A Pipeline into the Academy


President Adam Falk

Readers of Williams Magazine know most of the large effects this small college has on the world. One you may not know about, however, is hugely important to Williams and higher education.

Through sustained work and the support of many alumni and friends, Williams now educates students from a much wider variety of backgrounds than ever before. That’s an important part of the public good we provide. It’s also the case that the more diverse the student body, the richer the learning that takes place—inside and outside the classroom—and the better prepared our graduates are to function in an increasingly diverse world.

But there’s been a lag, at Williams and in the academy, in fostering a similar diversity among faculty. The same educational benefits of broader representation apply: To most effectively educate students of all backgrounds, we need faculty of all backgrounds.

One challenge has been that students who choose academic careers in disciplines taught at liberal arts colleges have included relatively few people of color, first-generation college graduates and women (especially in math and some of the sciences).

Happily, Williams is leading the way in addressing this challenge. “Transforming the Academy” tells the wonderful story of programs developed here that have grown into consortia and have been copied elsewhere.

To most effectively educate students of all backgrounds, we need faculty of all backgrounds.

One key element of this effort is to reach students early. Our summer programs for pre-frosh (one focused on the sciences and one on the humanities and social sciences) do exactly that. Two fellowship programs support Williams students in research mentored by faculty during the academic year and over the summer.

The Bolin Fellowship, a signature two-year residency program that started in the 1980s and recently expanded, brings to campus graduate students from underrepresented groups who are at the dissertation stage of their careers.

Most recently, we helped form a Mellon Foundation-supported consortium that provides our students with summer scholarly opportunities at major research universities and brings newly minted Ph.D.s from those universities here as fellows, so they can experience what it’s like to teach at a liberal arts college.

Each of these programs represents an engagement at a critical moment in the development of a scholar, providing the opportunity, support and mentorship to encourage students on the path to becoming professors. As a result, the pipeline of new faculty for Williams and for liberal arts colleges is now flowing more fully, to the great benefit of young academics and our institutions.

Almost two decades ago, as a young physics professor trying to draw a diverse pool of graduate students, I’d attend the National Conference of Black Physics Students every year. I was impressed by the extraordinary potential of the students and dismayed that my institution did such a poor job of attracting them. We’ve learned a lot since then about the nature of the pipeline, the barriers that underrepresented students still face and what actions are most helpful. It’s a simple observation: If we want things to change, we have to do something new.

It’s here and at similar colleges that new things are being done. At Williams, the nation’s most talented students—a community more diverse than ever—work closely with faculty, experiencing firsthand the fulfillment of an academic life, inspired by the finest teaching faculty there is.

Image credit: Kate Drew Miller