A college president can set the course for an institution, a course that will irrevocably shape the college's future. Adams's charge when he became president was to help the College focus its strategic planning process and to articulate what became The Plan for Colby, published in the spring of 2002.
President Adams runs the weekly meeting of Colby's senior staff in his office.
Illustration by Brian Speer
The product of many hours of intense deliberation on the part of Adams, trustees, administrators, faculty, and students, the plan describes Colby's mission for the coming decade. It calls for the College to preserve its culture of teaching and to highlight existing broad academic strengths, with emphasis on environmental studies, creative writing, the new concentrations in neuroscience, and creation of what has become the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, among other initiatives.
"Many of the important discussions occurring throughout the planning process were aimed, appropriately, at the question of institutional aspirations,— Adams wrote. "Where does Colby seek to go in the coming years? What are the broad goals and objectives that will guide us as we make decisions about resources, programs, organization, and the physical evolution of the campus? What is our institutional compass?—
The goal was for the document to reflect a sense of collective goals for the College, Adams said. "I think a lot of it holds up.—
A related part of Adams's legacy likely will be the Colby Green and the new buildings on and near the green, which together are the largest expansion of the campus since the College moved from downtown Waterville to Mayflower Hill. Part of the strategic plan and supporting the academic aspirations therein, the expansion calls for construction of several major buildings, including the Schair-Swenson-Watson Alumni Center, opening this summer, and the Diamond Building, which will house several social sciences and a number of interdisciplinary programs including the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement. The center is expected to build on Colby's strengths in the social sciences and interdisciplinary programs and to connect teaching and research with contemporary political, economic, and social issues. The idea, say Adams and others behind the plan, is to provide a venue in which faculty and students can think and work across disciplinary boundaries on complex local, national, and global challenges.
President Adams talks to colleagues at a reception for new faculty at the Colby College Museum of Art.
Illustration by Fred Field
The Plan for Colby was developed after long and intense consideration by Adams and others of Colby's mission and purpose as an academic institution. The result, he said, creates "tremendous opportunities for our students and the community,— an outcome that corresponds to the importance Adams attaches to the academic experience at Colby and his belief in the moral responsibility borne by the Colby community.
At Colby there is relative unanimity on this next phase of the College's growth. That isn't always the case at colleges and universities, and presidents who commit to a minority view can find themselves short-timers. The same fate can befall presidents who are simply on the wrong campus at the wrong time.
"The thing about these jobs is that they're very high profile,— Adams said. "People don't think about this except, I suppose, when they're in them. There's a lot of opportunity to do interesting and good things, to make a difference. There's also an opportunity to fail rather spectacularly. . . . It can be a combination of bad luck, bizarre circumstances, and a couple of slight mistakes, and all of a sudden, kaboom! The whole thing can blow up.
"When people who are thinking about doing this call me and say, 'Now, what's your advice?' I say, 'You've got to be ready for the possibility that it can not work and it won't be your fault. You're vulnerable to forces that are out of your control.—
Adams said this during the hour drive to Lewiston for a meeting of the board of Maine Public Broadcasting, on which he sits. He spoke introspectively about the strengths one has to bring to the job, like political sensitivity, thoughtfulness, a genuine interest in the many different constituencies a college president must juggle (my word, not his).
"I've thought a lot about this one,— he said. "You have to be able to separate your personal feelings and emotions and sometimes values from what you are called upon to do professionally. . . . And some people can't do that. If you can't, if you can't distance yourself a little bit, I think it would be very hard [to do this job].
"You have to control your emotions. You can never be visibly mad, you've got this kind of vigilance about yourself. That's probably not hard for some people. I have to think about it.—
And sometimes that control means more than concealing annoyance or frustration. The murder of Dawn Rossignol '04 in September 2003 left Adams, college president and dad with two young children, struggling to maintain the emotional control his job demands. A U.S. Army veteran who saw comrades die in combat in Vietnam, Adams still was unprepared for the feelings provoked by the tragedy and its aftermath for the College and the Rossignol family. "I found it very hard to control my emotions, in a different way,— he said.
As those feelings threatened to surface again, the president changed the subject.
Request to tag along with a college president and you may find yourself reciting an old adage: Be careful what you wish for.