The Education of William Adams

The new chairman of NEH almost failed out of college. He joined the Army, was sent to Vietnam, and came back a different person.

HUMANITIES, November/December 2014, Volume 35, Number 6
Color photo of protesters facing army bayonets at a checkpoint.
Photo caption

Bayonets are pointed at protesters in People’s Park at the University of California, Berkeley, in May of 1969.

—© Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS

Color photo of the interior of an abandoned Ford Motors assembly plant.
Photo caption

Andrew Moore, Rolling Hall, Ford Motor Company, River Rouge Complex, Dearborn, 2008.

—Archival pigment print, Colby College Museum of Art, Gift of Barbara and Theodore Alfond, 2011.042.

HUMANITIES: At a recent NEH dinner for winners of the National Humanities Medal, you introduced our special guest Morgan Freeman, who could not help but laugh as he said the words, “Thanks, Bro.” What is the story behind your nickname?

ADAMS: The nickname comes from my father. When World War II came along, he decided to drop out of Williams College and join the Army. He served in Germany.

He had a very close friend at Williams whose name was Bro and who went into the military. And he was killed in action. About a year after my father came home, I was born. And in a way that probably only he could describe, his interaction with me somehow reminded him of his friend, and he started to call me Bro. And it stuck.

Many years later, after I got out of the Army, I was in kind of a quandary about what to do about this fundamental question of identity, “What is your name?” My mother reminded me that Bro was my father’s name for me. So, at a moment when I could have reverted to William or Bill, I chose to stick with Bro.

HUMANITIES: As you mention, you too went into the military. When did that happen?

ADAMS: I went to college in 1965 and had a disastrous first year. My father had recently died. I was in a kind of emotional netherworld and pretty confused.

I had trouble, as a lot of first-year students do, understanding what I was there for. I also had trouble paying attention, and very nearly flunked out. I think they would have taken me back if I had expressed a desire to go back, but I didn’t.

Instead, I enlisted in the Army. This was in Detroit, near my home in Birmingham, in the summer of 1966. I was mustered to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where I went to basic training.

I was nineteen. I looked even younger, but I did fairly well on the standardized tests that were given to all inductees and was offered a spot in officer candidate school.

The Vietnam War was escalating. My future was going to be very different from what I had thought it was going to be. I accepted the offer to go to officer candidate school, and six months later I was commissioned a second lieutenant in the artillery.

After being sent back to Fort Knox, I went to the School of Special Warfare at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I was trained in language, counterinsurgency tactics, and special weapons. Then I was sent to Vietnam as an adviser to a very small regional unit in the Mekong Delta near the Cambodian border.

I worked with South Vietnamese militia units in basically combat operations for a whole year. And I changed as a person very significantly because of that, grew up as a person very significantly, and survived.

I came back to the United States in the spring of 1969, and so much had changed. In the previous eighteen months, the antiwar movement had accelerated, and the country was in a really profound state of turmoil.

Right before I went to Vietnam, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Two months before that, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. I remember sitting on the runway at Fort Knox with a backpack and a rifle with a bunch of other soldiers. We were almost flown to Detroit to repress the rioting in the wake of Martin Luther King’s death.

The country was coming unhinged, and this was especially clear when I got back from Vietnam. The day I got back, I was met by three friends in San Francisco. I had flown into Travis Air Force Base.

One of my friends was in the process of transferring from UCLA to Berkeley, or wanting to transfer, and she wanted to go the next day, the very next day, to the Berkeley campus to conclude some paperwork. So, we went over to Berkeley.

On that day, James Rector was shot and killed in the People’s Park demonstrations that were going on in Berkeley, and the campus was surrounded by National Guard troops. There were helicopters prowling the air around campus and dropping tear-gas canisters on the protesters.

So, twenty-four hours after returning from Vietnam, I was gassed as I tried to move in and around Berkeley. It was unbelievable, just mind-bending.

