Falk, Bolton reflect on challenges, successes of the year

On April 30, Meghan Kiesel, editor-in-chief of the Record, sat down with President Falk and Dean Bolton to discuss their second year leading the administration, their reactions to a tumultuous year on campus and what they would like to see next at the College.


What has been different for each of you this year now that you’ve settled more fully into your roles?


AF: My first year was, as much as anything, about learning about Williams because I was new to the College, and I think this year has been an opportunity to think a little bit more concretely about directions that we’d like to see the College go. It’s a wonderful place that does undergraduate education as well as any place in the country, but some of the issues we’ve been talking about over the year point to ways that we can strengthen things that we do. So this year has been a year for being able to think that way, whereas last year [for me] was more about learning and finding out what Williams was doing.


SB: This year, a large part of my work has been around sexual assault – response, awareness, prevention. That’s been a big focus that we took up at the end of last year and that has really been a large piece for me this year. [I’ve been working on] a few other particular things [as well] – working with [International Student Services Coordinator] Jennifer Hasenfus [to strengthen] what we’re doing for international students, thinking about Williams Reads and some of the ways that we build orientation around intellectual community and a community of learners. So there have been a number of things that I’ve been able to pick up and work on with different folks this year that have been different from last year.


The main focus of a lot of campus discussion over the past year has been about issues of and within campus culture. Where would you like to see this conversation go next year?


AF: I’ve been very pleased by this core interest of all these constituencies on campus, particularly students, on the quality of our community. I think one of the great opportunities that’s presented by having a community of our size and our relative isolation is the opportunity for us to think about what we want our community to be. And we’ve been challenged in the past year by these events that have happened on campus … I think they’ve challenged us with the fact that our community is not … as civil and as supportive at times as we really aspire for it to be. I think there’s work around that. That’s work that we all have to do together, to think about the kind of community we want to be and try to understand what we need to do in order to get there. That’s not something that happens quickly – these aren’t problems that get fixed in one or two or three months. But if we as a community are committed to continuing this work, I think we can make enormous progress in the year to come.


SB: I think that one of the things that we’ve learned this year again are the ways the community is really committed to one another. When crises come up and we watch students stand up for one another, pay attention to one another and listen to one another, we have a sense of what the possibility might look like for moving the community forward. The challenge, as the students have really accurately articulated, is listening to one another thoughtfully and carefully all the time, and not only in moments of crisis … And I think students have had some fruitful ideas that we can continue to explore about how we might build that into our everyday work.


How has the structure of the administration helped it to respond to the events of the year? How have task forces been employed in these responses?


SB: I think that the overall restructuring of the administration [focused on] student life with [Vice President of Student Life Steve Klass] taking up leadership [in] a number of offices that have a lot to do with community … His taking up that leadership has been really powerful in being able to think with those staff and then with students long-term. So when we think about residential life … the shifts in Baxter Fellows, for example, are the beginnings of that – what should we put in place to help us get the most out of living in this small but very close-knit community. So I think that there’s a lot of potential there that’s beginning to come to fruition that was harder in the old structure.

In terms of task forces, that’s been interesting as well and in a way, I think that also benefits from this restructuring … So in a sense, you can see the advantages of just having more people thinking about different parts of these things rendered in the fact that we can actually take on a part of that broad set of different community issues at once … So there’s a variety of expertise and perspectives coming into those task forces that I think is really productive and is a result of this restructuring.


AF: The one thing I would add is just that, coming out of particularly what happened in November – as terrible as that event was – I couldn’t have been more pleased by the amount of student energy around the set of issues that Students Against Silence identified and that other people identified. And much of that is energy that naturally correlates with work that was already going on in Dean Bolton’s office, and [Klass’s] office and [Vice President for Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity Mike Reed’s] office. This is work which is going to extend longer than a year and longer than the time of particular students here at the College, but it can’t happen without student leadership, student energy and student agency.


What are you hoping to change about first-year life with changes to First Days programming and the addition of the Williams Reads program? 


SB: I think our goals for first-year life [have remained] very much the same over time. They have to do with bringing students from all over the world and all over the country from many different communities and helping that group of students who are initially strangers get to know one another, benefit from learning from one another, benefit from a lived experience that’s deeply welcoming even if it may be unfamiliar and also helping people weave into an intellectual and an academic life in a way that is satisfying to them and is productive and successful … I think a lot of the changes that we’re looking at for next year are relatively small but are moves towards trying to do those things together. So certainly bringing Williams Reads into the orientation is a piece of helping students to have a common experience that they’re jumping off from together in the orientation; some of the shifts in the orientation program are really responsive to students’ perspectives on what would help them to get to know one another better … And some of the kinds of things that have to do I think particularly with different ways of weaving the leadership of the Multicultural Center and the Bridges leadership into both what we’re doing in orientation and what we’re doing over the arc of the year with students … I think it’s all moving towards the same goals, but it’s just pieces of trying to do that better.


How has the restructuring of the Office of Student Life (OSL) played out over the course of the year?


SB: In [OSL] in particular, that’s the beginnings of thinking again in new ways about what we’re doing with residential life and particularly upper-class residential life on one side, and also thinking then about student leadership development and the meaning of having all of these different student organizations that students are involved with. [The] leadership development side of student organizations is something that’s really shifted with the restructuring in [OSL] and with [Assistant Director for Student Involvement] Ben Lamb stepping into these positions.


AF: I think that one of the most important things that came out of the re-structuring is more people at the senior level are thinking about the experience of students from more different points of view. And I think we’re starting to see the fruits of that, which is simply the ability of people to think in larger terms and bring pieces of this together. I think that a lot of this year has been about trying to understand problems and understand where we are and start to develop thoughts about where we want to go.


What are your plans for the next year?


AF: I don’t have any independent goals of mine that aren’t reflected in the work that somebody else is doing. One of the things that really interests me from my perspective is the way in which different threads of what we’re talking about can come together. We’re simultaneously thinking about the hardware around student life [such as] the various facilities that support residential life, and we’re thinking about the software, [such as] what are the ways in which we build community [and] in what ways the entries interact with the culture of the campus. And I think that this is a year in which we’re going to see some of those threads come together, in which we’re going to develop, I think, some ideas for Facilities to support some of the work that’s going on.

Academically, we’re going to continue to work on the library … and the ways in which we can simultaneously be thinking about that and about new programs that we might be building on the campus. So for me, it’s kind of a nice opportunity to sit in a place where I can see how these pieces fit together.


SB: This is a year – this coming year – in which we will be looking at a lot of those threads … I think there are also some other things that we know we really need to look at … and one of them is the way that alcohol functions on the campus. There’s been a lot of momentum among students this year wanting to think about, what is our social culture and how does it work for students, [and to think about alcohol] in terms of the way that it really operates in our community. I think that we know we really need to think about that, and next year is going to be a year when we try to find some way to really pull together some of the students, faculty and staff thinking on those things and think about whether there are some things that we want to do differently. And then I think we’ll continue to try to move forward on a lot of the central goals around making sure that we have the right opportunities in place so that students’ academic thriv-ing is something that’s well-supported … that things like advising are working well for students, that academic resources are doing what they can to support student learning.


AF: If one wants to look at the projects for next year, it’s good to look at the projects for this year. That is, many of the things that we’re working on aren’t done or don’t ever get quite done in a sense. There’s been a lot of work on sexual assault…That’s ongoing work. If that’s been a priority this year, it’s going to be a priority next year, and I think that many of the things we do that are important are things that we do every year and things that we need to keep a focus on for every year. I was pleased that there was as much responsiveness in the community to our focus on those issues as there was, and I want to build on that and continue to make progress.

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