One would think that the dean of Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University would feel out of place amid buckets of joint compound and boxes of horseshoe shims. But as Adam Falk leads a tour through the mammoth renovation project under way at Gilman Hall, he exudes confidence. Clad in a charcoal suit and white hard hat, he fields questions about tile placement and sprinkler systems. Then, at the building’s core, he bounds out on to some scaffolding, walks across a temporary ply wood floor spanning a 40-foot drop and smiles at the sunlight pouring into the once gloomy space. “Every time I come in here I see the future,” he says.
The scene captures Falk’s aptitude for balancing the details with the big picture, a skill that’s served him well. At 44, he’s an accomplished theoretical physicist whose rise through the faculty and administration ranks during 16 years at Johns Hopkins has been nothing short of meteoric. The Alumni Review tagged along with him for a week last fall to see how his current job—leading what is essentially a small liberal arts college within a sprawling research university—has prepared him to become Williams’ 17th president.
It’s still dark when Falk arrives at the suite of dean’s offices in Merganthaler Hall and unlocks his door. The only signs of life on campus are a few clusters of students shuffling to classes and to the library. His first meeting isn’t until 9 a.m., but he likes to come in early to prepare.
He fires up the espresso machine for his second double of the day and then sits down in his office to go through e-mail, scratch out a To Do list and read up on pending issues and projects. The walls and shelves of his airy office are adorned with an original “Zippy the Pinhead” comic strip, a Dwight Schrute bobble head and an Albert Einstein action figure, among other items, but his desk is meticulously neat. “I’m not smart enough to have a messy desk,” he says. “If I have two pieces of paper and one gets under the other, I forget about the one on the bottom.”
As dean, he is responsible for approximately 7,000 undergraduate and graduate students, 300 faculty members in 22 departments and an annual operating budget of more than $250 million (compared to Williams’ $192 million), plus another $50 million in sponsored research. Although Hopkins is a university with 10 divisions and campuses across the world, the institution is decentralized. “The deans of individual schools have tremendous autonomy within the larger Hopkins culture—academic decisions, budgetary decisions,” explains Falk, who’s held the post since 2005. “In contrast to most
universities, there is no allocation of funds from the university to the school. The university doesn’t build the
buildings, the school builds the buildings.”
The week ahead is a busy one, packed with trustee meetings, alumni leadership events, student receptions, reports on feasibility studies for new buildings and standing meetings with department chairs, deans and university administrators. “What I like about my job as dean is that I work with an extraordinary variety of issues, all of which have to be brought to bear on a single mission,” says Falk, who often has 10 scheduled meetings per day. “I come in every day and everything I deal with is interesting.”
If you want some insight into Adam Falk, check his tie. As a physics professor he never had to wear one, but after he became vice dean of faculty in 2002, he began amassing quite a collection. The ties are conservative, not flashy, but he takes great care in choosing them to match how he’s feeling or what he’s facing on a given day. There’s the DNA tie for science meetings, the tie that spells out a certain eight-character profanity in binary code for contentious meetings, and understated “non-pandering” ties in Hopkins navy and blue for alumni events.
Today’s tie is light pink with a small geometric print. And as Falk stands before 40 trustees, administrators and parents to reflect on his tenure as dean, one gathers that he’s feeling pretty positive. His delivery is passionate and energetic, and the group is transfixed.
The news couldn’t be better: Undergraduate applications are at a record high, and the number of students of color enrolling as freshman has doubled since 2001. A new class schedule, improved dining options and a new dormitory have fostered a greater feeling of community and satisfaction among undergraduates. The school just completed a $333 million fundraising campaign. And the commitment to academic excellence has been bolstered by new programs in the social sciences and humanities and the creation of a new tenure system designed to enhance the contributions of young faculty members. “We want to be, person for person, pound for pound, the finest small research-oriented school of arts and sciences in the country,” he says.
However, achieving this goal hasn’t been easy. The school’s endowment ($435 million) and departments are small, which means that there is constant pressure to do more with less. And Falk has garnered criticism over the years for decisions such as the 2008 sale of Villa Spelman, a decaying Tuscan villa that for decades housed a research center focused on the study of Renaissance Italy but had become too expensive to maintain. The decision drew a rash of criticism from faculty, students and alumni, but Falk says it was necessary to free up funds to support vital humanities programs in the States and abroad. “This is a great job, and I love it, but it’s not an easy job,” he says. “You have to be willing to take the heat for unpopular decisions.”
After his presentation, the discussion turns to what qualities the next dean should have. Falk’s colleagues begin citing his strengths as a communicator, collaborator and colleague. “Adam is a leader who does not only articulate the problem,” says Charles Clarvit ’78, a Hopkins trustee and chair of the advisory board. “He has already thought through the solutions and is prepared to recommend the best course of action.”
“As dean you really are a crucial player, so you need to be a real generalist,” adds David Bell, dean of faculty for the school. “What makes Adam so effective is that he masters all of the details and works steadily day after day to create consensus and move things forward.”
The tempura shrimp are going fast at the reception for Student Government Association officers that Falk and a fellow dean co-host each fall in the wine cellar of a historic home on campus. But Falk isn’t eating. Instead, he’s busy moving from one group of students to another, asking them where they’re from and listening to their ideas about the best ways to bring undergraduates together on campus. The small room is packed and noisy, but every so often Falk’s boisterous laugh rises over the cacophony. “It’s great to meet the students, to find out who they are and what they’re studying and what they’re really passionate about,” he says later. “I don’t have enough opportunities to do that.”
