed to find substantial efficiencies. I do believe that the reconfigured dining is going to be more responsive to students’ needs than the previous system. Not everyone agrees with that. Having a good look at something like dining was motivated by finances but, at the end of the day, what we got out of it was not solely driven financially. That can be rewarding. The other thing it does is that you really have to ask yourself what your priorities are. And we don’t ask ourselves that enough in the normal course of events.

KM: I was Dean for just one year before the financial crisis hit. And in that one year, it was fun to be able to fund things, like the many good ideas students have, and not have to worry too much about the impact on the budgets. Changing that mentality has been difficult. What’s also been difficult has been really trying to spend the time thinking about where the cuts are going to hit, how can we have the least painful impact on students, but knowing that, of course, our cuts are going to affect the student experience.

On the rewarding side, Adam’s absolutely right. It forces you to get more creative. You start to look at what you can do that doesn’t cost a whole lot of extra money. We’ve started a process over the last couple of years to try to improve advising. Now will that, down the line, have some budget impact? It’s possible. But right now we’ve learned we can do an awful lot and make some changes that don’t have that budgetary impact. People have also begun collaborating around the JA [Junior Advisor] system. The development of a JA review committee doesn’t cost money, but it gets people who have needed to talk together in the same room. I do think there are ways in which these financial crises help to propel those kinds of creative collaborations.

In light of reactions against the how the closure of Greylock and Dodd dining halls was presented, how open can we expect these types of decisions to be, going forward?

AF: I think that they will be as open and transparent as is feasible, given the sorts of decisions they are. I realize that many people felt that the whole conversation about the dining halls should have played out in a much more open, campus-wide way, but I have to say that given the situation with well over a hundred dining hall workers whose lives and careers were going to be affected by this, I think there were reasons that it couldn’t play out in that way. Individual circumstances of decisions often will constrain the kinds of conversations that we can have. Certainly my commitment is that, taking those sorts of constraints into account, we want to be as transparent and open and involve as many voices as possible in decisions, because there are good ideas that come from those voices.

KM: I don’t have much to add, except that obviously we have committees in place, and we want o make full use of those committees and think about the representation on those committees and where different issues fall logically across these committees.

In this next year, do you anticipate any decisions with a similar scale of impact on student life?

AF: Nothing as visible as that.

KM: Again, the scale of that, in terms of the savings, is a scale that we don’t see normally.

AF: Of course, this is assuming that nothing happens on the resource side. We have to be really candid about this. If the endowment drops by 30 percent, we will be making all sorts of difficult choices. We’re not planning for that to happen. We’re planning for a period of stability, but on the other hand, we’re not closing our eyes to the fact that the future is uncertain.

How satisfied are you with the progress that has been made with neighborhoods? Where might that go in the coming year?

KM: I am quite satisfied with where things have gone. When we look back at where we started a year ago, there was a general sense of dissatisfaction with the neighborhoods, where the neighborhoods were seen as the cause of unhappiness on campus. But what the process did through the fall and early winter was really pull apart what were the frustrations with the neighborhood system, and what were the general concerns about residential life. The tweaks that we did do were tweaks that addressed some of those issues that we were able to pull apart. The process that happened through the spring, with the NGBs [Neighborhood Governance Boards] and ACE [All-Campus Entertainment] coming together in consultation with CC [College Council] and Campus Life also helped the neighborhood boards to be talking with each other and getting on the same page about what their goal and purpose is on campus.

We’re all going to be very curious to see what happens with taking away the neighborhood affiliation with the entering class next year. That’s something we’ve talked a lot about, we understand that there’s risk involved, but I know that some of the neighborhood boards are also excited about seeing how that changes the relationship of first-years to the neighborhoods. I think we’re in a better place, and I think next year will be a time to still do continuing work on it.

AF: I agree with all of that, and I was very impressed with how the whole process played out. It started out on as a potentially polarizing discussion, but it turned into a very nuanced conversation about the nature of residential life, the goals of residential life, the balances that have to be struck between the different desiderata – a conversation that involved students, faculty and staff really working together. I thought it was a model of how to deal with a difficult issue and accept, in the end, a set of steps that were intermediary and designed for improvement, not wholesale radical change.

If Claiming Williams is institutionalized in the school calendar, what would you like to see it accomplish?

KM: If it does go that route, there were two important things about the model this year. First, a sense within the committee and within the community that we had to keep it fresh. And secondly, that it needs to be a forum where the issues of the day within the campus community get a chance to be discussed and played out. And I think that is its real promise – that each year, different issues emerge and evolve, and Claiming Williams can be a wonderful place to bring those issues in and have people engage with each other about them.

AF: I think the more participatory it is, the more it will serve to foster campus communication. I wasn’t there for the first one, but this one seemed to me to be very participatory, and the focus was on an internal conversation.

KM: The last piece I would add that has been helpful is engaging staff as well, so it’s really a faculty, student and staff day. And I really hope that continues.
How can we address the ways in which Claiming Williams has been divisive?

KM: Realistically speaking, it’s possible that there may be continued division around it. One way to address it is to continue to open up the net for the people who are planning for it. Williams After Dark is a wonderful model, where you’re going out to student groups and saying, you sponsor an event at Claiming Williams.

AF: To reinforce something Karen said before, my primary worry with it being institutionalized is … that it will become, “These are the things that are done at Claiming Williams,” rather than being a creative moment each year of thinking about the conversations we want to have, and being as inclusive as possible in defining those conversations. Often when things are done the same way for even two of three years in a row, they feel immutable, and that would actually undermine what is so valuable about Claiming Williams.

President Falk, are you happy with how the transition has worked out for you personally so far?

AF: It’s been marvelous. People have been so welcoming. There are 2000 students and I would not claim to know most of the students, and of course there are faculty and staff and townspeople to get to know as well, but really the most fun of it all for me has been all the students I’ve gotten to know. It’s going to be a lot of fun living in the middle of the student body. My family will be coming up in June and then the transition will be complete.

Dean Merrill, how has preparation for transition to Professor Bolton’s deanship been progressing?

KM: It’s been great. We see quite a lot of each other; she’s been trying to attend the standing meetings we have in the Dean’s office during the week. I’ve also been meeting with her individually. We’re in conversation with each other about everything that comes up, and we’ll also be spending a lot of time on this in June once the semester is over. She’s been wonderful to work with.