Falk, Bolton discuss first year at helm of College administration

On Friday, President Adam Falk and Dean Sarah Bolton spoke with Austin Davis, editor-in-chief, about the upcoming senior administration realignment, first-year residential life and their vision for the future after completing their first full academic year in their respective positions. Falk became the College’s 17th president in April 2010, and Bolton assumed the position of dean of the College in July 2010.

Congratulations on finishing your first full year in your respective positions. What has the transition been like this year?

AF: I think it’s been a really wonderful year of learning the College. You know, you can’t do that until you’re here. I had six months before I got here that I was visiting, but when you’re new to a place you just have to spend time with all the people. I’ve mostly been trying to absorb this year, more than anything else.

SB: I concur, although I’m not new to the College. In transitioning over here, I’ve been learning about the full work that so many people put into caring for the lives of our students – and I include in that many of our students themselves. It’s been incredible for me to be immersed in that and to learn from it. When you step into that new role and you have students who are willing to come and be honest with you about what works for them and what’s hard, what they dream of for this place – it’s a fabulous opportunity, and I’m really grateful for it.

What has been the best part about the past year, and what has been challenging?

SB: I’m pleased by the quality of campus conversation around really important issues. I was really pleased by the conversation about athletics and academics that College Council [CC] undertook, and I’m pleased by the conversations that are moving forward now about residential life and entries, how we welcome students to the College and how we can best build a community for students. I’m pleased by the beginnings of those conversations, and I’m excited about where they’re going to go next.

AF: One of my wonderful discoveries about Williams has been the quality and collegiality of conversation about difficult issues. That is unusual, and it’s more unusual than people here necessarily realize. Particularly, for students to be able to talk about difficult issues in ways where they’re committed to listening to each other is a powerful statement about this college and what it’s capable of.
If you ask about challenges, many of the things we’re grappling with – how to make Williams a safe and supportive environment for all of the students that are here, for example – have long histories. They are conversations that have been going on for a very long time – things have been tried, and there are feelings about what has worked and what hasn’t, so I can’t come into that conversation without understanding all of the things that have happened beforehand. So for me, it’s not just learning what’s here now but learning what’s been going on over the last five, 10 years and longer. That’s been the work that I’ve most come to appreciate the intensity of since I got here.

Now that it is coming into focus, what has the process of realigning the senior administration been like?

SB: I’m tremendously excited about it. I think that on a number of fronts, you can already begin to see some of the potential being realized as people are getting closer to stepping into those new positions. Being in conversation with [Directorof Operations and incoming Vice President of Campus Life] Steve Klass about many of the issues that currently overlap between our offices, you can begin to see the breadth and depth of expertise he has around student life. Having been dean of students at [University of Chicago] is no joke, and it’s really helpful when you’ve only worked at one place – like I have – to talk to people who’ve put their hearts into systems at other places as well. To talk to him about dorms, to talk to him about how we might be able to support the staff at the Health Center so they can support students more effectively – the potential that’s there to move some of those really crucial issues forward is really exciting for me.

AF: I think the fundamental goal of all this was to align the work that’s being done by various people in Hopkins Hall, to make those portfolios coherent, manageable and aligned with the interests and skills that people have. Colleges like Williams are more complex than they ever have been, and we have an enormous amount of talent here. I just wanted to be sure that we had given enough attention to all of the issues we have to deal with. In particular, I wanted to give the faculty who rotate through Hopkins Hall, who are the heart of the governance of the College, the opportunity to have portfolios that allow their work to be as meaningful as it possibly can be; I wanted to take off their plates some things that were consuming a lot of time and were perhaps competing for attention with some other important issues. So the solution is to add some net bandwidth to the governance of the College, and in doing that, I think everyone’s job is going to be more coherent and more rewarding.

How does this team in particular best manifest those qualities you were looking for in general?

AF: I think it’s going to be fabulous. If you’d asked me the thing I’m most pleased with this year, it’s all the people that we’re bringing into this team. It’s a team of people who love Williams and are committed to working really hard to make Williams a terrific place. My own style is to worry less about the territories that different people have and worry much more about the sort of team that we build to collectively take care of Williams. I think it’s a collection of remarkable individuals who are going to work remarkably well together.

How will you put this new administrative structure to best use in the context of continued fallout from the financial crisis?

AF: Part of the point of the restructuring is to allow the provost, who’s had this role as the lead steward of the priorities of the College, the space to really think about that. [Professor of Philosophy and incoming Provost] Will Dudley [’89] will have more time on his plate to engage the entire community in conversations about what our priorities should be. The budget is going to loosen up a little bit, and, in fact, that’s a time that you have to think harder because if you can do a few new things, then deciding what those things are is really important. And that has to be a conversation that involves a lot of people, lots of faculty and students, and I think we’ve created a structure where [Dudley] is going to be in a position to lead that conversation and bring us all into it.

What are your current feelings about the entry and JA systems?

AF: I have an enormous amount of admiration for students who choose to be JAs. It’s an incredible commitment and students give up a lot, and they do it because they care deeply about the experience of first-years. Those of us in the administration also care deeply about the experience of first-years. So we care about the same thing and we have a very high standard for that thing. Our standard is that every student should be having a fully supported experience … and there are places where we need to work together still to reach that standard. That’s collaborative work and it’s very important work – it’s extraordinarily important that we get that right, and we’re going to do that together.

SB: It’s work that has urgency. There are a bunch of students coming this September, and they’ll only get one September of their first year, so I’ve been hearing a lot of urgency coming from students who’d really like to pick some things up and see what we can do with them. It’s interesting, when you’re an administrator or a faculty member, you have a different timescale in your head – students are only here for four years, so if we spend four years just talking about this, we’ve missed a whole group of people and left them with less than they could have had. So I think it’s important and right at the front of what we’re thinking about.

What do you hope our campus is talking about a year from now?

AF: I hope that we’ll be talking about things like this. This is work that we’re all going to do, and I hope that what we’re talking about next spring is the outcome of a process that has thought deeply about these kinds of issues.

SB: I’ve heard from [CC Co-Presidents Nick Fogel ’12 and Francesca Barrett ’12] about some conversations that they’re really interested in, in particular how alcohol works on this campus – what it does for students and to students, how it operates in the community – and I think those are hard conversations. I’m really pleased that they want to take those on, and I’m looking forward to being able to help move those conversations forward.

President Falk, now that you’ve been here for a year, what is your vision for Williams?

AF: What attracted me to Williams was my sense that my own fundamental values around education were the fundamental values of this college. This year has confirmed that more deeply than I could have imagined. We know something about ourselves by the stories we tell and the metaphors we use, and the central metaphor that we choose to return to here is Mark Hopkins on a log. Why do we return to that? It’s because we put at the center of our sense of what we’re here to do a faculty member and a student learning and growing together. So the work that I see as exciting and important is to support the faculty and the students so that they can do just that – and to provide some pretty good logs for them to do it on. If we continue to get terrific faculty and support their work, along with terrific students of all kinds, and then leave them alone to interact with each other, then this will remain the fabulous place that it is. That’s the vision, and it’s not complicated. It’s not taking Williams to a different place, but it’s remembering that if we don’t do those basic things, we won’t continue to be who we are.

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