The Outlook for Fall
“A residential learning experience is the very heart of what makes Williams special.”
—Maud S. Mandel
Provided the health outlook continues to improve, the college has announced tentative plans to open in the fall for a fully in-person semester.
Strict health and safety protocols, including wearing masks, social distancing and routine testing, kept Covid-19 rates low this past spring, when more than 1,600 students returned to campus for in-person and online classes. The number of vaccinated adults continues to rise, and the state is easing restrictions on indoor dining and recreation.
As part of planning for a full opening in the fall, the college is monitoring Covid-19 rates and considering factors such as whether local K-12 schools reopen. A final decision is expected to be made by July 1, with the campus Operations Group working through the summer on detailed health and safety guidelines.
“A residential learning experience is the very heart of what makes Williams special,” President Maud S. Mandel wrote in a March 19 letter to campus about the plans. “I’m buoyed by the possibility that we’ll be able to return in earnest next fall and that I’ll be able to welcome you all back home.”
Reimagining New England Histories
Williams is part of a new partnership studying historical injustices through the lens of maritime history—a project funded by a $4.9 million Just Futures Initiative grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The effort, led by Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and involving Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport Museum, seeks to generate new insights into the relationship between European colonization in North America, the dispossession of Native American land and racial slavery in New England.
Williams and Brown are working together to create research clusters of faculty, staff and students and will each hire a visiting faculty fellow to be in residence during the three-year grant period. The project will also generate a Mystic Seaport Museum exhibition on race, subjugation and power, an online “decolonial archive” spotlighting stories from several New England communities, and expanded courses on historical injustice in early America for students at Williams, Williams-Mystic and Brown.
In a letter announcing the grant, Interim Vice President for Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Ngonidzashe Munemo wrote, “Building upon generations of scholarship and community-led work, the project employs the sea as one lens to grapple with intertwined histories of Indigenous and African American experiences in the Northeast and the closely related impacts of colonization and enslavement that have so deeply affected multiple communities.”
Added Munemo, a professor of political science and co-principal investigator for the grant, “Equally important, the project foregrounds the continuous work Black communities and sovereign Native nations have undertaken to maintain freedom, self-determination and cultural thriving in this region.”
Living in Community
In an effort to provide students with greater support and improve housing options, Williams is introducing new elements to its residential life program starting in the fall: TAPSI housing and area coordinators (ACs).
TAPSI, which stands for Theme, Affinity, Program, Special Interests, provides sophomores, juniors and seniors with the opportunity to create living-learning environments based on shared academic, co-curricular and identity-based interests. Students are currently developing proposals for TAPSI housing, which must have a leadership board and faculty and staff sponsors. A selection committee will review the proposals, with three such houses expected to launch in the fall.
The college is also hiring four ACs, professional residential life staff members who will work closely with junior advisors and other student residential leaders on matters like dialogue facilitation, conflict resolution and crisis management. ACs will also help develop programming that supports holistic wellness, personal development and community building.
The new elements are the result of extensive research by the Learning Beyond the Classroom strategic planning working group, whose outreach included a campus-wide survey, campus meetings and town halls, and conversations with consultants from peer institutions.
Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom says TAPSI housing, in particular, expands student’s options, which include first-year housing, quiet housing, co-ops and traditional residence halls.
“Not only will these spaces provide direct benefits to the students who live in them,” Sandstrom says, “but we also expect them to become hubs of activity that will add excitement and energy to the campus as a whole.”
The Wachenheim Science Center opened its doors at the start of the spring semester, marking the completion of a $200 million expansion that also included construction of the Hopper Science Center and several updates to Thompson Biology Labs.
The 113,000-square-foot Wachenheim houses the geosciences, math and statistics, and psychology departments. Among the highlights, a spacious outdoor garden provides a teaching space where geosciences students can study boulder specimens. And a 40-foot-long dinosaur trackway composed of fossil footprints greets visitors outside the 212-person auditorium.
