What Williams Is

This fall, as part of the presidential search, the alumni body was surveyed and asked what makes Williams a special place. The search committee has been peeling back the layers of these answers to better understand what is truly essential about Williams. In other words, what makes Williams Williams?

This question is fascinating to me. It gets at ideas and notions both big and small about what Williams is. And while I thought I had a clear sense of what the answers would be, I have learned so much during the process of sifting through the responses. I now better understand the breadth and depth of experiences that our alumni had while on the Williams campus. There is not one Williams student, experience or perspective. And yet there are kernels of truth pertaining to the Williams experience that are as close to universal as we can get.

There are kernels of truth pertaining to the Williams experience that are as close to universal as we can get.

First and foremost, academia is at the heart of Williams. We all note Williams’ academic excellence—the intellectual excitement and energy that one finds here. Ephs value learning for the sake of learning. This is shepherded by an exceptional faculty who form close relationships with students, not only as teachers but as mentors and friends. Alumni point to the concept of Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other as an example of what we hold dear, more recently manifested as the tutorials offered each semester. We believe there is immeasurable value to a Williams education, and we are dedicated to the idea of a liberal arts education.

Our second truth is that for many generations of alumni, Williams is deeply rooted in its geography, in the Purple Valley. We are a small, intimate, residential and rural community—an arts mecca. The mountains have always figured into our identity, both literally and figuratively. This “splendid isolation” helps to build strong community ties on campus. In part because of our setting, we have maintained an enduring engagement with the town and a sense of responsibility to help it thrive.

Our setting is also in part what drove President Zephaniah Swift Moore to defect, taking faculty and students with him, to found Amherst. A critical consequence of this event in 1821 was that a group of alumni came together to provide support and resources to save the college, and the Williams College Society of Alumni was born. This was the first alumni society in the country, which leads us to our third truth: We are a unique alumni body that remains remarkably committed to and engaged with Williams. In record numbers, we volunteer, attend events and give back to the college with both time and money. And while most of us will acknowledge that our ties to Williams can be fraught, and many of us will admit to feeling that we didn’t belong at some point, in the end, we all identify as alumni of Williams.
I believe there is value in the fact that the answer to this question is so varied, and I also believe that these truths, these basic concepts and ideals that we can agree on, enable us to come together and celebrate the incredible institution that is Williams College.

—Jordan Hampton ’87, President, Society of Alumni

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