Inaugural Symposium: The Power of the Liberal Arts — NEH Chairman, Former Colby College President William Adams on How Liberal Arts are Critical to National Welfare

william adams

William Adams

The Power of the Liberal Arts, the symposium that is prelude to the inauguration of Clayton S. Rose as Bowdoin’s 15th president, comprises leaders from the worlds of business, design, government, higher education and public health. The symposium will be held in Pickard Theater, Memorial Hall, 2 p.m.­–5 p.m., Friday, October 16, 2015. In advance of the discussion, we continue a series of participant profiles.

The formal education of William Adams, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was interrupted by the Vietnam War, where he served as a 20-year-old combat infantry advisor. After returning home, he was motivated by his wartime experience to study and teach the humanities. “I came face to face, acutely, with questions that writers, artists, philosophers and musicians examine in their work — starting with, ‘What does it mean to be human?’” he has said.

The NEH has recently launched a year-long collaboration with the Library of Congress to help preserve veterans’ history, support returning veterans and deepen the understanding of the military experience through the humanities. Adams recorded his own oral history of his experiences in the Vietnam War for the Library.

Adams taught political philosophy at Santa Clara University and the University of North Carolina before serving in Wesleyan University’s administration and leading Stanford University’s Great Works in Western Culture program. He became president of Bucknell University in 1995.

In 2000, he was appointed president of Colby College, where he worked for 14 years. Adams led a $376-million capital campaign for Colby that supported, among other projects, the expansion of the Colby College Museum of Art and the creation of a center for arts and humanities.

Throughout much of his career, Adams has been at the center of the national conversation about the value of liberal arts educations. “I am convinced that this kind of study is not merely defensible but critical to our national welfare,” he says. Moving into the future, Adams says it’s imperative that we “think and practice the liberal arts more inclusively and democratically.”

A native of Birmingham, Mich., and son of an auto industry executive, Adams earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Colorado College and a Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Cruz.

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