So we escaped Berkeley and I went to summer school at the University of Michigan. Ann Arbor was also on fire, and there were enormous demonstrations in Ann Arbor. The counterculture was visible all around.

The White Panther Party was rabble-rousing in the streets, and John Lennon was making his way into the American anti-war movement. It was crazy.

But I had a really great summer, and in the fall I went back to Colorado College, which I had left three and a half years before, enrolling again as an undergraduate in the fall of 1969. I had the great good fortune to take a philosophy class from a professor named Glenn Gray, who had written this beautiful book called The Warriors about his own reflections on his experience in World War II. He had been an intelligence officer in North Africa, Italy, and southern France.

I got to know him very well, and I spent a lot of time in his courses, which really opened me up to the humanities, and to philosophy, which became my major, and to all of the things I subsequently pursued, including a PhD in philosophy and an academic career.

HUMANITIES: I know you’re interested in Standing Together, NEH’s veterans initiative. How did the humanities help you think about your own military experience?

ADAMS: My entrance into the humanities really had to do with the personal questions and turmoil that I felt having gone through what I had gone through, including my encounter with violence and war.

At the same time, I was coming of age and trying to understand the really deep questions about human nature, human history, who we are, how we interact, how we get into the human experience called war.

I had a lot of those questions, and I found not answers, I would say, but depth and comprehension in philosophy, history, and in other parts of the humanities. It was not exactly life or death for me, but it was certainly an existentially necessary voyage.

A lot of veterans come back with similar kinds of questions about themselves, about their experiences, and I think one of the most important resources that veterans have or could have is exposure to these basic ways of thinking about the world and their own experience that parts of the humanities provide.

What NEH can do is to stimulate and support efforts to bring these resources to people who can use them. But one size doesn’t fit all. There are many, many different ways in which the country has to provide support and engagement for veterans trying to reengage and reconnect to domestic life and society.

HUMANITIES: You went to graduate school for philosophy. What specifically were you studying?

ADAMS: The program itself was in the humanities and social sciences. The mission was to construct a fully interdisciplinary approach to the history of ideas. It was very much inspired by programs at the University of Chicago and Brandeis. Its founders were philosophers and historians and literary critics.

We studied the cultural history of the West, but were also deeply committed to this notion that you have to look at all things from multiple perspectives. It was very European, I’d say, in that sense. It was also a little wild and unstructured. I was there during the seventies, which were somewhat wild and unstructured from a curricular point of view. But it was very inspiring.

I ended up focusing on continental philosophy, but also gained the resources to teach American political thought and the history of political theory, subjects I did subsequently teach.

HUMANITIES: What was the first administrative job that you accepted? Did you have a hankering to be a manager?

ADAMS: No, I didn’t have a hankering. It was serendipitous. I was teaching at Stanford, and I developed a relationship with a person who became a mentor, a guy named Bill Chace, a literature professor at Stanford who had been an administrator on and off there as well. A Joyce scholar, a Pound scholar, and a teacher of tremendous ability and influence at Stanford.

He decided that he wanted to test the administrative waters more deeply, and he managed to become president of Wesleyan University in 1988. He asked me if I’d go with him to be his executive assistant. I was at a point in my life where I had the freedom to consider that, and I said yes.

So administrative life came on a little suddenly, but I got to Wesleyan, a place I really came to love, and I loved the work. I loved working for Bill, and I never looked back.

HUMANITIES: Let’s go back for a moment to Stanford. Were you there in 1988 when, in a much discussed incident, a group of students were chanting, “Hey ho, hey ho, Western Civ has got to go”?

ADAMS: That was the year I left. I started working there in ‘84, and even then there was a lot of turmoil surrounding the core curriculum, which had been in place for decades, like the program at Columbia. It was called the Western Culture Program.

It was a fairly traditional, interdisciplinary sequence in the great works, beginning with classical civilization, going all the way up to the twentieth century. I was teaching in the most conservative version of that program, a yearlong sequence that every freshman had to take.

