There has been considerable discussion recently about the principle of naming buildings at Williams. Here is how I see the issue: we are the college we are because of the generosity and loyalty of alumni, parents and friends of the college. Current gifts and our endowment – the result of more than two centuries of philanthropy – together provide roughly two-thirds of the funds required to run the College every year.
Each of us gains from this support: through Williams’ broad range of academic and campus life programs; through access to great faculty; through research experiences, off-campus study options, service learning and career development opportunities; and through the exceptional buildings in which we learn, live, eat, study and play.
Every student who comes to Williams contributes significantly, in their own terms, to the cost of their education. And, thanks to donors, every single student receives, in return, a more extensive and expensive education than we charge for. In short, the Williams we experience is only possible because someone else helped pay for it.
As beneficiaries of such generosity, we want to show our gratitude. We do so, in part, by publicly naming professorships, scholarships, spaces and buildings in donors’ honor. The namings also remind current and future generations that the opportunities we enjoy were given to us by others.
We name things for other reasons, too. Sawyer Library, Chandler Gymnasium, the Oakley Center, Schapiro, Griffin and Hopkins Halls all honor past presidents. Legendary faculty – Fred Rudolph, James MacGregor Burns ’39, Fred Schuman, to name a few – are recognized by professorships bearing their names. Still, there is a long tradition at Williams, as at most colleges, of naming buildings for the philanthropists who made them possible. Chapin, Stetson, Paresky, Hollander, Bronfman, Thompson, Lee – the names on these facilities, so central to our lives, honor their donors. So, of course, does the name of our college itself honor the gift of Ephraim Williams.
To acknowledge gifts in this manner is not to devalue other ways in which people contribute to the life of the College – we have many ways of saying thank you. Nor does it suggest that donors are free of fault. To thank someone is not to deify them. It is simply to thank them.
And this brings me back to the recent discussion about the naming of Horn Hall, which was built with the aid of a generous gift from Joey Horn ’87 and Ragnar Horn ’85. Our first new residence hall in 40 years, Horn Hall is home to 60 students. Next year it will host another 60. The year after that, another 60. Williams is much better because of what the Horns have given us.
Nor have their gifts been solely financial; Ragnar has been supporting Williams as a volunteer since he graduated more than 30 years ago. Joey, too, has served with distinction as an alumni volunteer and then a trustee for eight years, during which she, and her fellow board members, helped the College flourish, becoming the place it is today. Over those same years, the Horns have also mentored numerous students and encouraged diverse faculty members to do their most ambitious teaching and research.
Each of us chose to come to Williams, a college built with the time and money and labor and love of thousands of alumni, faculty, staff and friends over more than two centuries. Namings at Williams serve as a reminder that every one of us, human as we are, is capable of great selflessness and generosity.
Adam Falk is the president of the College.