Falk reflects on achievements, challenges of first full semester

President Falk sat down with Kaitlin Butler, Record editor-in-chief, to review the first months of his presidency at the College.

With regards to the senior administration realignment process, what will the new positions mean for the senior staff and the College?

It is very important to me to feel confident that our way of running ourselves is sufficient to meeting an ever more complex set of challenges: financial challenges, facilities challenges, certainly challenges of diversity and complexity. There are ever-growing aspirations for what a Williams experience will be. Many of the challenges we need to respond to require that we deepen the level of expertise and sharpen the focus of our senior staff leadership team. By increasing its size and using that … not only to realign responsibilities but to bring in some professional expertise, we can position the College to meet what is a more difficult set of challenges than we’ve had over last decade.

If you look at the changes to the senior staff since I’ve been here, there’s the appointment of John Malcolm, vice president for alumni relations and development, and of Sarah Bolton, who just hit the ground running as the dean of the College. The realignment of her responsibilities will allow her to focus her more directly on the experience of students, particularly the experiences they have inside the classroom, and more generally academic experience. The realignment allows Steve Klass [vice president for operations] to bring back into his portfolio something he’s always been terrific at. When he moved from Chicago to Williams, he actually narrowed the scope of his responsibilities in a way that did not reflect the deep engagement with students he had in Chicago, and we’re re-expanding that back. The realignment around finances will allow us to bring important financial expertise into the scene and to allow the provost – whose job has been enormous – to focus on issues more critical to the College.

For almost every senior staff position, [the realignment] is thinking about the group of responsibilities they have and that it’s a manageable set of responsibilities and that the person there has a skill set well-tuned to do those. The next thing that will happen is the identification of the next dean of faculty and the provost, and those are two critically important positions. The College has been so well served by [Dean of the Faculty] Bill Wagner and [Provost] Bill Lenhart, and those are four tough shoes to fill. The whole realignment process will be complete really only at the end of the spring because there will be three people here July 1 – the vice president for finance, the provost and the dean of the College – none of whom I know who they are yet. We’re in the middle of something very exciting.

Have you encountered any changes in the climate of campus policy-making from the beginning of the fall until now?

I think less in terms of change than in terms of evolution, that is, we have become an institution that is permanently more concerned with financial choices facing us than we used to be. We’ve come out of a period that I wasn’t privileged to be part of when substantial annual growth from the endowment allowed all sorts of expansions of programs, and one could do new things without asking what the opportunity cost of doing those things was in a way we now have to ask. The economy is rebounding a little bit, but we now have to operate as if we have permanently lost a quarter of endowment from the peak, and that’s not turning around for us or for anybody. We are still learning to think differently about doing things we want to do. We can add anything, but we need to figure out how we’re going to pay for that and what we won’t do in order to do that new thing. That’s an adjustment in the way we think about things that takes everyone in the community a while to get adjusted to. There’s perhaps been a feeling that if we held our breath and white-knuckled it through for two years, we would come out on the other end back where we were before, and the truth is we’re not going back – no one is – and this is the new reality. That’s something we are all still in the process of coming to terms with.

What has been your experience in moving forward with the Stetson-Sawyer Project?

This project has been thought about for a long time. What of course is making it possible is generous philanthropy that we were able to identify. The project is more than half paid for by philanthropy, much of which anonymous …. I came and quickly fell in love with this project. I knew nothing about it when I was appointed, but I quickly came to see this as the most essential thing that we could do. It’s going to be the academic crossroads and the beating heart of work that students and faculty do together in Div. I and II. We see how Schow operates and how important it is to people, and libraries are about human interactions and the wide ways student and faculty interact with sources materials of any kind. They’re not repositories for books.
One of the things I’ve come to appreciate here is how deeply committed the academic culture is. What I hadn’t seen, what you can’t see from the outside, is how deep the engagement between students and faculty is. The spaces in which that work takes place is especially important here. The quadrangle that will be created [where Sawyer currently stands] is something I’ve become ever more excited about as well. The campus will become legible, a phrase someone used that I liked very much; there will be a logic to getting around it and where things are. What is brought together and what it will mean to be in the center of a quadrangle like that makes it an incredibly multivalent space. Those are elements that are even more exciting now than they were when I first saw the project.

What are some of the other projects you will be looking to take on in the spring or any patterns you will be examining?

There are any number of things I think we need to think about on all sorts of different time scales. When I came last year, we were ending a particular part of a process of understanding upper-class residential life. I don’t think we’re done trying to understand whether we’re doing that as well as we could. The quality of student life here has a number of dimensions. The campus conversation on the role of athletics in student life is important, as is making sure that both those who do and don’t play varsity sports feel equally part of what Williams is. We’re also focusing on making sure the freshman residential experience is everything that is should be. Claiming Williams will allow us to continue the conversation on the quality of the community outside of the classroom. We have work to do there, and it’s always ongoing work because the student body changes and how we need to think about supporting the student body changes. One of the very exciting things about the realignment is that we will now have two people, Sarah Bolton and Steve Klass, who wake up every morning and think directly about the student experience on campus.

We have to continue to look at our physical infrastructure. We’re very interested in how we reuse buildings and not just build new ones. We have a lot of buildings whose uses have changed over the years. I want us to get an understanding of our campus and how we’ll meet shifting academic and extracurricular needs we have, and the interesting challenges we’re thinking about. Then we’re always thinking about curriculum. We’re not growing the faculty, so how do we evolve curriculum when we’re not hiring faculty at the rate we did in the last decade? We grew the faculty substantially and that was a great initiative, but now we cannot couple plans for evolving curriculum with growing the faculty, so now how will we do that going forward? Williams’ faculty really owns that question.

Presidential transitions take awhile, or I would say they should take awhile. I’m still very much learning about Williams and those eight months is not a lot of time to become expert on the institution. I’ve resisted the idea that I should have a lot of new plans for the College at this point. The information transfer should be from the College to me, not the other way around. That’s why a lot of what I’ve focused on so far is structural and embracing projects that are already here. And that’s I think as it should be.