But soon more and more questions were raised, principally by faculty but also by some students, about the limitations of that way of looking at intellectual history. And that became fused with an ongoing national debate about whether or not that very conventional approach should continue.

So, there was a very intense struggle at Stanford about the future of the program, and it became a lightning rod for others, both from a conservative point of view and from a more progressive point of view. There were people who thought the canon was great and those who had deep criticisms of the canon.

There were versions of the debate that weren’t deep or interesting, but there was a fundamental storyline in the debate that I thought was very rich and interesting and important.

I was in the middle of that conversation, which was really about how you represent history and culture. And the program started to change. It became much more inclusive.

It included, reasonably and appropriately, many more women, for example, from early Renaissance and medieval periods. It came to represent many more strains of thinking from different cultural perspectives.

It became more global, less Western, less canonical. And I thought it became a more interesting program, but it never lost a certain commitment to the notion of a core. And that whole question of the core, of course, was and probably still is pretty fraught.

HUMANITIES: Did you think of yourself as a partisan in any of these debates of the late eighties and early nineties over political correctness and multiculturalism?

ADAMS: Well, I don’t know. What I do think is that the whole question of the representation of culture was a hugely important one and that the curriculum at Stanford, for example, got better as it became more inclusive. Because the questions you were able to pose with students were much more interesting or varied and complicated.

What I was not supportive of was getting rid of the conversation and letting the whole thing sort of go away. I thought Stanford’s commitment to the notion of a core for first-year students was very valuable. Yet there were people saying that we shouldn’t even pretend that we can have a core, or that we can have a canon of any kind. I did not agree with that.

HUMANITIES: Let’s talk about Colby. You became president in 2000, and you led the way to an expanded art museum, which the Boston Globe says is now among the first rank of college museums. When did that effort start? What inspired it, and what made it possible?

ADAMS: When I got there, Colby already had a very good museum. But what I observed early on was that there was a lot of interest, in the community that had supported its development, in taking that work even further.

I became interested in how you might put the visual arts into a position of real fundamental importance in a liberal arts program. There was an opportunity to make it more important, more central, to the particular version of the liberal arts that we were doing at Colby. To do this, the museum needed to be developed more as a place of education and teaching.

I was fortunate to have a lot of support, from the museum board, the museum staff and director, and from donors.

Everybody got on the same train. There were lots of very significant gifts of art, including one that was game-changing—a collection of over five hundred works of largely American art from Peter and Paula Lunder. Also, there were curricular additions, including, while I was there, a film studies program and the expansion of the art program that gave us more energy within the visual arts generally. And there were some regional alliances that we made and explored that were also very helpful.

We had, in the end, many dozens of courses using the museum, and not just art history courses. These were in the natural sciences and history, built around this notion of the centrality of visual culture and visual imagination.

HUMANITIES: While the museum was being rebuilt, you curated a show.

ADAMS: Yes, when we closed the museum to do the renovations, we had small shows that were curated by faculty and staff using the permanent collection.

I was fascinated by some photographs, which we had just received as a gift, by a New York photographer named Andrew Moore, who had gone to Detroit between 2008 and 2009 and done a series on the hollowed-out remains of the automobile industry as the city entered its current fiscal crisis.

It got me interested in visual representations of post-industrial decline in the United States. So, I went through the collection and found lots of different representations of such landscapes that ended up in a little show of both painting and photography.

HUMANITIES: You raised a lot of money at Colby. I wonder what you think are the keys to being a successful fund-raiser.

ADAMS: There are a couple. I understood that it was just part of the job and that I had to be successful at it. Particularly now that there’s so much pressure on tuition and other sources of revenue in colleges and universities, if you’re not successful in fund-raising, you can’t grow. You can’t get better.

Another key is that you have to be genuinely interested in hearing other people’s stories and connecting their stories and their interests to what you’re doing. It so happened that my interdisciplinary training had given me the capacity to talk about a lot of things. And I found I could connect to all kinds of people, and that was really exciting.

