Decisions and Priorities

Our decisions process should reflect our mission as a liberal arts college.
(Published in The Williams Record, May 5, 2010)

At a time of important decisions, Williams must remember its mission and purpose. I see Williams College as a joint student-faculty/staff enterprise dedicated to the proposition that understanding brings progress. We value critical thinking, the free exchange of ideas, and a community based on open-mindedness, inclusiveness, mutual respect, and freedom from prejudice.

Do we need to adjust our priorities to adapt to the current climate and stay Number 1 according to US News and World Report in order to attract the best students, faculty, and staff? No. I believe in our ideals, that’s what attracted me to Williams, and I do not think that we can do better than to attract those who share our ideals.

I am concerned that during some recent major decisions we have not focused clearly on our top priorities. Take the decision to close Greylock and Dodd dining halls for example. It might well have been the right decision, and one that would have been reached after a different process. For the sake of argument, let us suppose that for financial reasons we had to cut $800,000 from dining services. The question is exactly how to do that. The arguments we’ve heard have been about the most popular dining options. Those are legitimate but secondary considerations. The prime consideration should remain our mission and purpose, encouraging intellectual and community conversation among students, between students and faculty, across groups that are diverse intellectually, culturally, and socially. We could include staff, visiting speakers, alums, prospective students, families, and other guests. The potential for fostering such activity through College dining options I find exciting.

Our mission and purpose not only justify our best decisions but also mandate a more open decision process, in which we can practice what we preach about the free exchange of ideas leading to better understanding, more ideas, and better solutions. Such open exchange of ideas, one of our core values, however inconvenient, deserves and requires our commitment, especially because it is sometimes inconvenient.

Such considerations apply not just to dining service decisions but also to the neighborhood review,  the disposition of the new library, and all the ways we spend our money and more importantly our time here at Williams.

Frank Morgan is Atwell Professor of Mathematics and Dodd Faculty Program Director.

Opening excerpt from the Williams “Mission and Purposes“:

Williams seeks to provide the finest possible liberal arts education by nurturing in students the academic and civic virtues, and their related traits of character. Academic virtues include the capacities to explore widely and deeply, think critically, reason empirically, express clearly, and connect ideas creatively. Civic virtues include commitment to engage both the broad public realm and community life, and the skills to do so effectively. These virtues, in turn, have associated traits of character. For example, free inquiry requires open-mindedness, and commitment to community draws on concern for others.

We are committed to our central endeavor of academic excellence in a community of learning that comprises students, faculty, and staff, and draws on the engagement of alumni and parents. …

Note added 1 September 2011. See “Faculty Fallout” by Benjamin Ginsberg in The Scientist.

“Administrators have taken over US universities, and they’re steering institutions of higher learning away from the goal of serving as beacons of knowledge.

See also piece on “Misplaced Power” by Chris Huffaker ’15 (Williams Record, October 23, 2013).

See also my “Academics Must be Williams’s Top Priority” (Williams Record, May 7, 2014).