New President Brings 'Discipline and Distinction' to Waterville College

By Colin Hickey, Staff Writer
Originally posted on Waterville Sentinel Online, Sunday, September 17, 2000
© 2000 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

WATERVILLE —New Colby College President William D. "Bro" Adams is a college dropout turned Vietnam veteran turned Fulbright Scholar.

Adams, 53, is a precise, meticulous man who shares his family home with three dogs, two cats, two ferrets, a half-dozen birds, assorted lizards and a potbellied pig.

He is an intellectual immersed in the academic world who can keep pace with a well-conditioned college freshman on a mountain hike —never mind his wife, a former professional ski racer.

Yes, William D. "Bro" Adams is a difficult man to encapsulate, a difficult man to define. But these seeming contradictions speak to the broad nature of his curiosity and interests and, taken together, create a picture of a man determined to explore and understand the world around him.

He also is a man determined to excel at whatever challenge he tackles.

"He is a very clear-headed person, a very intelligent, self disciplined, precise in speech and thought, engaging, high energy and attractive," said William M. Chace, president of Emory University in Atlanta and a former colleague of Adams at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Conn. Chace was president and Adams vice president at Wesleyan.

"He has always, always wanted to do a good job," Chace said. "He is interested in executing his task with discipline and distinction."

And now, after a slightly more than five-year tenure as president of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., Adams takes over from William R. Cotter, charged with the mission of guiding Colby College into the 21st century.

Adams takes that responsibility seriously and already has committed himself to a strategic planning process — started by Cotter —aimed first and foremost to enhance the educational experience and, more specifically, to keep the liberal arts education Colby offers compelling and relevant in an increasingly technical and technology-driven world.

This is Adams' new challenge, his latest adventure, but true to his nature, true to his seemingly contradictory core, Adams' arrival to Mayflower Hill also is a return home of sorts.

He has come back to the state in which his father and grandfather were born and returned, as well, to a college with the same academic foundation that was the focus of his pursuits as both a student and teacher.

"Maine was attractive to me and being in a purely liberal-arts college (was attractive to me). Bucknell was more complicated than that," Adams said.

Although he grew up outside Detroit, Mich., Adams attended the Holderness School, a prestigious preparatory school in New Hampshire, and often visited his grandparents, who lived in Bolsters Mills, a small town near Sebago Lake.

Ironically, Adams, whose father was born in Augusta, considered Colby for his undergraduate degree, but chose, instead, to ski and play soccer and lacrosse at The Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Academics was not a priority at the time, and Adams come close to flunking out as a result.

That shaky academic beginning, as well as his father's death a year earlier and the many issues and problems involved with that tragic event, motivated Adams to make a decision that did much to shape who he is today: He dropped out of college to join the Army.

Such a move was not without precedence in Adams' family. His father dropped out of Williams College to fight in World War II. In fact, his father joined the military with his best friend at the time, a man with the first name "Bro."

Adams said his father gave him the nickname "Bro" in honor of that friend, who died in combat.

As part of his three years of military service, Adams spent a year in Vietnam, seeing combat as a first lieutenant as an infantry advisor in the Mekong Delta.

"It made me serious in a certain way," Adams said. "I grew up quickly. I was commissioned a second lieutenant at 19 and served as a first lieutenant in combat at age 20. It is a pretty quick way to grow up."

He returned to school more mature and focused, graduated magna cum laude, and went on to become a Fulbright Scholar, which took him to Paris.

He obtained his doctorate in political philosophy in 1982 from the University of California at Santa Cruz. His professorial career took him from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to the University of Santa Clara to Stanford University.

At Stanford, he taught and ultimately headed the Great Works in Western Culture Program. He first met Chace, a professor of English at the time, at Stanford and that relationship led to his next move.

Chace, who became president of Wesleyan University, persuaded Adams to join him. Adams served as vice president.

The 62-year-old Chace, who considers Adams a good friend, said Adams had an uncanny ability not only survive but to thrive on what he called a highly politicized Wesleyan campus where administrators tended to be favored targets.

"Bro to my knowledge — and I thought about this — did not have an enemy," Chace said. "It was most remarkable because almost everybody, including yours truly, was seen as a fit target for villainy.

"I think people see him as honest, candid, a very fair-minded person who does not practice subterfuges. ... Bro Adams is a very good human being."

Adams also was deemed — he was the unanimous choice of Colby's selection committee — to have the right stuff to be a very good president on Mayflower Hill.