The Hopper, which opened in the spring of 2018, includes 30 flexible research and teaching laboratories, a microscopy suite and faculty offices for the biology, chemistry and physics departments. The 78,000-square-foot building also features a machine shop to build and design new equipment for research and teaching.
Both buildings were constructed with locally sourced materials and are expected to receive LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. They use roughly one-sixth the energy of the original, 1960s-era Bronfman Science Center.
The new facilities reflect Williams’ “substantial resources and commitment to undergraduate science,” says Protik Majumder, Science Center director and Barclay Jermain Professor of Natural Philosophy. That commitment, he adds, is reflected in the many members of the community who supported the buildings’ development, including Andreas Halvorsen ’86, Diane Koenitzer Halvorsen ’84, and Sue and Ed Wachenheim ’59.
“Creative thinking, interdisciplinary learning and solving complex, open-ended problems are at the core of Williams’ educational aspirations,” Majumder says. “Our new science buildings will enhance all our work to prepare students to solve the most urgent, challenging problems that the world has to offer.”
The Show Goes On
“For most students, music is a source of escape from the stress of pandemic life on campus.”
So says Ed Gollin, chair and professor of music, whose department, like many in the performing and visual arts, found creative ways to connect students with audiences at a time when venues were closed to the public.
Their solutions almost always involved technology, giving students’ work wider reach. Music recitals and concerts such as the I/O New Music 2021 Virtual Music Festival were livestreamed using high-quality microphones and archived on the college’s YouTube channel. Concert Choir members recorded individual voice parts, editing them together to create ensemble performances. Hundreds of people have viewed the recital and concert videos.
The dance program took to the streets last summer with “Finding Ground,” a 12-minute video of student, faculty and staff performances in locations around Williamstown. The CoDa contemporary dance ensemble performed Anna Sokolow’s Rooms, an exploration of isolation that combined in-person and remote dance.
Many studio art classes moved outdoors for on-campus students, while remote students received supply kits to make pieces at home. Their works were collected in a Virtual Big Art Show in the fall, with plans for a limited, in-person exhibition of seniors’ work at the college museum before graduation. Students frequently showcased their work in and around the W.L.S. Spencer Studio Art Building and filled Instagram with their creations.
Videoconferencing gave students and the broader Williams community access to special guests and industry professionals—such as when Alex Szrol ’21 met costume designer Sharen Davis during the theater department’s virtual Green Room series.
“I never imagined I would get to meet the person behind the wardrobe of Watchmen,” says Szrol of taking part in the weekly series, organized by theater chair Omar Sangare.
As part of their coursework, theater students performed plays as radio dramas, and senior honors and independent study students staged digital performances. Professor Shanti Pillai connected her Global Digital Performance students with those at Shiv Nadar University in India to create short videos and written responses.
“Adapting our program to fit the constraints of pandemic life was our only real option,” says Sangare, echoing the words of many faculty and staff in the arts. “The show must go on!”
Covid-19 sidelined athletic competition during the winter and fall seasons and necessitated a shortened schedule in the spring. But Williams’ programs adjusted, creating enhanced opportunities for team building, mind and body fitness, and personal growth.
Coaches extended outdoor practice hours to accommodate smaller groups of students and expanded physical education classes to provide all students with the chance for organized activity. Varsity athletes used the time normally spent traveling to games to take part in weekly readings and Zoom conversations about social justice and diversity, equity and inclusion in their chosen sports. Meanwhile, the college constructed a massive outdoor tent alongside Farley-Lamb Field so that all students could continue weight training while wearing masks and remaining socially distanced.
Early in 2021, the presidents of NESCAC colleges announced that limited regional competition would take place between mid-April and mid-May, an abbreviated schedule. Thanks to robust health and safety protocols, the baseball, golf, lacrosse, rowing, softball, tennis, and outdoor track and field teams were able to participate.
As Athletics Director Lisa Melendy wrote in an email to students in April, “We are all determined to remember and protect the heart of Williams athletics as we go forward, and that is our dedicated coaches and athletes, our connection to each other, our love of sport, our love of representing Williams in the competitive arena—and, of course, beating Amherst.”