This is the most complimentary article about an Eph in a major publication in years.

The Pandemic’s Most Powerful Writer Is a Surgeon
Dr. Craig Smith started writing a daily update to his colleagues. They’re no longer his only readers. His emails have become essential dispatches from the front lines.

Dr. Craig Smith sits down at his computer each day in a hospital under siege and starts typing.

His note to the Columbia University department of surgery on the evening of March 20 began with the latest, grimmest statistics from the coronavirus pandemic: the positive tests, the disappearing beds, masks and ventilators, the curve too stubborn to bend. It was an email that would’ve been crushing if he’d stopped there. He didn’t.

“So what can we do?” Smith continued. “Load the sled, check the traces, feed Balto, and mush on. Our cargo must reach Nome. Remember that our families, friends, and neighbors are scared, idle, out of work, and feel impotent. Anyone working in health care still enjoys the rapture of action. It’s a privilege! We mush on.”

That last paragraph about a dog sled racing to beat another epidemic nearly a century ago is the reason his colleagues are no longer his only readers. The daily notes of this 71-year-old surgeon, which are now published on Columbia’s website and shared widely on social media, have become essential dispatches for many people in search of leadership, courage and maybe even a pep talk. Dr. Smith’s emails are Winston Churchill’s radio speeches of this war.

Read the whole thing. More on Balto.

Balto (1919 – March 14, 1933) was a Siberian Husky and sled dog who led his team on the final leg of the 1925 serum run to Nome, in which diphtheria antitoxin was transported from Anchorage, Alaska, to Nenana, Alaska, by train and then to Nome by dog sled to combat an outbreak of the disease.

Do we get to credit Smith’s Williams education for such a perfect metaphor? Back to the article.

Smith is an elegant, almost poetic writer. The chairman of the department balances sobering data with a deft literary touch, quoting sources as disparate as John Wooden and Emily Dickinson. When he delivered the presidential address for the American Association for Thoracic Surgery in 2012, he opened and closed his lecture with meditations on a Yeats poem.

In response to an interview request, he replied: “I’d rather let the written messages to my colleagues speak for themselves.”

The grandson of two physicians, Smith was a self-described lackluster student, so convinced that he was the “last student to be accepted” in his Williams College class that he didn’t buy a school T-shirt until he survived the first semester, according to a 2015 article in The Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery.

EphBog readers first met Smith 16 years ago when he operated on former President Clinton.

You don’t have to be a literary critic to appreciate his style. But it doesn’t hurt if you happen to be one.

Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt says Smith’s notes have a “certain dark fascination” that reminds him of “A Journal of the Plague Year” by Daniel Defoe, and Columbia scholar Andrew Delbanco says his writing is so evocative that he feels as if he knows him through reading him.

“Candid, clear, concrete, his sentences cut straight to the heart of the matter: the staggering scale of the emergency and the equally staggering courage of those who are rising to meet it,” Delbanco wrote in an email. “Straight talk has been as scarce as masks and ventilators lately, but Dr. Smith talks straight.”

Smith writes like a bartender. For every shot, there’s a chaser. He ended his note on Sunday, when hundreds in New York had died of this new disease, by reflecting on the explorers who traversed Africa in the 1800s and lost half of their team over the course of the journey.

“They managed to bring 108 souls home,” Smith wrote. “It would have been 105, except that 3 children were born on the journey and survived to the end.”

Once again he’d found hope in despair.

“Life,” Dr. Smith wrote, “finds a way.”

Let us pray it does.

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Adam Schlesinger ’89 passed away from COVID-19 on April 1st in Poughkeepsie, NY.   Schlesinger enjoyed great commercial success with Fountains of Wayne, but also played in numerous other bands, and won 3 Emmy awards and a Grammy award for songs used in television.  As written in an article reporting his death:

Schlesinger’s career extended well beyond his work in bands. He had a hand in many of the songs that populated the critically beloved TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and he won three Emmys — one for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and two, both with David Javerbaum, for co-writing songs performed in Tony Awards telecasts. With Javerbaum, Schlesinger was nominated for two Tonys (both for 2008’s Cry-Baby) and won a Grammy for A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!.

