Lessons of History

Falk Opinions and ExpressionsComing freshly, as I have, to Williams, I’ve sought to learn what I can about the College from its history, an exercise as enjoyable as it is illuminating. Among the many great stories from the College’s past, I’ve been struck by what I see as four lessons, which I expanded on in my Induction Address (http://bit.ly/FalkInduction) and which I believe are worth summarizing here.

Williams always was and will be about what happens on the log. After a century and a half, James Garfield’s description of the ideal college remains our North Star. Everything we do must be aimed at nurturing the magic that happens when dynamic and devoted faculty engage with bright, dedicated students. The tutorial system, much expanded during Morty Schapiro’s presidency, may be the most visible manifestation of that ideal, but great teaching and learning take place in all kinds of classes as well as throughout our theaters and studios and across our playing fields. The College seems to know this in its bones, and I’ve been impressed by the degree to which faculty and staff are instinctively focused on continually improving our students’ experiences.

Williams exists to provide a public good. At the Haystack Prayer Meeting of 1806, five Williams students dedicated themselves to serving the world in the way they believed best. In doing so they recognized that their time at the College was preparation not just for personal advancement but for service to society. This has long been the highest aspiration of the liberal arts. We invest substantial resources in our students with the understanding that in doing so we enhance the communities, the professions and the world that as alumni they will head out to serve. In the end, the measure of the College’s effectiveness is the degree to which our graduates do that, as exemplified by this year’s Bicentennial Medal winners, whose talks are cited in our convocation coverage, beginning on page 22.

Williams would be nothing without its alumni. This is literally true, since it was its graduates that saved the College from what many considered the deathblow of President Moore’s 1821 move, with faculty and students, to the valley east of here. Given the importance of alumni support throughout American higher education, this event holds significance well beyond Williamstown. But here more than anywhere, we know the great advantages of having alumni deeply involved with the College. The reputation of the Williams alumni body certainly reaches as far as Baltimore, but I must say that seeing its effects throughout the College’s history and experiencing it myself firsthand is truly breathtaking.

Williams must always adapt. We’re approaching the 50th anniversary of a remarkable string of changes, from the phasing out of fraternities to the beginning of coeducation and the wonderful diversifying of the College, which has so greatly enhanced the education we offer. These developments are associated with Presidents Sawyer, Chandler and Oakley, but despite their great leadership, these changes couldn’t have occurred without the involvement of faculty, staff, students and alumni. One of the healthiest attributes of Williams that I’ve experienced is the degree to which alumni devotion is fueled by a love not only of the College they knew but of the College they want to see Williams become. This is the healthiest kind of support I can imagine.

Adapting in ways that build on our past and enhance our future has long been what’s made Williams great, and I’m excited and humbled to be able to work with all in the College community to continue that great tradition.