A Separate Space: A profile of Williams College (Unpublished 2/81)

Alcoholism. “Campus shock.” Illiterate students. Hostile faculty. Striking workers. Dwindling endowments.

These are some of the increasingly knotty administrative problems facing college officials around the country as they reopen the gates to their beleaguered institutions for spring term. It is a daunting — and depressing — tableau. Even the Ivies are no longer immune to the problems of the real world, as the recent, bitter strike by university employees at Yale so well shows.

And yet, even as the Ivies rot, there still remains a small group of isolated, fiercely protected, old-fashioned ivory towers which, because of their size and locale — not to mention the loyalty, resolve and resourcefulness of staff, students and alumni — have managed to carve out a separate space, and a separate peace for themselves.

Most of these enclaves of academic serenity belong to that small, ultra-preppy band of liberal arts colleges, scattered around the Northeast, which like to call themselves the “Little Ivies.” Traditionally highly competitive, the Little Ivies — Williams, Amherst, Swathmore, Wesleyan, Trinity and a few others — have recently become even more selective as skittish parents and their children look farther afield in search of a nice place to send Joe or Mary to school.

Perhaps the ideal campus to study Little Ivy chic is Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts (also known as “Village Beautiful”). Snugly ensconced within the lush groves of the upper Berkshire, or “Purple” Valley (so called because the valley’s verdant slopes turn amber at sunset), carefully tended by a proud, fanatic staff, and situated on a rolling, country club-like campus which converts into a tennis camp during the summer, Williams College is truly a world apart.

Often referred to by its 4,500 students, only partly in jest, as “Disneyland” or “The Womb,” Williams is still the sort of place where one of the weekly highlights of campus life is a faculty-student “cookie get-together,” and a major campus-wide issue, during one of my recent visits, was the presence of unleashed dogs. “It’s just about the biggest thing since Vietnam,” the President of the Student Council confided to me, after spearheading a rousing “Rally of the Beasts,” which had concluded with 60 outraged “Ephs” (as Williams students are called, after the name of the college’s founder, Ephraim Williams) leading their charges on a yowling march through the main administration building.

Another thing the Williams administration like to keep to a minimum, besides unleashed dogs, is unleashed reporters. Like most of the Little Ivies, Williams neither seeks nor welcomes public scrutiny. Its allure lies partly in its mystique.

Life Magazine once visited Williams — in 1949. The article, one of the few of any kind I was able to dig up while furtively burrowing through the Williams archives, looks and reads like a chapter out of higher education’s fairy tale past. On one page, for example, faculty-student camraderie is illustrated by a charming photo of four students dressed in sports jackets and Pepsodent smiles, sharing preprandial chatter while gazing fondly upon the jovial, bewhiskered countenance of an aging Mr. Chips-type whom the text identifies as “Charles Grimm, a professor of French who likes to go out with students like this three or four times a semester.” Other, matching frames, set against cozy campus views and interiors which look like they could have doubled as the backdrops for the Hollywood campus romances which were popular in the ’30s and ’40s, show Williams men dutifully hunched over, taking notes as a professor of art presents a lantern slide show of Hogarth paintings, assembling with their dates for a fraternity dinner to the blaring of a black cook-cum-trumpeteer, fashioning a pink ice elephant during Winter Carnival, and “filing through elm-lined streets to Sunday chapel.”

Comments are disabled for this post