A versatile songwriter with a gift for straddling genres and musical eras, Schlesinger wrote frequently for film, with credits ranging from three songs in the romantic comedy Music and Lyrics to the Oscar-nominated title track to Tom Hanks’ 1996 film That Thing You Do!.

I was at Williams at the same time as Schlesinger, but I never knew him, or his Fountains of Wayne partner Chris Collingwood.  I wonder if they ever played publicly (separately or together) while they were in the Purple Valley?  Do any readers know?

Schlesinger must have been one of the better known Eph musicians/artists in recent decades, and he will be missed.  Condolences to his family and friends.


UPDATE: My friends Ellen Waggett and Tim Sullivan, both (infinitely) more musically and artistically gifted than me, have both posted on Facebook about their friendships with Schlesinger while we were all students during the late 1980’s.  This news will obviously will hit some pretty hard on a personal level.

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Professor Nate Kornell tweeted a link to this article:

Saying that such a dialogue was essential to the college’s academic mission, all the more so as students were scattered around the world by the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams College president Maud Mandel confirmed Monday that the school encourages a lively exchange of one idea. “As an institution of higher learning, we recognize that it’s inevitable that certain contentious topics will come up from time to time, and when they do, we want to create an atmosphere where both students and faculty feel comfortable voicing a single homogeneous opinion,” said Mandel, adding that no matter the subject, anyone on campus is always welcome to add their support to the accepted consensus.

This year, the one idea will center around the benefits of immigration, especially undocumented, from formerly colonized countries. The College will explore this one idea through a required reading of Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario ’82, via the Williams Reads program.

Developed by the Committee on Diversity and Community (CDC), Williams Reads is an initiative offered as an opportunity for us to explore a book together that will help us to celebrate and deepen our appreciation of diversity.

Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom noted that “Although we appreciate diversity quite deeply at Williams, we can never appreciated diversity enough. Every day, every month, every year, we must work harder to deepen our appreciation. This is all the more true in the aftermath of the recent Taco Six incident, in which 6 undergraduates failed to demonstrate in sufficient depth to their appreciation of Mexican Culture.”

“Whether it’s a discussion of a national political issue or a concern here on campus, an open forum in which one argument is uniformly reinforced is crucial for maintaining the exceptional learning environment we have cultivated here,” continued Mandel. She also told reporters that counseling resources were available for any student made uncomfortable by the viewpoint.

Here at EphBlog, we have been praising Enrique’s Journey for more than a decade. Too cheap to buy the book? Nazario won the Pulitzer Prize for the newspaper articles that form the core of the story. Read them here for free.

Highly recommended.

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Former Williams Professor KC Johnson on the up-coming changes in Title IX regulations:

Many disingenuous things have been said during the coronavirus crisis, some of them by the president of the United States himself. But right near the top must be three letters issued last week — from the American Council on Education (ACE), activist groups led by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), and 18 Democratic attorneys general — calling for the Department of Education to halt the release of long-anticipated regulations that will restore due process to the handling of sexual-assault cases on college campuses. DeVos’s proposed rule would ensure basic rights for accused students — notice, access to evidence, a live hearing, and the ability to have a lawyer or advocate cross-examine adverse witnesses — that are often or almost always absent in the current Title IX process imposed by Obama-era guidance. That system has yielded more than 170 university setbacks in lawsuits filed by accused students in state or federal court.

In its letter, ACE argued that “at a time when institutional resources already are stretched thin, colleges and universities should not be asked to divert precious resources away from more critical efforts in order to implement regulations unrelated to this extraordinary crisis.” The NWLC letter spoke similarly, but leaned harder on the supposed harm to students: “Finalizing the proposed rule would also unnecessarily exacerbate confusion and uncertainty for students who are currently in pending Title IX investigations and hearings, which have already been delayed and disrupted by the pandemic.” The letter from the attorneys general expressed similar language.

While it’s hard not to admire their chutzpah, their arguments are provably nonsense.

