Students are discontent about a lot of things, and they have a right to be. Today, the newest phalanx of student discontent is directed at the man at the top: President Adam Falk. This discontent has become increasingly obvious since the article “Where the Falk Are You” found its way onto these hallowed pages. The article, which argues that President Falk has been absent on campus life, has touched a collective nerve on the student body. Common descriptions of the President from students include “shifty,” “glib,” and “awkward.” These descriptions are usually made in jest, but, nonetheless, they paint a negative image.
But then I had the chance to meet Adam Falk. I host a talk show on WCFM, and we invited President Falk to join us. We never thought that we’d actually be able to land Falk as a guest. He gave me the impression of a man who’s amiable, talkative, and a bit frazzled. He didn’t seem the least bit “shifty,” “glib,” or “awkward.”
Of course, there remains the criticism that he’s absent from campus life. The article “Where the Falk Are You” brought up the example of the previous president, Morton Shapiro, who was described by Steve Klass, Vice President of Campus Life, as “available” to the point where “…you wonder if he’s been cloned…being present at every sporting event, every alumni event, administrative meetings, lectures, dinners, entry snacks, or any of the hundreds of events he hosts in his home…” Shapiro undoubtedly sounds like an individual of exceptional talent, even in relation to other top administrators, but we also need to consider how everyone is endowed with a different bundle of qualities, abilities, and lifestyle habits. Some people are very good at managing large groups. Some are good with numbers. Some are born with the magical touch that makes people around them feel at ease. What works for one might not work for another. It all boils down to each person finding his or her own pace.
Morton Shapiro’s leadership style of chatting it up with students on a regular basis while juggling the grueling schedule of being the president of a top ranked-liberal arts college might work for him, but that doesn’t mean it works for Falk. That’s not to say that Adam Falk is a lackluster President–quite the contrary. In his years as President, Williams has seen many important changes, from the exchange of diverse and creative works through the Book Unbound Initiative, which coincided with the unveiling of the new Sawyer Library, to making progress towards the college’s long-term goal of reducing its carbon emissions, through programs which included the introduction of the Zilkha Center, the world’s first renovation to meet the Living Building Challenge, and more. Under his administration, the college has gone through its most intensive faculty hiring season ever, beginning with 17 tenure-track openings, which fell within the Transforming the Academy initiative of increasing diversity within the academic departments to catch up to the growing diversity of the student body. And there’s definitely more than I’m not mentioning.
And that’s also not to say that Falk’s leadership of the college has come at the cost of never interacting with students and being absent from campus. You do see him on campus. He’s there during Mountain Day. He flew out to visit the Ephs studying abroad at Oxford. People around campus take pictures with him and post them online. He invites students to Sloane House to dine and chat with him for the Why Liberal Arts dinners. Although he couldn’t make it to Willy F’s Sunday snacktime, he’s making it up by having lunch with them very soon. He’s out there. It just depends on where you go, and what your expectations are. It’s unrealistic to expect to see him standing in the lunch line at Driscoll regularly, or milling on Paresky lawn at three in the afternoon. But then again, when was the last time you saw a favorite professor or dean doing either of those things? Probably a very long time ago, if ever. The faculty’s lives simply don’t revolve around the immediate campus in the way the student’s lives do.
And in relation to other members of the faculty, the President of a college is at a unique disadvantage. Unlike professors, his duties do not include teaching and office hours, which guarantee time with students. Unlike the deans, his duties do not revolve around meeting students to help them cope with issues of work-life balance. The President has his own sphere of responsibilities, which comes with little direct interaction with students, as he works at his desk from 7:30 in the morning to very late in the evening. As Falk mentioned to me in our chat, it’s the toughest job he’s ever had, even more so than his sixteen years as a Professor of high-energy physics and Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University.
Let’s play with the scenario that Falk were as present around campus as Shapiro was. Let’s assume he’s a regular sight at lunch lines, on Paresky lawn at odd hours of the afternoon, and occasionally says an awkward hello as you scurry your way to class. This would still have little, to no impact on your college experience. Whether or not you see him for a couple moments each week won’t affect how many friends you make, or how well you do in your classes. If you’re struggling with your sense of well-being, the most reliable support and resources can be found at the Health Center. If you’re having trouble in class, you can drop by during your professor’s office hours. If you need to resolve a conflict, you can talk to a dean. Let the President do his job. From ensuring the sustainability of the college endowment, to strengthening the ties between the Williams community and the outside world, to building new libraries and athletic complexes, he has quite a lot on his plate. Just because you don’t see him as often as you had imagined doesn’t mean he does not care about you. In fact, it is just the opposite: You don’t see him as much you had imagined because he cares so much about you.