President Maud S. Mandel discusses her first year on campus—and what’s to come— with Tom Gardner ’79, president of the Society of Alumni.
Photography by Beth Mickalonis
It was easily one of the busiest times of the semester. First-year students were barely settled into their dorm rooms. Classes had just begun. Key alumni leaders were in town. And the campus was abuzz with preparations for Convocation and Bicentennial Medals weekend. Still, when Williams Magazine asked President Maud S. Mandel and Society of Alumni President Tom Gardner ’79 to participate in an interview for the fall issue, their response was a resounding “Absolutely!”
On Sept. 5, the two, who began their presidencies within weeks of each other in the summer of 2018, engaged in a thoughtful conversation, discussing everything from free speech on campus to planning for Williams’ future to a new course Mandel is teaching this fall. An excerpt of their conversation follows.
TOM GARDNER ’79: We’re having this conversation in early September, at the beginning of a new academic year. How are things going so far?
MAUD S. MANDEL: I’ve always loved the beginning of the academic year, meeting the new first-year students, hearing about people’s hopes and dreams, fears and concerns. Personally, I’m excited because I’m teaching a course this fall—my first tutorial. I’ve never taken or taught one, but they’re one of the great opportunities Williams students have to work closely with each other and with faculty.
GARDNER: What’s the course?
MANDEL: Memoirs, Memory and the Modern Jewish Experience, a course in modern Jewish history, which is my field. It’s both about learning Jewish history through the voices of individuals and also about how we as readers can or cannot make use of memoirs of single people as historical sources. The larger theoretical questions as we read human stories across time, place and context are: What does that open up, and what does it render much less visible? In addition to being back in the classroom, which I like, teaching the course will give me a different window on the lives of students than I had last year.
GARDNER: Last year was an interesting time, with a lot of activism on the part of students and faculty, as well as some controversy on campus. What was that like?
MANDEL: Those controversies didn’t define Williams for me last year, though I know, from off campus, it might seem like they did. Much of my first year was engaged with getting to know the community. And so much of that engagement has been really rich and rewarding. Still, there’s no question that our college campuses, and particularly private, elite institutions, have been more agitated in the last few years than was the case prior. This isn’t just a Williams story. Activism in general on campuses tends to wax and wane. I have many colleagues who say, during times when students are more quiescent, that they actually wish students were more active, because it means they’re engaging with the world. Students have things they want to change. They’re vested—not just in themselves but in their communities and in the world around them.
GARDNER: I say this to alumni all the time when they ask about student activism.
MANDEL: The fact that students care is really important. They look at the world they’ve inherited and feel frustrated with inequities they see that are still around them, with large-scale problems like climate issues that they now have to figure out. It’s not surprising that they quickly turn to demanding immediate accountability and change.
GARDNER: What does that mean for the campus climate?
MANDEL: The more we discuss, debate and even at times argue vociferously about issues, the better. It can get quite heated—dissent makes people uncomfortable. But if activism doesn’t make you uncomfortable, it isn’t working. Debate on a college campus is a healthy sign, and Williams does it pretty well. Having said that, in an environment where the country is agitated and our campus is agitated, it’s important to have some rules of engagement so that we understand as a community how to do this in a way that is productive and not destructive.
GARDNER: One of the first things you had to contend with when you came here was the issue of free speech on campus. This isn’t unique to Williams, but it put us in the national headlines. How did it play out here on campus?
MANDEL: That was one of the first meaty, community-wide conversations I was a part of last fall. More than 100 faculty members signed a petition recommending that Williams adopt the Chicago Principles, which is a broad endorsement of unhindered free expression on college campuses. Although more than 50 educational institutions have adopted it, the document is not without controversy, primarily from those who see unfettered free expression as a way for hate speech to function freely in American society. Williams students, in the face of the faculty petition, and exercising their own freedom of expression, argued that we should not sign on to the Chicago Principles. The debate was charged, and it centered around whether or not to craft a policy statement or principle statement around freedom of expression. I wanted to take a step back and think about what our policies should be around speaker invitations. Because, really, the issue boils down to who should or should not have a platform at Williams. So, I convened a relatively large committee and gave them a very ambitious timeline to study the issue on campus. They did a tremendous amount of outreach in many sectors of the Williams community.
GARDNER: You’re referring to the Ad-Hoc Committee on Inquiry and Inclusion. What did the committee conclude?
MANDEL: Their report, which they submitted in June, had a number of recommendations, including that Williams should articulate a series of its own principles, something several other schools have done. The thesis of the report was that free expression and a commitment to an inclusive community can at times be in tension with one another, but that tension can be productive in an educational setting. We can encourage people to speak. And we can empower people who believe that speech is challenging to engage with it and know they are also supported by the institution. I worked over the summer with the Faculty Steering Committee to write a draft series of principles, and we are spending the first part of the semester sharing the draft with faculty and students. I hope by mid-fall we will have a set of principles that encompass free expression, inquiry and inclusion as the Williams way—a reflection of our principles that’s aspirational and indicative of the commitments of this campus.
GARDNER: It sounds like a very collaborative process. Is that how you characterize your leadership style?
MANDEL: To me, listening is first and foremost. That doesn’t mean I’m going to listen to you and then do what you say. Listening is a way to learn. Williams is filled with really smart people. A good leader in this context is not going to be the person who says, “I have all the answers,” or “Follow me into battle,” but rather the one who knows when to turn to people with expertise in certain areas and provide them with the opportunities to help solve problems collectively. It’s collaboration precisely because we have an important resource here—the brain power of the people who make up this community.