First, the universities have known for more than 16 months — since November 2018 — that these regulations were coming. They have had ample time both to tell the government what they think of the regulations and to start planning for their inevitable release. If some of them have failed to plan ahead, hoping that the regulations would never be released or that a lawsuit by victims’ groups would enjoin them immediately following their release, that isn’t the fault of the coronavirus.

Second, do you know who’s going to have a lot of time on their hands in the next six months? Title IX coordinators. Why? Because the number of Title IX cases is about to drop precipitously.

Indeed. Allyson Kurker’s income is about to take a big hit. So sad!

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The elections for Alumni Trustee are a farce. Consider the ballot.

First, there is no way for an outsider — say Wick Sloane ’76 — to get on the ballot. If the Alumni Office does not like you, then you will never be nominated. (Details on the process here.) Much better would be a system, like Dartmouth’s old process, that allowed for non-mainstream voices to (try to) gather enough signatures to get on the ballot. The alumni of Williams — not the insiders at the Society of Alumni — should decide who serves as Alumni Trustee.

Second, the College forbids candidates from discussing anything substantive in their statements. Are you interested in changes in financial aid policy at Williams? Do you want to know what these candidates think? Tough! They aren’t going to tell you because the College won’t let them. Read their pap-filled statements. It isn’t that these thoughtful alumni don’t have substantive views on the future of Williams. It is that the College itself tells them not to discuss those views in these statements. This is viewed as “campaigning” and we are too classy to allow that!

Third, Williams successfully discourages candidates from answering questions. A decade ago, I e-mailed each of the three trustee candidates this question:


My name is David Dudley Field, Williams class of 1825, and I would like to make an informed vote among the three of you in casting my ballot for alumni trustee. Would you mind answering a single question?

What are your thoughts on President Bill Wagner’s recent changes in financial aid policy?

I realize that the three of you are very busy people, but it is very hard for me to choose among you unless I have at least an inkling of how you feel about this critical issues.

Further comments:

1) I have cc’d Wick Sloane ’76 on this e-mail because he convinced me to contact you. I am sure that he would also like to know how you feel about financial aid.

2) I have cc’d Secretary of Alumni Brooks Foehl as well. I understand that the College does not want you to “campaign” for this election. But I hope/assume that Brooks would agree that just answering my question, at least in private, is not campaigning.

3) I have cc’d Ronit Bhattacharyya ’07, one of the leading lights behind EphBlog. With your permission (and only with your permission), I am sure that Ronit would like to post your answers at EphBlog so that other alumni could cast more informed ballots. But, if you did not want to do that, I still hope that you could answer the question to me directly.

Thanks for your time and your past service to Williams.

Two of the three candidates were polite enough to respond. Both refused to answer the question. Pathetic! Or, rather, just what the Alumni Office would want them to do.

The Alumni Office does not want Williams alumni to make an informed choice in trustee elections. Your local high school has sophomore class elections with more substance.

Who did you vote for and why?

Sidenote: Do any techies have opinions about voting security? I got this “receipt” after I voted:

Vote receipt

You voted as sign-in name: SHxHqhBu
Vote submitted from IP address: XX.XXX.XXX.XXX

Alumni Trustee Ballot 2020 (UG ALUMNI)

Alumni Trustee Slate (ID# 156271)
Vote receipt code 8FcTcuvXfn
This vote was recorded: Monday 09 March 2020 17:40 EDT

ID# is the permanent identification number of the selected choices in the database.

close window

(I X’d out my IP address.) Good stuff? Hackable? I am not technically competent enough to comment.

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J-L Cauvin ’01 makes us laugh!

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Most viral Eph video of the year is probably this Trump impression from J-L Cauvin ’01.

Hilarious! Regardless of your politics . . .

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Let’s spend the next few days asking questions about the future of Williams in the era of CV-19. (And, yes, I was sorely tempted to call this series “Wuhan Flu Questions,” but I resisted the trolling urge.) For each question, I want your thoughts on what will happen, what Williams will do, and what Williams should do.

Question 8: How will Williams handle gap-year requests from admitted students?

