Phyllis McGuire | New Williams president 'traded the ocean for the mountains'

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Maud Mandel was among the approximately 32 million Americans who moved in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

After working and living in Providence, R.I., for 20 years, Mandel relocated to Williamstown, without needing to search for a house to live in.

On June 1, 2018, Mandel assumed the position of president of Williams College and moved into the president's house on the Williams campus, together with her husband, Steve Simon, and their two children, Lev and Ava.

"I never thought I would live in such a beautiful house," Mandel said when we spoke in mid-June.

Unlike a number of her predecessors, Mandel did not have any ties to Williams before she was unanimously selected by the board of trustees to be the 18th president of the college.

Mandel brought to her new job 20 years' experience with Brown University as a member of the faculty, and lastly, as dean of the college.

"Brown and Williams are excellent schools," said Mandel, the first female president of Williams College. But they are different in many ways. For instance, Brown is located in a city, while Williams is located in a small town. "I traded the ocean for the mountains," Mandel said.

Also, Brown has a much larger student body than Williams.

"As a small liberal arts college, Williams benefits from having an environment where students and staff can be closer and students can receive more support," she pointed out.

On a personal note, Mandel said that she is really enjoying living in the Northern Berkshires.

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"My husband and I like to walk, and the surroundings are great. The pristine view of the mountains is exquisite." And she has taken pleasure in "sampling" the array of cultural attractions offered in and a short distance from Williamstown, including The Clark Art Institute, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Tanglewood and Jacob's Pillow.

"Many nice people have helped us integrate. It's been a soft landing for my family and me," she said.

"I've had a great first year engaging with students, faculty, staff and alumni as well as members of the local community — many of whom have a long relationship with Williams, to learn more about the institution through people who have an affection for and connection to it."

Discussions initiated by Mandel about where they would like to see Williams headed in the next 10 to 15 years led to the formation of strategic planning groups on numerous issues, such as diversity, equity and inclusion.

At Brown, Mandel had worked on several initiatives linked to those issues, including the establishment of a center for first-generation college students and initiatives to enhance under-represented student participation in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math.

"The Williams campus is becoming increasingly diverse," said Mandel, who turned 52 on June 14. "Through the work that we do, we want each member of the community to feel that they are equally valued and supported by the college. We will continue to promote initiatives to forward this mission.''

When I asked Mandel if she had encountered anything unexpected in her new job, she replied, "The extent and commitment of the Alumni Committee. This level of encouragement and participation of alumni is quite notable. It is more intense, in a good way, than I had expected. They have homes here in retirement, they have second houses here."

Alumni from near and far gathered at Williams for Reunion Weekend on June 6 to 9, some walking hand in hand, some wheeling baby strollers, some using canes.

But neither the end of the academic year nor commencement nor Alumni Reunion indicate that the president of the college is free to while away the days until students return to campus in September.

"Now we are planning ahead," Mandel said in her office at Hopkins Hall. "And this summer, I hope to have some family time."

Phyllis McGuire writes from her home in Williamstown. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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