It’s a little bit like NEH. What impresses me about this place is how diverse the array of things that we do is. And, to me, it’s challenging and fun trying to understand that array and that diversity.

In fund-raising, I found that there was something interesting in almost every person’s story, and listening for that story, I think, is what makes people good fund-raisers, the ability to listen to and connect to those stories.

I didn’t like getting on and off airplanes all the time, but once I was in the presence of people, talking to them about Colby and what they cared about, I found it exhilarating.

HUMANITIES: I read your parting interview with Colby magazine, and it said you struggled at times with the challenge of being sufficiently extroverted to do the job of a college president. And yet here you are again in the hot seat, ready to take the podium, ready to shake hands, and ready to get the word out for NEH.

ADAMS: Well, I was a college president for twenty years. So, I had a lot of practice overcoming some of that reserve. I had to connect to thousands of people and to speak publicly rather incessantly.

Before that, I was an academic, kind of a private person. I enjoyed introspection and being alone and reading books, doing all that. But my work thrust me into a whole different sort of realm of expectation and requirements.

Particularly in this town, I’m conscious of the importance of being able to represent an important organization and an important mission, and I’m ready to do that. When I first started as a college president, I had to work pretty hard at it. It’s much easier for me now, and I find much more enjoyment in it.

I’m particularly eager to put my own mark on the representation of NEH. I want to speak my mind publicly about why I think it’s so important.

And you know, that, too, will take imagination and effort and practice. But I’m really eager to do it.

HUMANITIES: I gather from a comment you made when addressing the NEH staff that you will not try to focus attention on what is usually called the “crisis in the humanities.” Is that because you do not think there’s a crisis, or is there some other reason you’re not drawn to this topic?

ADAMS: Well, I certainly acknowledge that there are real challenges. We’re surrounded by a cultural and professional context where, for a lot of reasons, there’s a lot of anxiety about whether or not certain forms of education, for example, prepare students to take their places in the economic structure. And there’s a lot of anxiety about financial success. I understand that, and I don’t question it.

As I also said in that meeting, people in the humanities themselves have, I think, found it increasingly difficult to talk about their own public obligations and impact. And that’s partly, I think, because of the specialization that has affected the humanities, as it has affected all academic disciplines.

In the sciences, too, specialization is now so fundamental and critical, that generalists are few and far between. Same thing in the social sciences, where we also see the increasing influence of quantitative methodologies.

All of these things come together to create some really challenging circumstances. I don’t deny that. And I have spent a lot of time on my own trying to understand those challenges.

But I’d rather talk about the ways in which the humanities matter and how they’re useful. I’d rather talk that way because I think that’s my job, and I think finding the words, finding my own voice with respect to the usefulness of the humanities, particularly their public usefulness, is really much more interesting and important.

HUMANITIES: On a lighter note, when did you start bicycling, and how often do you do it?

ADAMS: The first serious cycling I did was in my late twenties, both in the United States and in Europe. In France, I was learning language and French history and culture, and I did some cycling.

I took it up again in a really earnest way probably about six years ago after an experience with a donor. Speaking of the things that you do in raising money, I went and saw this guy who is a very avid cyclist. When he learned that I had done some cycling, he wanted to take me out to ride with him.

You do what the donor wants to do, right? This was probably in 2004, 2005, something like that. And we were in Los Angeles, where the riding is interesting, but also very hilly. It was a hard, but illuminating day. It reminded me how much I liked cycling.

I was riding one of his many bicycles, and I had never been on a carbon bike before. It was kind of a revelation, so I got back into it, and I started riding very seriously. And I’m still riding pretty seriously. Washington is a little challenging for riding, but I’m doing my best.

HUMANITIES: I hope this doesn’t sound random, but are you a Tom Waits fan?

ADAMS: I am. How did you know?

