Oakley Center provides an oasis for faculty research

February 17, 2016 by Jack Greenberg, Executive Editor

The Oakley Center, which provides professors on sabbatical a space for research, has many spaces to foster conversation. Emory Strawn/Photo Editor.

The Oakley Center, which provides professors on sabbatical a space for research, has many spaces to foster conversation. Emory Strawn/Photo Editor.

My knowledge of the Oakley Center was previously limited to its proximity to the senior co-op Susie Hopkins House and  its namesake, former President of the College Francis Oakley. I met up with the director of the Center, Professor of Philosophy Jana Sawicki, on location, to find out what lies behind the front door of this building through which few students have ever travelled.

“The Center [is] devoted principally to faculty research and development,” Sawicki said. “It [earned its initial funding] 30 years ago [from] the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and bears the name of … Francis Oakley, who still has an office at the Center and who regularly participates in our faculty fellow seminar each semester.”

The Center moved to its permanent home in the Makepeace House in 1989. One of the primary responsibilities of the Center is to provide support for Oakley Fellows, faculty who are on leave either for a semester or the full academic year but who remain in the area. Fellows have office space at the Center, receive $4000 in research support and participate in weekly forums over lunch to engage with their peers across other disciplines. For the 2015-2016 academic year, two professors are on full-year fellowships at the Center, while six had fellowships in the fall and another four are currently participating in spring fellowships.

Aside from also hosting a colloquium series throughout the year and providing manuscript review opportunities for professors looking to publish, the Center also oversees the Ruchman Fellowship for students.

“We select two students each year as Ruchman Fellows,” Sawicki said. “Departments and programs in the humanities and social sciences nominate students who are then invited to apply to be fellows. This entitles them to a stipend for research and the opportunity to present work in progress, typically part of a thesis, at our faculty work in progress seminars. Members of the Ruchman family join us for lunch and participate in the fellows’ seminar along with the faculty fellows. It is an illustrious crew – many former Ruchmans have become distinguished academics, and the fellowship is designed for students who think they are likely to pursue advanced degrees.”

The most perplexing moment of my journey to the Oakley Center came as I searched around the entrance of the building to find a card reader for student ID cards and found nothing of the sort. Unlike residential buildings on campus or even more professionally-oriented spaces like Mears House, access to the Oakley Center requires either an unlocked door or a real key to open it. The entrances automatically lock at the conclusion of the business day – it’s as if the Center were, in fact, an actual home. This seemingly trivial detail gives a sense of what to expect inside.

Stepping into the building, I was unsure as to whether I had actually found the Center or had drifted into a residential area of Williamstown. A beautiful foyer greeted me replete with copies of The Economist spread across a coffee table, one of the few indicators that I was in a professional space beyond seeing the office of Program Administrator Krista Birch to my left and, ahead to my right, an open door that led into Sawicki’s work area. Sawicki’s office space is quite the study, and her tutorial students have the great privilege of meeting weekly in it throughout the semester. What first appeared to me as a dining room proved to serve as a conference room for the Center and its fellows. Sitting just outside of the meeting area, an illustrious portrait of the Center’s namesake stood guard. Sawicki showed me into the Center’s living room that hosts its colloquiums which, over the years, have welcomed the likes of food activist Michael Pollan and filmmaker Kimberly Price. Though the colloquiums are faculty-centered, Sawicki works “to supplement [them] with student events – typically lunches or class visits … but also more general lectures on campus.”

After strolling through the Center’s kitchen, where fellows can brew some midday coffee and store their snack surplus, I proceeded up the stairs of the building to explore the second floor, which houses the offices of Oakley, the faculty fellows and the student Ruchman Fellows, if space permits. Though the Ruchman Fellows are not guaranteed an office in the Center, they do have keys to the space and are free to work there. Along the staircase I navigated through group photos of the fellows from years past.

Upon returning to the ground floor, Sawicki directed me to what would become my personal highlight of the tour: the back porch. In the warmer months, Sawicki and Birch arrange for outdoor furniture to maximize the value of the space, allowing for faculty to read outside in the beautiful Williamstown summer weather while conducting research for their next books and move their discussions on Washington or Weber to wicker. Sawicki emphasized the necessity of “a faculty preserve” for research and academic inquiry within a liberal arts college.

In imagining what that back porch during summer, I believe I witnessed the manifestation of that Socratic ideal – open, unfettered inquiry that cuts across disciplines in striving towards a shared understanding of  the truth.

If the first half of the teacher-scholar professorial duality for humanities and social science faculty is achieved through venues such as Schapiro Hall and Griffin Hall, then the Oakley Center is intended to allow these academics to maximize the value of that latter half in their careers. Thus, the distance the Center maintains from the center of campus proves no coincidence but rather a necessary step towards ensuring that the integrity of its purpose is protected.

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