Daring Change honors Sawyer era for innovation

Over the weekend, the College community gathered for a two-day event, Daring Change, to commemorate former president Jack E. Sawyer by considering how the College will and should look in the future. Daring Change originated out of conversations about how to best celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Sawyer era. The discourse of Daring Change began Friday with a forum on the Sawyer era at the College featuring three leaders who either knew or were directly affected by the former president and his vision for the institution. The event transitioned to a series of collaborative colloquiums on Saturday, all answering the call to imagine the College’s future.

Daring Change served a dual purpose of honoring Sawyer and his legacy as well as collaborating to envision the future of the College. According to the event’s website, “a half-century ago, [the College] – led by President John E. Sawyer ’39 – underwent a series of changes that transformed the College and set it on a course to become the [College] of today. From the early 1960s to the early 1970s, the college phased out fraternities; admitted women and set out to diversify the student body, faculty and board of trustees; introduced non-Western studies to the curriculum; and launched Winter Study, environmental studies and the graduate program in art history.” During Sawyer’s tenure, the College also eliminated compulsory chapel, built a new science center and significantly expanded its fundraising campaign.

“Eventually we decided to combine a look back (the Friday panel in Chapin) with a Williams Thinking-like approach to considering our future (the Saturday symposium),” Angela Schaeffer, director of communications, said. “The Saturday event [was] a chance for us to hear from a wonderfully diverse group of community members – students, faculty, alumni and staff – about their own ideas, questions, and challenges for [the College’s] future. The last session of the day feature[d] a kind of ‘conversation’ between Jack Sawyer and Adam Falk, thanks to a videotape of Sawyer we have from 1964, when CBS News recorded an hour-long program with him and Harry Ransom, then chancellor of the University of Texas.”

The two-day symposium began with a dialogue on the changes instituted during the Sawyer era. The Friday forum featured Catharine Hill ’76, Stephen R. Lewis Jr. ’60 and Francis Oakley, moderated by President Falk. Each contributor could boast a personal connection to Sawyer’s influence. Hill entered the College as a student in the fall of 1972 – during the latter portion of Sawyer’s term – as a member of the second class to admit women. Lewis joined the economics department as a professor in 1966 and served two terms as provost, during which he worked closely with Sawyer. Oakley came to the College as a history professor at the start of Sawyer’s term in 1961 and subsequently served as dean of faculty and president. The discussion painted a picture of Sawyer as a leader and a man, with each panelist describing their interactions with and respect for the former president.

After considering the impact of institutional changes made under Sawyer’s supervision, Daring Change regarded what change must necessarily reinvent the College in the present-day. An assortment of 12 alumni, students, faculty and staff spoke at Daring Change on Saturday, addressing various questions about where the College is and should be headed. The day’s talks were organized to answer four questions: “How will we learn?”; “What will we learn?”; “Who will we be?”; “What difference will we make?”

Associate Professor of Mathematics Satyan Devadoss, Sophia Rosenfeld ’15 and Christina Olsen tackled the first question of the day, projecting how the College will learn in years to come. Assistant Professor of Computer Science Jeannie Albrecht, Associate Professor of History Leslie Brown and Chaplain to the College Rick Spalding pondered what the College should learn. Associate Provost Chris Winters, Professor of History Charles Dew ’58 and Olivia Polk ’16 reflected on who the College will be. Ifiok Inyang ’11, Kairav Sinha ’15 and Meg Bossong ’05 replied to the inquiry “What difference will we make?” asking the audience to consider the meaning of the College’s presence in the Berkshires and the world at large.

Daring Change concluded by evoking Sawyer, this time presenting the former president in his own words with “Jack Sawyer and Adam Falk: A Conversation.” The event used video footage from a 1964 television special featuring Sawyer to structure a back-and-forth between the former and current president of the College. In many ways, Falk echoed Sawyer’s words. Sawyer praised “the elasticity of a liberal arts type of education,” and Falk pointed out “the enduring importance of the breadth of that education … to create a view of the world that is whole.” Sawyer spoke of higher education’s responsibility “to do its job on the human side as well as the technical.” Falk spoke of liberal arts education as the investment in people, students and faculty alike.

In two days, Daring Change harnessed the energy of many voices considering past and future configurations of the College. “Daring Change [was] an occasion for the College community to come together to learn about and celebrate the Sawyer era and to imagine in different ways our future,” Schaeffer said.