If it looks like the disruption might go on into the fall (and I would put the odds of that at 50/50 right now), there will be a lot of first years who would want to take a gap year. And who could blame them! But Williams won’t want that. Its costs, at least in terms of faculty and staff, are fixed. It has 540 seats to fill in September 2020, and it wants to fill them, even virtually.

Solution? Williams should/will probably require students to make the gap year decision much earlier, perhaps by May 31. And it should/will put some teeth on it, will insist that anyone deciding later to take a gap year will, except in exigent circumstances, have their acceptance withdrawn. With good information by May 31, it could use its wait-list more extensively than it has in the past. And you can be sure that this year’s wait-list will be the longest we have had in a generation.

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Let’s spend the next few days asking questions about the future of Williams in the era of CV-19. (And, yes, I was sorely tempted to call this series “Wuhan Flu Questions,” but I resisted the trolling urge.) For each question, I want your thoughts on what will happen, what Williams will do, and what Williams should do.

Question 7: Will time-off policies change?

Williams might still be an online-only school in September.

If you were a rising senior, wouldn’t you take a gap year if you could not return to campus, especially if you were an athlete? And wouldn’t you be all the more likely to do so if all your friends were doing so? The snowball effects would be strong.

Solution? This is a harde problem! Williams does not have the threat of acceptance withdrawal to hang over the heads of current students, especially rising seniors. Maybe try to bribe them? Williams only costs X in 2020-2021, even if students are allowed to come back in January. How low would X have to be to ensure that most (80%? 95%?) students came back?

Of course, the demand for Williams spots is strong. We could take scores of transfer students. Or am I overestimating the number of students who would be interested in transferring to Williams if classes were still virtual in September? There might be very few interested in transferring for just a year. But would a (rich!) student (and her family!) be interested if she could transfer into Williams permanently? I bet that there are hundreds of students who were rejected from the classes of ’21 and ’22 who would consider that offer quite closely . . .

What do you predict will happen? What should Maud be doing now to prepare?

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Let’s spend the next few days asking questions about the future of Williams in the era of CV-19. (And, yes, I was sorely tempted to call this series “Wuhan Flu Questions,” but I resisted the trolling urge.) For each question, I want your thoughts on what will happen, what Williams will do, and what Williams should do.

Question 6: Will grading policies change?

This question was over-taken by events. President Mandel writes:

[W]e have made the decision to switch to universal pass/fail for all courses taken by undergraduates this semester. You will not be surprised to learn that many people have expressed strong views on the subject, sometimes referring to what other schools are doing. Those examples vary, because each college or university is responding in ways appropriate to their own situation. Some are continuing with existing grading policies. Some are moving to optional pass/fail, with a subset pushing back their deadline for declaring a class as pass/fail. Still others, including MIT, Columbia, Wellesley and Bowdoin, have established universal pass/fail grading policies for all students.

Maud’s letter goes into a lot of detail. Would readers like a close reading? Could spend a week on this one! It has more nonsense than I expected. Key line:

Some people expressed concerns to me that a move to pass/fail would disincentivize students.

“Some people!” Did “Some people” also forecast that the sun would rise in the east? I want to meet these “Some people.” They are very smart! I would also like to meet the person who disagrees with this forecast . . .

There is zero doubt that students work much less without grading. Call the amount that students would work X — even with a global pandemic, but with the structure/incentives of grades — measured however you like. With universal Pass/Fail, do you forecast 90% of X, 50% of X, or even lower?

What do our student readers plan to do?

If I were on the Williams faculty, I would have voted against this. Maximum understanding/leniency toward students who have problems — just as most of us do even in the absence of a global pandemic. A virtual college course without grades is little more than an extremely expensive TED-talk.

Is this the first sign of Woke Maud?

Entire e-mail below the break.


