Williams College's Zambezi Marimba Band performs outside Chapin Hall prior to the induction ceremony for President Maud S. Mandel. Saturday was marked with public events, picnics and a barbecue to celebrate.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Shortly after being inducted as the 18th president of Williams College, historian Maud S. Mandel shared a bit of her family's history that helps inform her worldview.
Mandel told the crowd gathered in Chapin Hall how her family fled the Holocaust in the 1930s only to have their ship of refugees denied entry into the United States. And she mentioned how lucky they were to eventually be given sanctuary by Great Britain, one of the few European nations not to eventually be occupied by Nazi Germany.
"These histories — of my mother's narrow escape and of the murder of her extended family — are formative to my thinking about the collective obligations to inclusion and justice," Mandel said. "Although the historical details may vary, many families, regardless of backgrounds, have their own experience illustrating the precariousness of liberty and the dangers of life on the margins.
"Subsequent chapters in my family's history have taught me the power of fighting to protect rights for all. Having survived that arduous ocean journey on the St. Louis and finally emigrating to the United States at 9 years old, my mother dedicated her adult life to extending opportunities to others."
Mandel's induction marked a historic moment in the 225-year history of the college, and her choice as the institution's first woman president was noted several times during the 90-minute ceremony.
Mandel chose as the theme for the occasion "inside/outside," explained how that construct relates to the school's mission of educating the whole student.
"The ambitious goal is to teach students that there are intrinsic connections between being an economic and social actor and being a moral and political agent," she said. "This is an ideal we would do well to stress all the more strongly in the current environment.
"We strive to help students appreciate the relationship between their external lives as professionals, citizens and neighbors and their internal happiness and health. We work toward this goal through the close professor-student bond that flourishes both inside and outside our classrooms."
Mandel said her discussions with dozens of faculty members and students since arriving on campus this summer has shown her how important it is for Williams professors to connect with students as people.
And Mandel's own efforts to connect with the faculty have, in turn, been appreciated.
Dean of the Faculty Denise K. Buell talked about how Mandel held those meetings with department heads in their offices rather than calling them to the corner office. And the assistant director of Williams' Center for Development Economics Rachel Louis talked about how the new president made a concerted effort to engage with a graduate program that sometimes can feel marginalized on a campus where undergraduate education is paramount.
"In just two months here, you have already learned more about my department than many who have been here for years," Louis said. "Your interest and willingness to meet with our 27 graduate students from across the developing world has been noted with enthusiasm by our program's faculty, staff and students.
"Despite the fact that our students are older than undergraduates and we are physically located on the edge of campus, the CDE is, in many ways, a microcosm of what all of us value at Williams. Our students make up a diverse community who live, eat, study and socialize together. Many arrive unfamiliar with the concept of liberal arts and with little experience with having direct and frequent contact with their faculty. … They leave Williamstown with a network of friends and colleagues around the world. They continue to learn from each other and grow in their role as policy makers."
Mandel, who was raised in Princeton, N.J., and educated at Oberlin College and the University of Michigan, has spent the last 20 years at Brown — first as a member of the faculty and, for the last four years as the dean of the college.
Brown University President Christina H. Paxson was one a dozen speakers on the dais Saturday afternoon.
She said her friend and colleague was prepared to serve Williams well, and that she demonstrated her thoughtful leadership last year in the aftermath of events that shook the nation — and academia — to its core.
Paxson recalled the "deeply disturbing" violence related to neo-Nazism and white nationalism in the college town of Charlottesville, Va., and her own decision to bring Brown's campus community together to reflect on what happened.
"We invited eminent faculty members to examine the complex history of white nationalism in America," Paxson said. "I knew Maud had to be a part of that. When Maud spoke, she bridged past and present by drawing on her scholarship on anti-Semitism in Europe in the 1920s and '30s."
Mandel taught that Jews in Europe experienced an ostracization known as "social death" as a precursor to the genocide that killed millions.
"Jews experienced social death," Paxson said. "They were turned into outsiders. Among the lessons of the history of anti-Semitism, Maud concluded, is the call on all of us to disavow the turning away that leads to social death. Because we're all invested in making sure the society we live in is socially just."