LENOX, Mass. — Williams College President Maud Mandel says the school intends to construct a new art museum building on the Field Park rotary site of the now-dormant old Williams Inn — but needs to make the financial case to trustees first.
The disclosure came on Sunday as Mandel spoke to about 40 people assembled at a Lenox Library lecture entitled, “The View from Campus.”
In the hour talk and Q-and-A period she spoke about Williams’ strategic planning and relationship to the region, the nature of a liberal-arts education, and some of the characteristics and concerns of young adults.
Through its academic partnership with the Clark Art Institute, Williams has a small graduate program in art history which has produced many curatorial leaders of U.S. arts and cultural institutions. Mandel says the strategic-planning process has pointed to that as an area for continued investment, “looking to build on that legacy and history.”
One thing that means, she said, is “we need, and hopefully we will be bulding, a new museum” for the Williams College Museum of Art. Its current spaces in Lawrence Hall would be too expensive to renovate and can be repurposed as “maker spaces” if a new building is constructed, she said.
It is up to Williams leadership to convince its trustees to approve a new museum building and that hasn’t happened yet, said Mandel. But she said two decisions have already been made.
- First, the now-dormant old Williams Inn building at the Field Park rotary (Williams owns the land and building) will be razed starting in about a month (“none to soon,” she quipped).
- And second, if trustees approve spending on a new museum structure it will definitely be located on that site. Until then, it will be greenspace, she said. “If we build a new museum, we will build it there.”
Cumulative competencies, not subjects?
Schools like Williams aspiring to deliver a “liberal-arts” education demonstrate that individual fullfillment, personal learning and social good can coexist. “I think we effectively trick students,” she said, in professing to teach particular subject matter, when what is really important is that they leave Williams with habits of scholarship, the ability to research, and a “set of cumulative competencies which include how to think, write, solve problems, analyze data — and separate fact from fiction.”
U.S. colleges are “robust sites of free expression,” Mandel said. Debates which might have been confined to a campus are now transmitted across the globe because of the Internet and social media, she added. She observed “the ease with which people can jump to conclusions and then broadcast them” because it is “easy to forward an email or ‘like’ a Facebook post.” If that creates some confusion about what the essense of college should be, she said, she is not blaming social media per se for that confusion.
The academy, she says, is unique in its ability to be open to free expression and radical ideas while tempering those ideas through the deliberative nature of the tenure and publication processes. “We are so thoughtful about how we change,” she said, because of this combination of process orthodoxy with openness to radical ideas. “We nurture radical ideas tempered by time-testing process.”
That process takes time, unlike, say, the proclivity of technology leaders in Silicon Valley to adopt “fail fast” strategies. But once a faculty member’s ideas once considered radical have been tested by the tenure crucibles of teaching, scholarship, publication and service . . . “once you’re tenured, you can say everything and your job is safe,” she said. “Some ideas survive this incubation process and become orthodoxy.” She called this a “highly dynamic equilibrium of innovation and conservatism.”
Inclusion not just diversity
Mandel outlined the college’s efforts to make it possible to make a Williams education affordable to applicants from middle-income families, transfer students and veterans. She said this has meant the campus has become far more culturally and ethnically diverse. But she said diversity is not a final goal but a step toward a broader concept of “inclusion.” She said a key aspect of that concept: “How to design an environment where all people feel they belong. Diversity is just a start for inclusions. It doesn’t mean everybody is safe, happy and comfortable, it also is how to make sure they have the resources to succeed.”
Beyond creating an inclusive learning community, Mandel sees Williams as needing to address the great world challenges, including, she said, climate change, inequality and disease.
Since she became Williams president in 2018, Mandel said the school has embarked on a two-year, strategic-planning process involving eight subcommittees and reports covering academic, internal and external issues, including the college’s relationship with its physical community. The interim reports are public and posted on the college’s website. The core question the process seeks to answer, she said, is: “Are we giving students what they need to thrive?”
A partner, not bank, to region
Coming to Williams from where she taught at Brown University in the city of Providence, R.I., Mandel said the planning process emphasized for her that Williams “is sort of the last man standing our region, the Northern Berkshires” when it comes to the economy.
Williams is Berkshire County’s second-largest employer after Berkshire Health Systems. Moreover, because of a successful capital campaign, Williams “is much wealthier than it used to be.” She added: “It’s a big economic engine . . . in the region, considering its size,” she said of Williams, which employs nearly 2,000 faculty and staff.
So the school is more interested in community collaboration than in the past, and carries this out in part through programas of the Center for Learning in Action, which involves more than 700 students. But the school wants to be thought of “as a partner — not a bank” and in that context is looking for ways to contribute around its core educational mission.
Students worry about futures
Responding to a question about the nature of today’s students, Mandel said she often hears the observation that students are “snowflakes — they can’t take a challenging idea.” She also said she has not met a single “young person yet who isn’t worried about their future.” And she said: “I see a much greater cyncism about people’s ability to make positive change.”
These considerations are reasons why, she said, there appears to be less student activism on campuses than, say, in the 1960s or 1970s. But she also said students seem to be more inclined to be “drilling down to the local,” when it comes to the activism they do undertake.
Other insights she mentioned from the strategic-planning process:
- Williams has undertaken a comprehensive review of its housing policies, after on-campus and off-campus protests over ideas for “affinity housing,” which she said had been wrongly characterized in national media as “segregated housing.” One outcome so far has been a tentative decision to stop permitting Williams students to live in off-campus, non-college housing.
- While the college is just completing for fall occupancy a second major science building, it has not addressed yet the need for more capacity in the area of “data science.” She said that could include “thinking about the ways ethics and economics” (presumably such things as networks, platforms, and artificial intelligence) affect technology development, “and how do you handle data responsibly.”
(Posted by Bill Densmore) | (Photo via Williams College)