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The Williams Admissions department will be releasing regular decision admissions decisions today, though its not clear at what time.  Williams seems to be releasing its decisions later than many of its peer institutions (I know that Amherst, Bates, Swarthmore, Carleton, Grinnell, Smith, Haverford, Pomona, and Colby have already notified applicants), but I think a few days before “Ivy day.”  I wonder how many kids are out there who really, really want to go to Williams but are still waiting to hear whether they can.  Presumably many applicants for whom Williams was a clear first choice applied early and are in now.  I suppose some of them may have been deferred, and they might be waiting anxiously. Others may already be in their first choice, and so are not terribly anxious about the Williams decision.

Its possible, of course, that given current circumstances, plenty of applicants may not care at all one way or the other.  An Italian friend of mine, who lives in the most heavily affected (and infected) part of Italy, sent me the following note, which to me was simultaneously encouraging and chilling:

We and our families and collegues are all safe and healthy and hope to stay that way.
We are all working from home since the situation is really difficult. We have not yet reached the top of the number of people infected and the number of deaths each day.
Please take all the measures required to avoid that you find yourselves in the same situation.

So clearly selective college admissions cannot be at the top of too many people’s priority lists right now.  But I know that in my own house, my high school senior kid, who is very aware of what COVID-19 can do, is still planning on heading off (somewhere) to college next fall, so I’m pretty sure many (most?) Williams applicants are still interested in the decisions being announced today.

Best of luck to all!  Hope that those who want to become part of the class of 2024 get that chance!

UPDATE: Decisions were released at about 6:30 pm or so on the 24th.

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Professor Darel Paul notes:

Recall our discussion from last week. (And note some of the over-taken-by-events nonsense in that comment thread.)

The point that Paul is making, and that is very little discussed, is that there is no (plausible, short-term) solution which does not rely on vast restrictions on movement and behavior. Don’t the readers of EphBlog see that?

Imagine that we magically made every person in the US free of CV-19 tomorrow. Problem solved? Crisis averted?

No! The crisis would just be (briefly) delayed. Tomorrow or the next day or the day after that, someone would come into the US, unknowingly infected with CV-19, and the spread would just start again. We haven’t (even today!) closed the borders. We haven’t (even today!) set up 14-day quarantines for new arrivals into the US. I don’t even see any discussion of those (necessary!) policies outside of EphBlog.

We have no (public?) plausible plan for the sort of extensive contact tracing and electronic monitoring which countries like Hong Kong and Singapore are using. (To be fair, this is now a topic of discussion in certain parts of the internet.)

Paul’s point is that, without these policies, it is inevitable that CV-19 will work its way through the US population, at least until we reach herd immunity or develop a vaccine. Anyone who isn’t discussing that mathematical fact is not serious.

UPDATE: Even the New York Times is still writing nonsense:

If it were possible to wave a magic wand and make all Americans freeze in place for 14 days while sitting six feet apart, epidemiologists say, the whole epidemic would sputter to a halt.

The virus would die out on every contaminated surface and, because almost everyone shows symptoms within two weeks, it would be evident who was infected. If we had enough tests for every American, even the completely asymptomatic cases could be found and isolated.

The crisis would be over.

No. In a world of global travel and open US borders, the spread would just start again. If the Times (and the “experts” it talks to?) is still this clueless, on March 23, what hope is there?

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Let’s spend the next few days asking questions about the future of Williams in the era of CV-19. (And, yes, I was sorely tempted to call this series “Wuhan Flu Questions,” but I resisted the trolling urge.) For each question, I want your thoughts on what will happen, what Williams will do, and what Williams should do.

Question 5: How is the endowment doing?

Answer: Not well.

1) Williams is about 30% less wealthy than it was a month ago. Wow! Even as rich as we are, that sort of drop will put a crimp in some of our strategic plans. The new art museum is the first things we should cut.

2) The endowment was at $2.9 billion last June 30. Through the end of February, it was up about 9%. But the college was also spending money, and raising money, throughout that time period. Put our total wealth at over $3 billion and the recent drop cost Williams a yard, as we finance bros say.

3) Will the next report from the Investment Office look that bad? No. First, the S&P is only down around 17% since last June. Second, a lot of the College’s investments — especially in private equity, venture capital and real estate — is not “marked-to-market.” The College’s managers are able to “smooth” returns, and you can be certain they will do so this year.

