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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 5:43PM   |  19 comments
Dr. Wenmouth Williams and Family

By Patricia R. Zimmermann, Professor of Screen Studies and Codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, Ithaca College

You scramble through the grey carpeted halls of the Park School to teach your first year students that every paper needs an argument. You stumble to a meeting you wish ended before you entered the room.  

You crash into Dr. Wenmouth Williams.

Your spirit calms like a ship after a storm.

Dr. Wenmouth Williams walks the halls. The second floor.  The third floor. You are so glad to see him.  You trade gossip. You ask for advice.  You ask for a map of how to think about communications and higher education and your place in the whole swirling, shape-shifting, fluid mess.

Circumnavigating like the Magellan of communications, the Marco Polo of ethics , the Vasco da Gama of student engagement, the Sir Francis Drake of collegiality, Dr. Williams knows the route.  For Dr. Williams, longitude is faculty and latitude is students.

Like most leaders, Dr. Williams navigates the world with two names, one official and the other unofficial, samizdat, underground, a nickname from the crew: Wenmouth and Bill. 

This binary between Wenmouth and Bill emerges in his two trademark declarations, like a sextant.    The first: “I have a problem with that.”  And the second: “I don’t have a problem with that.” 

These two sentences are not funny. They are not jokes.  They signal his clarity in carving out a place for the deepest ethics amidst all that would trivialize higher education and all of us swimming in its swirling seas. 

These two sentences define Dr. Williams’ fierce intellect, his stunning clarity, and his unfailing sense that everything matters-- and that everything in higher education demands our highest calling.

Dr. Wenmouth Williams holds an honor no explorer ever achieved: he sees this globe we all teach in and research in as a space grounded by ethics. For Dr. Williams, Ithaca College is a place to think through what matters.

Like all captains on ships in open, perilous seas, Dr. Williams knows the crew is more important than the man at the helm.  He has dedicated his career to mentoring faculty.  All faculty. He sees lunch, coffee, drinks, collaborative projects as that shore where we revive, restore, reinvent.

He anoints his students the future explorers of the vast continents and deep oceans of global communications.  He worries about their writing, their reading, their critical sensibilities, their intellectual engagement.

He pushes them. 

He tells them, repeatedly, insistently, passionately: “you can do better than that.” 

He believes in their ideas.    He believes this dizzying whirlpool of ideas matters.

The ship that Dr. Wenmouth Williams has piloted through the Park School carries cargo more valuable than indigo from Ghana, more precious than nutmeg from Indonesia, more sweet than cocoa from Mexico.  His cargo hold bulges with something that has no weight, no shape, and can never be traded: an urgent collegiality and a ferocious integrity.

As Dr. Williams retires, allow me to back up this argument with references and some key quotes.

Dr. Williams, I have a problem with your retirement. 

You leave a hole in the ship of Park that can not be repaired.

However, in homage to the binary of Wenmouth and Bill, I want to also say this:  I do not have a problem with you leaving.

The new cartographies you enter will be as enriched by you--and as grateful for your deep respect--as all of us sitting in this room today.

We wish you bon voyage to places unknown. Those new worlds await your intellect, your clarity, your ethics, your collegiality, your integrity.

Dr. Williams, you leave a potent, explosive, enduring gift for Ithaca College: your deep, deep, deep belief that ideas really, really matter. You have taught us all that respect for ideas and for each other is the only continent worth exploring.


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