This time of year marks many new beginnings: a fresh slate of classes, the arrival of the Class of 2021, several new faculty and staff hires and the opening of the new bookstore. However, for President Adam Falk, September marks the beginning of the end of his term, as well as a new beginning for him as president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Come the start of January, Falk will have cleared out the office in Hopkins Hall he occupied for almost eight years and made the transition from the Purple Valley to New York City.
Falk took over the College’s presidency in 2010 from interim President William Wagner, who took on the role following Morty Schapiro’s departure for Northwestern. Upon arriving in Williamstown, Falk sought to prioritize the College becoming a national leader in innovative and effective teaching, an increasingly international institution and a more diverse, multicultural community, as he described in his inaugural remarks. Though Falk has seen progress in all of those objectives, he conceded that his time in office has continuously reframed his goals for the College. “I think that over a decade, your sense of what is important evolves. There are both new things that have come up and ways in which I would think about those goals framed at that time which would be different now,” Falk said.
“The simplest one to talk about is international. Global is no longer one single thing that can be put in one part of the curriculum or one part of the College. We have evolved to the point where we think about what kind of opportunities we can give to every student for international experiences and give the College a more international flavor. We continue to have a strong presence of international students, we have revamped the Study Away office [and] … we have been trying to find more opportunities for students to go abroad during the summer and Winter Study. I am very pleased with the international aspects of the College, but that doesn’t look like what I thought it might look like eight years ago.”
As for functioning as an exemplar of undergraduate education, Falk saw no significant departure during his presidency from the practices of the College in preceding years. “You continue to hire superb faculty and support them,” Falk said. “That’s not a thing that lives in a particular part of the College. I think there was a moment when it was thought that somehow technology was going to turn upside-down everything we did. … Technology is giving us new ways of teaching, but it’s not replacing the human interaction that is the center of good teaching at a liberal arts college.”
These continuations and changes alike would occur alongside the College’s student population growing increasingly diverse, Falk noted. Highlighting particularly the growth in the number of first-generation students at the College and the prioritization of financial aid in the “Teach It Forward” fundraising campaign, Falk conceded the need to do more: “We as a community need to be more attentive than we ever have been in helping people, when they come here, bridge those differences in prior experiences and build a community. Our work with first-generation college students, our work on sexual assault prevention and response, the evolution of the multicultural center into the Davis Center … are the kinds of things … [that] are all a part of the work in supporting a really diverse community, and I think it is some of the very most important work that we do.”
Falk’s tenure, however, was not without its controversies and struggles. As colleges across the country increased the size and scope of their respective administrations, Falk, at times, received critique for the organization of college staffing and a purported decline in faculty governance (“Misplaced power” Oct. 23, 2013).
Falk demurs on the notion that the College has grown more bureaucratic, emphasizing his belief that the goal of any hiring and reorganization was directly tied to the betterment of the community. “There had been great growth in the endowment in the previous decade [before I was president] and I think that it had put the College in a position where we didn’t have to make the same kind of difficult choices between different funding priorities that we would have to make once the endowment dropped 30 percent,” Falk said. “And we are just a more complex operation then we used to be. We have a debt portfolio of $300 million. We have a complicated [human resources structure], a complicated facilities operation, a childcare center, a controller’s office and auditors that are doing more and more sophisticated work. A lot of that is really hard work for a faculty member to rotate in every few years and do as effectively as someone who’s a really strong professional.”
The critique of Falk as a bureaucratic figure came paired with concerns that, unlike predecessors such as Schapiro, Falk was a relatively distant figure during his time in Williamstown. (“Where the Falk Are You?,” March 1, 2015 in the Williams Alternative). In particular, Falk never taught courses at the College, though many of his predecessors did. He also moved out of Sloan House (the official residence of the President of the College) a few years into his tenure.
For his part, Falk explains that his reduced visibility on campus was connected to his focus on his family throughout his tenure as president. “Each person who inhabits [this] role defines it for whoever comes after,” Falk said. “So just as Morty had a different personality from [former President] Hank Payne … I have a different personality from Morty.”
“Our society has evolved, and for the better. At one time, being a president meant that your family was publicly secondary to your professional role,” Falk said. “The image of the College president as standing in front of Sloan House in his (always a his) tweed jacket with his family in the background is not how our institutions work anymore. I think I represent a modern way of balancing the professional obligations of this very big job with participating fully in raising my children.”
Falk insisted that his presence on campus is consistent and robust. “I think I am very engaged on campus,” Falk said. “I know a lot of people, but the shape of that is a lot different than it might have looked 50 years ago. I’ve gotten to know a lot of individual students. My style has been more to get to know individual people, to go to coffee or lunch with students. It’s a little bit less publicly visible but more my personality.”
As for what lies beyond the College, in what Falk proclaimed is “a future so bright I gotta wear shades,” Falk sees himself pursuing similar overarching objectives at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that he did at the College, taking with him the many lessons and insights he gained from his presidency. “These eight years at Williams have afforded me the chance to be at the very best place for undergraduate education. It has been just terrific. Going to the Sloan Foundation will give me a chance to engage other things that I care a lot about – research, support for graduate students – but there are going to be things I will have learned about education and the role of liberal arts colleges in producing the next generation of scholars that I could have only learned from being here for eight years,” Falk said.
“Whether you’re the president of Williams or the president of the Sloan Foundation, you come to an institution where for a period of time you are the steward of resources that were created by someone else, and your purpose is to use those resources as wisely as you can to allow other people to fulfill their potential, for their benefit and the benefit of society.”