HUMANITIES: The Colby College website has a photo of you in an artist’s studio viewing a formal portrait of yourself, and the artist has on his easel some pictures of you, but he also has a picture of Tom Waits. Obviously, the artist asked you, “Do you have a favorite musician?” or some question like that.

ADAMS: Yeah, I love Tom Waits, and I’ve been a complete Tom Waits fanatic for, gosh, since the early eighties probably. And, of course, I have gone back and listened to all of his early stuff, and then I followed him through his most contemporary forms. He seems to me a magically talented person and musician.

What is so interesting to me about his music is not just the performance of it, but also the poetry of it. He has an incredibly powerful way of thinking and singing about deep and powerful things. I love his depth. I think he’s a very deep guy. And he’s challenging, too. His music, as you know, it’s not always easy.

His last tour, in 2008, for Glitter and Doom, was a southern tour. It started in the Southwest, and it never came above the Mason-Dixon line. Then it went to Europe.

As soon as I heard that he was doing a tour, I went online. And the only tickets I could find were at the concert in Jacksonville, Florida. This was the day after he announced the tour.

So, I bought a ticket, and I flew from Maine to Jacksonville, Florida, to go to this concert. That’s how committed I am.

HUMANITIES: At a meeting with the publications staff, you mentioned an ongoing interest in the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a French phenomenologist who was close to Sartre. Can you say a little bit about his thought and what drew you to it?

ADAMS: I wrote my dissertation on Merleau-Ponty, who I first encountered in a course at Colorado College. We read Heidegger and Sartre and Merleau-Ponty and Jaspers and Kierkegaard and Camus and that whole group.

And there was something about his thinking and writing. I was hooked right away and kept reading him. Then, in graduate school, I decided to write my dissertation on him.

I had the good fortune to have a Fulbright and spent a year in France—the second year that I had spent there—doing research on him and writing. And I’ve come back to him lately. I’m working on a book about him and the painter Paul Cézanne, who was a great interest of his.

So it’s still with me. One of the reasons I can’t shake it is that he’s a very difficult and kind of ambiguous thinker, and I’m still trying to find him in some way. And I think that he’s like Cézanne in that sense. If you start trying to figure him out, you kind of hit a wall. But it keeps drawing you in. A very complicated, difficult, enigmatic person and thinker. And I can’t quite let it go.

HUMANITIES: What made you consider this job as the head of NEH, and what is it that you hope to accomplish here?

ADAMS: When it opened up as a possibility, I was very excited. I have been an administrator, I like working in organizations, but NEH also has a mission that, to me, is so compelling. To provide broad public access to and engagement with the humanities and to do that at a national level, it just was, to me, a thrilling prospect. Still is. The job promised to unite two parts of myself that are not always easy to unite.

In a college or university, I would say, the president is a little more distant from the mission than the NEH chairman is from the mission of NEH. Here, so far anyway, the chairman is very close to the mission.

I went to Philadelphia last week and spent three days connecting with grantees. I felt very much joined to what they were doing and inspired by their work.

It’s thrilling to be in their presence, but with respect to the work that they’re doing to open up the humanities and bring the public and the humanities together is, to me, just a wonderful experience and opportunity.

The prospect of making a contribution to this broader work somehow was an undeniable draw. So it was both a way to use the things that I had learned and a way to connect to the things that had been very important to me intellectually. It was a perfect alignment.

HUMANITIES: I want to ask you one more question about Colby. Two developments I read about during your tenure involved science and the environment. Neuroscience became important in faculty hiring, and environmental science developed as a concentration.

Were these areas that interested you personally, or were you simply looking out on the landscape of educational possibilities and seeing growth opportunities?

ADAMS: Both, I think. Neuroscience was interesting to me intellectually, partly because of my work in Merleau-Ponty, actually. He was not a neuroscientist, but he was very interested in deep questions about perception.

But it also seemed to me that neuroscience is one of the leading waves of contemporary interdisciplinary scientific thinking. Also, because of what had been going on at Colby, it seemed to be a great opportunity for us, and that proved to be correct.

