William “Bro” Adams
President Barack Obama appointed William D. Adams the 10th Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in July 2014. Shortly after arriving at NEH, Adams launched an agency-wide initiative titled “The Common Good: the Humanities in the Public Square.” The initiative seeks to demonstrate the relevance of the humanities to the life of the nation during a time of unprecedented domestic and global challenges.
Under the rubric of The Common Good, NEH launched a number of new grant lines, including the Public Scholar Program, Common Heritage, Dialogues on the Experience of War, Next Generation Humanities Ph.D. Grants, Humanities Connections, NEH-Mellon Fellowships for Digital Publication, Open Book, Creating Humanities Communities, and Humanities Access Grants. During his tenure at NEH, Adams also sought to deepen the engagement of the agency with community colleges and veterans groups and causes.
Prior to joining NEH, Adams served as president of Colby College in Waterville, Maine from 2000 until his retirement on June 30, 2014. He also served as president of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania from 1995-2000.
A native of Birmingham, Michigan, Adams earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Colorado College and a Ph.D. from the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California Santa Cruz. He studied in France as a Fulbright Scholar before beginning his career in higher education with appointments to teach political philosophy at Santa Clara University in California and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He went on to coordinate the Great Works in Western Culture program at Stanford University and to serve as vice president and Secretary of Wesleyan University. He became president of Bucknell University in 1995 and president of Colby College in 2000.
Adams’s formal education was interrupted by three years of service in the Army, including one year in Vietnam. It was partly that experience, he says, that motivated him to study and teach in the humanities. “It made me serious in a certain way,” he says. “And as a 20-year-old combat infantry advisor, I came face to face, acutely, with questions that writers, artists, philosophers examine in their work, beginning with ‘What does it mean to be human?’”
In each of his professional roles, Adams has demonstrated a deep commitment to the humanities and to the liberal arts. At Colby, he oversaw the expansion of the Colby College Museum of Art and the creation of a center for arts and humanities, a film studies program, the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, and expansion of the College’s curriculum in creative writing and writing across the curriculum. He also spearheaded formal collaboration of the college with the Maine Film Center.
As a member of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), Adams participated in the broader national conversation about the proper role of athletics in liberal arts colleges and universities. At Colby and at NEH, he was also an outspoken advocate for the value of liberal learning in the digital age. “I see the power of what is happening on our campuses and among the alumni I meet across the country and around the world,” he says. “People who engage with a broad range of disciplines – including, and in some cases especially, with the humanities—are preparing to engage the challenges of an economy driven increasingly by science and technology. They are creative and flexible thinkers; they acquire the habits of mind needed to find solutions to important problems; they can appreciate the value of making mistakes and changing their minds. I am convinced that this kind of study is not merely defensible but critical to our national welfare.”
Adams, nicknamed Bro by his father in honor of a friend who died in World War II, is married to Lauren Sterling, an early childhood education and philanthropy specialist, and has a daughter and a stepson. He currently resides in Falmouth, Maine.
Adams resigned from NEH in May. In addition to continuing his advocacy for the humanities and the liberal arts, Adams is working on a book project on the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the painter Paul Cézanne.