4) How much of a hit will this cause to the Williams budget for next year? I am unsure. Recall:

Spending from the endowment to support operations, referred to as asset use at Williams, is expected to be 5.0% of the twelve quarter trailing average of the end of year investment pool over the long run.

There is a big hit now, but endowment growth has been significant over the last few years. So, it could be that the trailing twelve quarter average wealth as of June 2020 is not that different from the same figure calculated for June 2019. So, perhaps the allowed “draw” from the endowment won’t be much lower. Of course, 6 months ago, the College planned/hoped that it would be higher, so some (minor?) belt-tightening might be required.

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We have had our differences with Professor Phoebe Cohen in the past, but this is good stuff!

Kudos! Any other faculty involved in the fight? Tell us some stories.


I worry a lot about Berkshire Medical Center. What is the latest news?

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Let’s spend the next few days asking questions about the future of Williams in the era of CV-19. (And, yes, I was sorely tempted to call this series “Wuhan Flu Questions,” but I resisted the trolling urge.) For each question, I want your thoughts on what will happen, what Williams will do, and what Williams should do.

Question 4: What about graduation?

Graduation will not happen. (Anyone think otherwise?) What are Maud’s options?

1) Plan on a September graduation. Might work wonderfully! Worst of the virus will be passed, one hopes. Hundreds of people would come back. Combine it with Convocation. Could make for an epic week-end!

2) Plan on a double-graduation in June 2021 for members of the class of 2020 and 2021. Benefit is that things are (highly?) likely to be settled by then. There is plenty of room on campus to house 500 returning members of the class of 2020. Easiest logistically and most satisfying emotionally.

3) On-line graduation this spring. I am suspicious. But, then again, who knows? Could be very moving, especially if it were combined with faculty actually walking through the their places in the lawn and a handful of nearby students participating. A lot would depend on the state of meeting-size restrictions in MA by the middle of May.

I recommend plan 2) because I am worried that this crisis, and the resulting travel restrictions, will continue into summer.

What advice would you give Maud? What do you think she will do?

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Let’s spend the next few days asking questions about the future of Williams in the era of CV-19. (And, yes, I was sorely tempted to call this series “Wuhan Flu Questions,” but I resisted the trolling urge.) For each question, I want your thoughts on what will happen, what Williams will do, and what Williams should do.

Question 3: What about staff?

There are dozens (100? 200?) staff that Williams no longer needs, at least until September, mainly dining hall workers and custodial staff. What should be done?

Given how rich we (still?) are, and how close we are to the end of the school year, I recommend just paying them “as-if” the students were still around. Assuming that some social distance can be maintained, now is a good time to work on cleaning and renovation projects which are normally pushed to one side during the school year.

But, come June, things get trickier. (Does anyone have details on how staffing normally fluctuates during the summer? I assume that some staff stay on, but surely not all of them.) Williams can’t pay salaries forever. That is why we have unemployment insurance. If Williams is not hosting summer camps and the like, then it should furlough staff it does not need, with the hope that they can be brought back in September.

But, in between the faculty (working as normal) and the support staff (with nothing to do), we have the endlessly bloated administrative staff of Williams. What should happen to them? Will the Title IX office just be investigating itself? Will the grievance mongers in diversity/inclusion/equity turn their greedy eyes on the faculty? (Probably!) For now, there is no need for changes.

But, if I were Maud, and there were 50 or 100 positions/people I wanted an excuse to get rid of all at once, now (or, better, May) would be a good time to strike . . .

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Let’s spend the next few days asking questions about the future of Williams in the era of CV-19. (And, yes, I was sorely tempted to call this series “Wuhan Flu Questions,” but I resisted the trolling urge.) For each question, I want your thoughts on what will happen, what Williams will do, and what Williams should do.

Question 2: Will Williams modify international admissions this week?

EphBlog has been a big fan over international admissions for more than 15 years. We loved it when Maud increased the percentage of internationals to 11% for the class of 2023. But does the existence of a global pandemic change that?