Ditto with the environmental questions. In some ways, Colby already had a very good environmental studies program. But I thought we had an opportunity to make it really outstanding, even among very good liberal arts programs. The additional motivating factor was and is that the environment is one of the great moments and sites of change, where we see a host of serious challenges that this country and the world are facing.

I mean, I don’t think we’ve really caught up to how important it is. Notwithstanding the traction that it’s gaining, every time we think we’ve caught up to it, it seems to get beyond us again.

As an undergraduate curricular opportunity, it is really interesting because it is interdisciplinary, it is significant socially, culturally, and politically. It dovetailed nicely with a lot of impulses that young people have to be engaged in things that matter.

HUMANITIES: What are some of the trends that you believe will be most important to the future of the humanities?

ADAMS: There are several. I think there’s remarkable opportunity for the humanities to continue to push shared boundaries with the sciences and to open up new and powerful conversations about science. And some of those have to do with the intersections of science, humanities, and technology.

This, too, is moving so quickly that it’s very hard for anyone to keep up. But the way in which technology, particularly information technology, has changed us and all of the important questions it has raised about what it means to be a human being with other human beings in this world that is now so mediated by technology, I mean, that’s just huge. And hugely unexplored. We’ve started, but we certainly have a long way to go.

Many other places in the sciences suggest very interesting conversations, especially around the applications of technology, for example, how medical technology has evolved and the way our personal experiences of medicine have changed as a result of that technology.

There are hugely interesting questions that appear about how we make decisions about these new powers of manipulation, biological mediation and manipulation, which all raise difficult legal and philosophical questions.

What does it mean to be a human being? What is a human life? What about replicating human life? What do we do with all this genetic possibility that we now have? None of those questions can be answered scientifically. They’re not scientific questions.

I mean they are scientific questions because they’re enabled by science and technology. But getting to the end of the conversation is not a scientific proposition. It’s really a conversation that centrally involves the forms of understanding and knowledge that the humanities provide.

And there are all kinds of interesting ways in which the evolution of the professions in the United States—law, medicine, and engineering—raise really interesting issues and questions in the humanities.

Those are all frontiers that I think are ripe for exploration, and I just can’t wait to engage those in various ways.

We have enormous resources here in NEH for doing that. I mean, probably more resources than any place in the country because it’s what we’re doing all the time. So, we are and should be leaders in opening up these frontiers and in engaging those frontiers and showing the way by what we say we’re interested in.

We can invite interest by raising these questions, and that’s our job. And then support people as they go about seeking to pursue them.

HUMANITIES: Last question. Do Americans know what the humanities are, and do they care?

ADAMS: Yes and no. My profound belief is that the humanities arise from and always relate back to our experience as human beings living in particular ways and places. We’re always being confronted with value-laden questions, principle-laden questions. So, we’re all exercising some of these basic forms of humanistic understanding and knowledge all the time.

The no part is that if you quiz people, they’re not likely to say, “Oh, yeah, that’s right. That’s history.” Or, “That’s right. That’s philosophy.” Or, “That’s right. That’s literature.”

I think because the humanities relate to academic disciplines, we don’t always make the connection between the lived experience of the humanities and the more institutional representations. Part of our job at NEH is to connect these two and to show the ways in which the humanities are resources for people as they negotiate the twists and turns of daily life.

I was watching Ken Burns, you know, the first episode of The Roosevelts last night, and there are various points in which you connect to those narratives, those stories about those people. And you think, Oh, that’s right. That’s how that happened. Or, Aha, that’s why that’s a part of our political discourse or, you know, the way we talk about things.

And you start to make those connections. I think that’s one thing that Ken does very well. He’s able to trace the connection between things that we’re encountering all the time in contemporary circumstance and things as they’ve evolved over time.

So, the answer is yes and no. And, again, our work is to bring these things together.