Certainly his accomplishments at Bucknell — a school of 3,350 undergraduates and 200 graduate students — suggest he has the skills to meet such an expectation. He took over as president in March 1995, and before he left this summer he had more than doubled the school's endowment, lowered the faculty-to-student ratio and completed a strategic financial plan.

As a college president, his precise and meticulous side is most pronounced, as is his tremendous drive to achieve objectives as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.

"He struck me from the very beginning as a person who was very thoughtful, who never would say anything publicly, or even privately, without thinking about the implications of what he was saying," said John Peeler, chairman of the Bucknell faculty.

"So he was not an impulsive person in terms of how he behaved as president of Bucknell. He is very articulate, a very inspirational speaker, so that in his role as president, I thought he played that very well."

Peter Van Emburgh, a junior at Bucknell and news editor for The Bucknellian, the student newspaper, also gives Adams high marks.

"I think he was very well-respected in terms of fund-raising ability," Van Emburgh said. "He did a lot of great things for the school. We gained a lot of national recognition. We grew financially and culturally."

Van Emburgh, who interviewed Adams several times during his tenure, said Adams' strength is his vision and his ability to carry out that vision.

"I think his lasting legacy to Bucknell is his long-range planning," he said. "He is good at getting the feel of what the mission is and of finding the long-range path (to accomplish that mission)."

Adams caused concern among Colby students when they learned of his anti-alcohol reputation. Early in his Bucknell presidency, he banned alcohol use at a popular event held in conjunction with the school's commencement week.

"As with any new president who comes in, he had some rough times to start," Peeler said, "but by the time he left, I thought he worked out a very good relationship both with faculty and students."

Van Emburgh, too, said Adams maintained a good relationship with students despite the alcohol issue. Van Emburgh said Adams view on alcohol use led to the creation of a chem-free hangout, called The Uptown, that regularly brings in bands popular with college students.

"I wouldn't say there was tension (regarding Adams' alcohol policy)," Van Emburgh said. "I think any time an administrator-type person steps out and says we have a problem with binge drinking or we have a problem with alcohol use, some people take issue with that."

At the same time, Van Emburgh said students would have liked to have more opportunities to meet Adams on a more personal basis.

Adams, who has two children, including a 3-year-old daughter adopted from Columbia, tried to communicate directly with undergraduates with his "Yo, Bro" forums, informal meetings in which he engaged with students. But he also was a president frequently on the road to raise money — in his last academic year he spent 61 days traveling.

"I think he did his job well," Van Emburgh said, "but I think students were hoping, perhaps, for a more visible president."

Van Emburgh said Adams, in leaving Bucknell, mentioned this lack of visibility as one his regrets.

Adams, if his actions are to be believed, does not plan to finish his Colby career with similar regrets. One of his first moves in regard to student relations was to take part in three separate COOT (Colby Outdoor Orientation Trips) outings that students participate in when they arrive at Mayflower Hill.

He kayaked, hiked, swam, fished and got involved with a group studying theater.

"I thought he did a great job," sophomore Amanda Epstein said. "I think it is probably not easy to come into COOT with a group of students who already know each other. We had some good conversations walking on the trail. He did a good job fitting in nicely."

Senior Eric Lantzman echoes Epstein's sentiments.

"Students took to him well," he said, "and I think everybody had a lot of respect for him."

Adams joined Lantzman and Epstein on a trip to The Forks, where the COOT students kayaked, hiked and swam in a mountain pond.

Lantzman said Adams participated in each activity and was one of the stronger hikers.

"He is in fantastic shape for his age," he said.

In his state of the college address early last week, Adams told students he hoped to work with the student newspaper — The Echo —to keep them abreast of his thoughts and actions.

He also said he would be happy to bring the "Yo, Bro" format to Colby.

"If students thought that would be a good way for us to communicate, I'd love to do that," he said.

But Adams also makes plain he is still a new president who has much to learn. He reacted with great surprise, for instance, when a student, during his state of the college address, informed him that President Cotter used to distribute an informal newsletter to students on a regular basis.

"I wasn't aware President Cotter did that," he told the student. "Amazing. Good for him."

Although encouraged by the COOT experience, Lantzman suggests the relationship between Adams and students remains very much a work in progress.

"I get the feeling that both the students and the president have a wait-and-see perspective on things," Lantzman said. "He doesn't seem to want to jump right in until he see things a bit more."