College presidents: They’re just like us

President Adam Falk joined students hiking up Haley Farm Trail to Stony Ledge on Mountain Day. Photo courtesy of Max Friend.
President Adam Falk joined students hiking up Haley Farm Trail to Stony Ledge on Mountain Day. Photo courtesy of Max Friend.

Though President and Professor of Physics Adam Falk holds a powerful and prominent position at the College, students don’t know much about him other than his latest facial hair style. The Record sat down to talk with our fearless leader and learned that he has a lot more in common with today’s Ephs than one would think.

President Falk was born in 1965 to immigrants from Germany and grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C. For college, President Falk stayed close to home, attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where his father was the chair of the philosophy department. “I couldn’t imagine a place more different from Williams,” Falk said of his alma mater. “The University of North Carolina has 22,000 students, with 4000 students in my [first-year] class. I lived in an apartment two miles from campus, and rode my bike in, so I think it’s really funny when people say ‘Oh, Tyler House is far away,’ or ‘The Health Center is far away.’ I remember taking winter 8 a.m. classes where I had to ride my bike two miles to get to those classes.”

As an undergraduate, President Falk majored in physics and was very involved in the political activism community. “We were very upset about the war in Central America that the Reagan administration was waging at the time. I remember going to early marches for abortion rights; I went to the 25th anniversary of the March on Washington,” Falk said. “Campus politics around nuclear disarmament, South Africa and the anti-apartheid movement – all of those things were very important parts of my life when I was in college, so between that and my friends in physics and a lot of cooking for myself, that was my college experience.”

It was during his college years that President Falk first realized that he wanted to pursue a career in education. “The first teaching experience I had was at a summer program at Duke called TIP, or the Talent Identification Program,” Falk said. For six hours per day, he taught a class of 20 seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders math. “It was all about individually building relationships with each kid, and I just loved doing that,” Falk said.

After graduating with a Ph.D. from Harvard and spending time at Stanford and University of California at San Diego as a postdoc, President Falk taught as an associate professor of physics at Johns Hopkins while continuing his research in theoretical particle physics. Eight years later, he became dean of the faculty of Johns Hopkins, then dean of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences there. Ultimately, Falk felt that his “deep interest in undergraduates ran a little bit against the grain of the place,” he said, so after 16 years at Johns Hopkins, Falk left and accepted the position of president at the College.

Here President Falk has made an effort to get to know undergraduate students with, for example, his open lunches at Lee Snack Bar. “What I was finding was that I was seeing a lot of students but always in organized situations, and so a kind of  ‘come one, come all’ lunch, I thought, was just a nice chance for anyone who just wanted to come chat to do that,” Falk said.

President Falk also enjoys bonding with students on Mountain Day, one of his favorite days of the year; this year he hiked the Haley Farm Trail to Stony Ledge. Despite what rumors may say, it is indeed the president who decides when the holiday takes place. “I actually decide when Mountain Day is. It’s the one decision I get to make, and I make it!” Falk said. “I make myself as well informed as I can be about what would be a nice day for it, and I always, if it’s possible, prefer it to be a day that I can participate.”

Ephs may remember a confusing photo of the president wearing business attire while using an elliptical machine at the Upper Lassel gym, which resurfaced two years ago. “The Zilkha Center had done a project where they had attached the elliptical machine to a power generating thing, and they wanted me to come down and generate some power so I did that,” Falk explained. “The picture out of context is ridiculous because it looks like I’m in a tie doing a workout. And then that went viral more recently.”

Three years ago, President Falk received an honorary degree from Amherst. “The best rivalries are those in which you’re looking into a mirror, like sibling rivalry, and you look at Williams, and it’s better than Amherst, so I think it’s hard on them, but to go to Amherst is to see a little bit what Williams might have been had it evolved in a different way and at a different place,” Falk said. “Of course, as the Williams president I have to have the goal that we always beat them! They seem to be good about being the younger sibling, very generous and not too bitter about it, so that’s the spirit with which I got my honorary degree.”

After four years, President Falk still isn’t used to his fame on campus. “I haven’t quite gotten used to seeing my name in the Record. I probably will never get used to that,” he said. He is quite amused by his nickname “The Falkon,” of which he first heard in the newspaper about a month ago. “’Falk,’ though, is the German word for falcon, so that’s kind of a funny little thing there. It conveys way more grace and power than I think I really would merit, but it’s fine by me,” Falk said.

President Falk is married and has three children, Briauna, a first-year at Bard College, David, an eighth-grader at Mount Greylock, and Alex, a seventh-grader at Mount Greylock. Unfortunately, Briauna’s parents’ weekend coincided with Williams’s Family Days, so he stayed in Williamstown while his wife Karen visited their daughter. Though he says his family is “a pretty normal family,” Falk admits that he is unique in his music taste – he loves ’70s and ’80s heavy metal music. “I’m probably the only college president who played Black Sabbath to his kids in the car on the way to preschool,” he said.