And, with admissions decisions due in a week or two, now is the time to ponder that question. Come September, students from some countries might be prevented from coming to the US. Or, if they do come, they might find it difficult to travel home. Would Williams be doing them any favors by admitting them with so much uncertainty?

Why not just skip a year with regard to international admissions? Just admit US citizens and permanent residents from the regular decision pool? (We would still have a bunch of international students already admitted early.)

Again, this is not what I want! I want Williams to become 25% or more international. But maybe not this year . . .

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While clearly not the most important question facing the College at the moment (this discusses what I think is the most important question right now), the reunion question is important and could have some long-term implications for Williams, perhaps moreso than for many other colleges and universities.  Specifically, while the College has not yet cancelled the 2020 reunions, I think it is pretty likely that they will not take place.  Registration for reunions is currently “on hold until further notice,” and I don’t know how much planning is currently happening on campus (or by class volunteers).

If all of this year’s reunions are cancelled, will the affected classes (the ‘5 and ‘0 graduating years) simply skip their reunions this cycle?  This would mean 10 years between reunions for these classes.  (I’m ignoring the 50-year+ classes which, I think get invited every year).  I think that would have a long-term, measurable impact on giving from those classes, although probably not enough to really matter to the College.  Most troubling, I suspect, would the cancellation of the 25th and 50th reunions for the classes of 1995 and 1970.  The 25th and 50th reunion classes typically give the largest class gifts each year.  Over the past 12 years (dating back to the 25th Reunion of the Class of 1980), the 25th Reunion class gift has averaged just shy of $7 million (with individual classes ranging from $3.6-$13.6 million).  Over the past 7 years (data can be found at the links on this page), the 50th Reunion class gift has averaged over $17 million (with a low of $9.7 million and a high of $41 million).  The 50th Reunion class gifts count everything given between the 40th and 50th reunions, so perhaps cancelling the reunion won’t impact the overall gift as much, but I’m sure that smart people in the Alumni Development Office are trying to estimate what the impacts would be.

Could the College reschedule everyone for next summer?  I don’t know whether there would be room for that many classes to have reunions at once.  Or perhaps do the 2021 reunions and 2020 reunions on back to back weekends next summer?  What do you think makes the most sense? Will skipping out on a reunion cycle dampen alumni enthusiasm for Williams?

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Let’s spend the next few days asking questions about the future of Williams in the era of CV-19. (And, yes, I was sorely tempted to call this series “Wuhan Flu Questions,” but I resisted the trolling urge.) For each question, I want your thoughts on what will happen, what Williams will do, and what Williams should do.

Question 1: Will Williams re-open in September 2020?

I don’t know. And isn’t that scary? There are many unknowns, of course, but Mission Park is, basically, an ugly, immobile cruise ship. Will cruises be running by September? Again, I don’t know. But it is easy to imagine a world in which they won’t be.

Maud, being a smart college president, will very soon have some of her best people pondering this question. After all, she can’t make this decision on September 1. She will need to make the call . . . when, exactly? And much of the decision may be out of her hands. If Massachusetts is still forbidding large gatherings in August, how can she possibly open Williams in September?

What advice do you have for her?

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My co-bloggers here at EphBlog, along with other Ephs of goodwill, often take issue with my complaints about the College’s gifts to charity. As many times as I ask, I have trouble finding anyone who will specify where $250,000 should be cut from the College budget to fund worthwhile programs at Mt. Greylock High School.

But perhaps I should turn the question around. Assume that the College has decided to spend an additional $250,000 this year (or even every year) on attracting and retaining the best college teachers in the country. How would I spend this money, if not on gifts to the local schools and hospital along with realestate development?

Call me crazy, but I would . . . Give the money to the very best teachers at Williams!

Show them the money. Would that really be so hard? Establish “Ephraim Williams Awards for Teaching Excellence.” Five would be given out every year, each consisting of a cash prize of $50,000. Winners would be selected by a committee dominated by students. The only restriction might be that the same person can’t win two years in a row. Nothing would prevent truly exceptional teachers from being recognized several times each decade.

