GSAS Alum Gets Williams Post

Adam F. Falk will be liberal arts college's 17th president

Theoretical physicist Adam F. Falk, who received his doctoral degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1991, has been named the 17th President of Williams College, making him only the second scientist to head the school in its 216-year history, according to one member of the presidential search committee.

Currently the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., Falk, who will officially assume his duties in April, called Williams the “gold standard for liberal arts colleges” in an interview with The Crimson yesterday. “I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t welcome this opportunity,” he said.

Though Falk currently has no affiliation with Williams, Gregory M. Avis, the chair of the presidential search committee, which began working in January and gave Falk final notification last week, said he believes the physics expert understands Williams’ mission and values.

“Adam impressed us from the beginning with his intellect, passion, and understanding of what a liberal arts education is all about,” Avis said.

Falk will be taking over as the successor to Morton O. Schapiro, an expert in the economics of higher education who left Williams after nine years at the helm to become president of Northwestern University.


Falk is the first scientist to occupy the post since Paul Ansel Chadbourne, a former chair of Chemistry, Botany, and Natural History there, resigned his seat in 1881.

“This is significant. It sends a message to the world that Williams and liberal arts colleges value the sciences,” Avis said.

Still, Falk brings an understanding to his new position that transcends his specialty, according to Michael E. Luke, a former member of Falk’s Harvard graduate class who now chairs the University of Toronto’s physics department. “[Falk] is certainly interested in science, but he has a much broader interest in education as a whole,” Luke said.

“People have this picture of a physicist as being cold and distant. But Falk is a terrific communicator and he’s great at building relationships,” said Jonathan A. Bagger, an associate professor who taught Falk and was later his colleague at Johns Hopkins. “Those abilities will only carry and multiply.”

Falk said he will benefit from his experiences at Harvard in his new position at Williams, citing the parallels between the close-knit liberal arts environment that the school espouses and his own time as a physics student in Cambridge. “My time at Harvard was spent as a grad student, and that is a very personal education,” Falk said. “The Ph.D. program is a very intimate form of education—a lot of one-on-one work with your professors and fellow grad students.”

“The best time of my life as a student was at Harvard,” Falk added. “That’s the paradigm for all education. That is what it should be.”

Falk won numerous teaching awards both as a Harvard graduate student and later as a professor at Johns Hopkins.

“When he was a [teaching fellow] in grad school his students loved him,” Luke said. “He was very popular.”

Though Falk gained much of his teaching experience at larger universities, Avis said he does not believe Falk’s transition to a small liberal arts college will be very difficult.

“There is a sense of community in rural Massachusetts that is very different from urban Baltimore and that will require an adjustment, but the search committee really trusts in his ability,” Avis said.