He spent 10 years teaching classes like Quantum Mechanics and Modern Physics to sophomores and juniors and became known as a vibrant teacher who was gifted at making even the most complicated topics accessible. “Where a lot of professors viewed teaching as hindrance, something that got in way of their research, Professor Falk didn’t,” says Brian Smigielski ’02, who is now earning a doctorate in theoretical physics at the University of Washington. “Even though he was this really intense particle physicist who was incredibly accomplished in his field … he never made you feel like you had asked a dumb question and would always stay after class for 15 or 20 minutes to entertain any questions or just shoot the breeze.”
The demands of being dean required Falk to quit teaching, and he still misses it. “One of the things I’m looking forward to about Williams is having the opportunity to teach again.”
Each month Falk meets over lunch with the dozen chairs of the humanities and social sciences. Though the conversations arguably could take place via e-mail, he believes there is much to be gained by bringing everyone together. “Department chairs are one of the forms of collective leadership in the school,” he says. “I think it’s really important for them to see each other so that things don’t get siloed.”
Hopkins, like Williams, has a strong tradition of faculty governance. And Falk has the broad respect of the faculty, says Jonathan Bagger, a vice provost and physics professor who taught Falk in graduate school. “Adam is very good at listening to his faculty and harnessing their energy to create a vision and move it forward,” he says.
Sixteen years ago, when Falk arrived at Hopkins, his goals were simple: to teach and do research. (Armed with a Ph.D. from Harvard, he had just completed two years of postdoctoral work at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center followed by a year at UC San Diego.) But the high energy physicist became interested in what was taking place outside of his department and began serving on a number of university committees, including one charged with creating a strategic plan for the future of arts and sciences. Falk distinguished himself as a natural leader and soon after the plan was complete former School of Arts and Sciences Dean Daniel Weiss asked him to become vice dean of faculty. He was 37, and he had no administrative experience.
“It’s not about what you’ve run,” Falk remembers Weiss saying. “It’s about how you relate to people.”
The two worked closely together for three years, and when Weiss left Hopkins to become president of Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., Falk was appointed dean. “Adam was chosen dean and succeeded in that role,” Weiss now says, “because skills, intelligence and strong values trump experience as crucial elements for success.”
Falk is leading the leadership team of the School of Arts and Sciences on his monthly tour of Gilman Hall, where a $75 million renovation began in 2007 after more than two decades of discussion. It’s the biggest building project of Falk’s tenure and the most significant building project on campus since Gilman was built in 1915.
Falk has raised much of the money for the renovation himself and is the project’s biggest champion on campus, saying that it’s central to the school’s mission to elevate the status of the undergraduate study of the humanities. Now, after more than two years of work, the renovation is almost complete, and he is eager for his colleagues to see the transformation firsthand. The group of 10 tromps through the building, marveling at the new 145-seat lecture hall, the freshly painted bell tower and the empty light well turned atrium.
When the first piece of the curved skylight roof was installed in October, Falk was standing inside the building watching from below as the crane lifted the 8,000- pound piece into place. He snapped a photo of the event with his phone and for the next week showed off the image to the faculty members he ran into on campus. “It makes a big difference,” he says, “if I don’t say, ‘Well, what I hear is,’ and instead can say, ‘This is what I saw when I was inside the building a few weeks ago.’”
The renovation will be done in June, two months after Falk heads to Williamstown for good. And as the tour winds down, Falk is struck by the realization that he won’t be in Baltimore when Gilman opens its doors to its second century of students. He doesn’t like to leave things unfinished, and that’s a big part of why he has chosen to stay at Hopkins for six months after being named president of Williams. “As thrilled as I am to go to Williams, I have a little pang that this building will open and I will no longer be the dean here.”
He says he’ll miss his colleagues at Hopkins, but he’s also looking forward to the challenges and new experiences that Williams will bring. Learning about the character of the College and its traditions. Living in a college town with his family. (He and his wife Karen and their three children, Briauna, 14, David, 9, and Alex, 7, currently live in a trim brick Colonial in the Baltimore suburbs.) Being part of a place whose singular devotion is to undergraduate education. Even buying a warm winter coat is a prospect Falk finds exciting. “When I was interviewing for the position at Williams, every single meeting I had, whether it was with an alumnus, a trustee, a faculty member or a student … was an interesting, substantive conversation about Williams College,” he says. “I think it’s a community that’s very intentional about what it does, and I want to join that community.”
The short break in his schedule is coming to an end, and Falk turns his attention to the brief remarks he will deliver in a few moments at a memorial service for Giovanni Arrighi, a sociologist on the faculty who died last summer. Falk plans to focus on how Arrighi devoted his final months to teaching, even after being diagnosed with brain cancer the year before.
“Giovanni’s legacy wasn’t just his scholarship, it was his students,” Falk says as he slips on his suit jacket and prepares to leave for the service. The simple statement speaks volumes to Falk about the kind of legacy he’d like to leave behind as a college president. “What I want to do in my work at Williams is to make it possible for others to flourish,” he says. “I want colleges to work well. And if I do my job well and, 10 or 20 years from now, if Williams is a better place in some way than it is now and the school has evolved in ways that it has needed to over that time, then it will have been well worth having spent my life doing this.”