Bolton speaks on perceptions, goals as Dean of the College

On Sept. 13, Dean Sarah Bolton sat down with Record Editor-in-Chief Kaitlin Butler ’11 to discuss the beginning of Bolton’s term as dean. Bolton stepped into the position following the end of Professor of History Karen Merrill’s term on June 30, 2010.

Right at the outset of the year, where do you see the College? What preliminary goals are you looking to set?

We’re in a really exciting moment in that there are a lot of new things and new people at Williams. Even among present staff, there’s a new president and a new dean of the college; there’s a new director of alumni relations and development. So there are a lot of new faces at the table and that gives us a lot of opportunities to think of things in new ways. Both Adam Falk and John Malcolm are coming from other places, so they bring new perspectives and ideas and help us ask ourselves why we do things, which we might not have asked in recent years.

For myself, I haven’t put together every goal yet, but there are a couple things that are clearly opportunities over the next couple years. One is to think about how we pull together all the different kinds of academic resources and opportunities scattered around the campus. We had a variety of offices that offer academic support and tutoring opportunities and a variety of offices that help with different kinds of fellowships. There are lots of people doing excellent work, and one of my goals is to think about how – with all these pieces in different places right now – we can work together to build a more unified and seamless set of academic resources. I want to build on the strengths that are already here.

I’m also really interested in health services and the Health Center, including psychological and counseling services. We have an amazing staff that has been doing amazing work for a lot of years. They’re in a changing context both locally and nationally. In terms of medical care, everything about it is changing: There’s changing availability for various kinds of medical services locally; there’s changing needs of the student population. Certainly the numbers of student visits to the Heath Center have gone up steadily over the past few years and don’t show any sign of turning around. I want to think about how we can help that really excellent staff do what they want to do, which is provide for the needs of students as those needs are changing … I’m also even thinking about putting together some strategic planning going forward, so that’s a long term project.

How will you bring your professorship here to bear on your term as dean?

The best experience I had as physics professor that transfers is having known a lot of students. I probably taught something like 1000 but worked with lot more than that. I’ve had the privilege of working with a large variety of students. I’ve taught a lot of large courses where many of the students were going off to med school and many were majoring in the humanities and social sciences, and I’ve of course taught science majors, too. I’ve had the privilege of knowing these students pretty well because I taught in lab, so there was a lot of one-on-one time. Mostly what I bring is that I know a lot of students that come from a lot of places and have done a lot of things, as well as seeing which parts of Williams can be tricky for people, what kinds of support systems have been crucial to people, where people have felt things hadn’t worked for them or that they’ve not had quite the support they needed. That’s not particular to having done physics, but that happens to be the set of students I met.

Can you talk about the change in perspective from being a professor to taking on the dean’s role?

The most exciting thing for me was to get to work closely with a lot of people who work closely with students in different roles that I had known about but not been a part of. Getting to work closely with the deans, with the folks in health services and campus and residential life, getting to know the officers in campus safety … just getting to know all these people who are involved with student life while they’re here and getting to know those who you meet as a faculty member but don’t get to work with day to day.
What are some things that the community can look forward to from you in the immediate future?

This is not actually my immediate responsibility, but I am interested in watching how the dining system is evolving. I ate at Driscoll at their grand opening night with my son, and we both thought it was the best food we had in a long, long time, not even just on campus. My son actually said it was the best food he ever eaten – so I tried not to be offended since I’ve been cooking for him for fifteen years – but I’m really interested in making sure that along with many other offices, the dining system works out well for students. The changes that have happened are pretty exciting, and the things that are available are increasing in good ways. So that’s one of the things I have my eye on in next couple of weeks as people are moving around and settling into their patterns on campus. It’s really promising so far.