Lifting Us Up

Portrait of Williams President Adam Falk

President Adam Falk

There’s no shortage of issues to keep a college president awake at night. From the safety of our students to the strength of our academic programs, I’ve done a lot of worrying and lost much sleep in my eight years here. It’s part of my job.

Among these issues, the responsibility for stewarding our financial resources is something I take particularly seriously. We are fortunate to have a $2.3 billion endowment, the sum of gifts given by loyal Ephs from the beginning of our history. The endowment enables us to raise the college to new and greater heights. Many hands share in the work of lifting us up.

Day to day, my staff and I, with our board as fiduciaries, are accountable for the endowment’s care and use. It’s a daunting task in complicated and volatile economic times. But it’s also an exciting one.

In this issue of Williams Magazine, Lizzie O’Leary ’98, host of American Public Media’s Marketplace Weekend, spoke with Provost Dukes Love, Chief Investment Officer Collette Chilton and me about the Williams endowment. As a journalist, she challenged us to answer tough questions about higher ed finance.

It’s an important time to think about college and university endowments. Too many public figures have misrepresented them as stockpiles of wealth—a politically popular claim, but an inaccurate one. Their criticism misses the crucial role endowments play in supporting operations and making a college education affordable. Here at Williams, endowment revenue pays for almost half our total annual spending, which means we can provide better teaching, programming and facilities for all students. It also means we can invest more in their education than we ask them to pay in tuition. Thanks to our generous financial aid program, today’s students pay on average 60 percent of the sticker price, which itself is only about 60 percent of what we spend per student. None of this would be possible without the generosity of past and current alumni, parents and friends.

So we come back to the issue of what keeps me up at night. If we didn’t continue to sustainably manage and grow our endowment through wise investment, prudent spending and our comprehensive campaign, it would steadily dwindle. We would then either have to radically scale back our educational ambitions or increase tuition—a choice too many of the nation’s tuition-reliant schools are having to make.

We’re fortunate not to have to face such a decision. My obligation, in light of that good fortune, is not just to gratefully accept the generosity of our forebears, but to explain what the endowment does and then encourage you to join me in caring for it. This is the driving principle behind our Teach It Forward campaign.

I feel an overwhelming sense of duty to the Ephs who came before us—and those yet to come. But it’s a duty I accept with pleasure and pride. Because there are plenty of things to keep a college president awake at night, but only a precious few that enable us to dream.

Adam Falk, president