MANDEL: It’s true—I barely set foot on campus when we started to talk about the future of Williams! I should emphasize that the goal of strategic planning is not to fix something that’s broken or to make a radical change of direction—not even remotely. We’re asking: “How do you take something as strong as Williams and build on that legacy for the 10- to 15-year horizon?” Every responsible educational institution should ask itself once a decade or so how it can best serve its mission in the current context. Because, while the institution traverses the centuries, the context around it shifts. What students need in order to reach their highest ambitions, what the expectations are of an education, what constitutes faculty expertise, what we consider to be knowledge—all of that shifts over time. Think about what Williams students studied in 1920 versus what they are studying today. It’s the same institution with some of the same educational values and the same mission, and yet it has changed so dramatically in so many ways.
GARDNER: Who is involved in strategic planning?
MANDEL: Eight working groups are looking at every aspect of the college—student learning; life beyond the classroom; faculty and staff development; diversity, equity and inclusion; the built environment; sustainability; governance; and Williams’ engagement with the world. Everything about the process, and there’s a lot of really useful information, is on the college website (williams.edu/ strategic-planning). There has been and will continue to be a lot of outreach—to faculty, staff, students, alumni—and many opportunities to be involved in the process. As I said, this college is made up of really smart people. Strategic planning harnesses their power to ask, collectively, “How can we move together in a shared vision?” and, “Where do we want to be in 10 to 15 years?” and then create a strategic plan out of that.
GARDNER: Where does the process stand now?
MANDEL: September and October are heavily focused on community outreach. People are formally and informally engaging with the working groups, offering their thoughts. In November, December and January, each working group will write a report that brings together what they’ve learned into a set of visions and strategies. Their reports will feed into a larger plan in spring 2020 that will go before the Board of Trustees for approval. Presuming we come to a strategic plan that all constituents have weighed in on and feel good about, we will create an operational plan next year, in 2020-21. There will be drafts at every stage for people on campus and off to respond to, and we’ll revise in the spirit of collaboratively trying to get to a final product.
GARDNER: Sometimes plans like this end up in a big binder on a shelf, collecting dust. What do you envision the end product looking like?
MANDEL: In June 2020, when this work is done, my expectation is a strategic plan that, yes, will be a physical document, something you can hold. But I don’t anticipate a 150-page document. I expect something tighter and briefer, at a high level. It’s important to separate the strategic from the operational, because you can lock yourself in too tightly to the strategic plan, and contexts change. Economies crumble. Key faculty decide to go elsewhere. You need to be nimble. So, in June, my hope is it’ll be done, we’ll put it online, produce a printed version and celebrate the end of the strategic planning process. But then we’ll quickly roll up our sleeves and move to the tactics.
GARDNER: At the same time Williams is engaged with a strategic planning process, we are celebrating the end of a wildly successful campaign. You were here for the last year of Teach It Forward, and the goals were to raise $650 million and to engage 85% of the alumni body with the college. What constitutes engagement?
MANDEL: Engagement includes giving, of course, but also attending events, sponsoring internships, teaching Winter Study courses and so much more—basically, all the many ways alumni connect to Williams. Engagement is part of the secret sauce here. Alumni give back consistently to this college. They see it as a part of their commitment to current students.
GARDNER: In the end, we reached 87.6% engagement, and we raised more than $700 million. Those are record-breaking numbers.
MANDEL: Staggering. And I want to express my profound gratitude to the Williams community. What a legacy for me to walk into! Teach It Forward never would have been as successful as it was if it weren’t for my predecessor, President Adam Falk, Campaign Chair Greg Avis ’80, Principal Gifts Chair Andreas Halvorsen ’86 and the many other people involved in the process. We raised money for science education, initiatives beyond the classroom like experiential education and mental health, the Alumni Fund and Parents Fund, financial aid, and faculty research and teaching—all of which, even after the campaign’s close, remain core commitments of Williams.
GARDNER: What questions and conversations do you see for Williams in the long term?
MANDEL: I’ve been thinking a lot about financial aid. Our commitment remains high. And as we go through strategic planning and build upon the strength of the campaign, I want to continue thinking about how we broadly support not only our highest-need students but also our middle-income students, a sector that right now is struggling mightily in higher education. Also, I personally have a deep interest in opening a pipeline to transfer students, whether from community colleges or the military, who often have high need and are quite deserving, strong students. Those are just two areas I’m interested in. But the things we’re committed to gesture to what might be in our future. Like diversity, equity and inclusion, which also includes a refresh of the Davis Center now underway, and the role of arts at Williams, which probably will be built into the strategic plan and includes a new home for the museum.
GARDNER: Meanwhile, we in the Society of Alumni are doing some strategic planning of our own, as we prepare for our bicentennial in 2021. In addition to looking at how far we’ve come, we’re looking at where we’re headed.
MANDEL: I’m excited to be part of those conversations with alumni and with you, Tom, about what the society wants to be as we arrive at this major milestone and others, including the 50th anniversary of coeducation. Thinking about Williams’ future and the Society of Alumni’s future goes hand in hand, because the society is obviously such a huge part of Williams’ history and one of the things that makes this college distinctive.