Of course, there is a lot that could be done with these awards. Perhaps one of the awards should be reserved for excellence in advising senior theses and/or individual projects — thus ensuring that not just the best lecturers win. Perhaps 2 of the five awards could be determined by former students — ideally committees centered around events like the 10th and 25th year reunions. This would nicely bias things toward professors who make a career at Williams, thereby giving folks like Gary Jacobsohn and Tim Cook a(nother) reason to stay.

If you want great teachers to come to and stay at Williams, then giving them special prizes is almost certainly the most cost effective way of doing so.

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Dr. Rich Besser ’81 is probably the leading Williams-affiliated voice on pandemics, having served as the acting director of the CDC during the emergence of the novel H1N1 influenza virus (often labeled “swine flu”). Dr. Besser was widely lauded for his response to H1N1 (which, fortunately, turned out to be far less serious than what was originally thought–it has a reproduction rate between 1.4-1.6 (SARS-CoV-2 looks to be around 2.2) and only a 0.02% fatality rate (SARS-CoV-2 looks like it kills between 1-5% of those infected)).

So what does he have to say about our current predicament?  In a March 5 Washington Post editorial, Dr. Besser writes:

The failures of public policy and imagination have been stalking us for years, creating haves and have-nots: parents who don’t have paid sick leave from work (only 10 states and the District of Columbia mandate it); a lack of affordable childcare or sick child care; at least 28 million Americans living without insurance and nearly one-third of the population still underinsured; health protections that are not distributed evenly from region to region; and fear among undocumented immigrants regarding access to care.

Our nation’s predicament today is both tragic, because so many people will likely suffer, and maddening, because it didn’t have to be this way. In the short term, the United States must play the hand that we’ve dealt ourselves. Indeed, there are no short-term solutions to our long-term neglects. The underlying work our nation must do to ensure all people in the United States have a fair and just opportunity for health and well-being — sick leave, universal health care, quality child care and early education, as well as fair immigration policies — must be done in moments of calm.

In the meantime, we could also consider a fund to compensate hourly workers without paid leave for their loss of income when sick; provide legal aid for those who are fired for not coming to work when ill; fund outreach to non-English speakers; ask insurers to waive co-pays for testing and treatment; supplement funding for community health centers that care for a large proportion of those without insurance; and ensure free meals are available for children when schools are closed.

This time around, things seem likely to get far worse in the U.S. before they get better.  How do you feel about our public health response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus?  Have we missed our tracking window with all of the testing mishaps of the past month?  Or have our current problems been baked in for years, not just in the 2018 disbanding of the Pandemic Response Team ( but in the policy decisions that we’ve made, or failed to make, over decades.  Or are you pretty happy with how things are going?

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Professor Darel Paul wakes me from my dogmatic slumber by tweeting:

Assume that President Trumps has three goals: protect the the health/lives of US citizens, minimize the damage to the US economy and win re-election. (Fortunately, achieving the first two will be great help to the third.) Note also, that there is nothing that businesses hate more than uncertainty. As long as the crisis rages, they will want to cut back. They would prefer a scenario in which things are very painful for two months and then finished. Nothing is worse than a somewhat painful period for an unknown length of time.

It is the interaction between business behavior and uncertainty which highlights the importance of Paul’s question. Even in a world in which COVID-19 turns out not that bad over the next few weeks, as long as it is bad enough, business can’t get back to normal. Even if we knew Orlando were mostly OK today, it is hard for people/businesses in Orlando to return to work as long as a bunch of travelers from Seattle could show up tomorrow. Given those facts, Trump’s optimal strategy is fairly obvious: Close the borders in April. Crush COVID within the US by June. Reopen the US for business on July 4th with a big party. Keep the borders closed till the election.

March: There is not much to be done in March beyond what Trump and every governor/mayor is doing. We need tests. We need masks. We need ventilators. We need to prepare for the unstoppable wave of very sick people. The die is cast. Trump should not be overly political, but he should keep a list of every bonehead decision made, by both Democrat and Republican officials. How could Governor Doug Ducey allow the Arizona Renaissance Festival to go on? Why did NYC Mayor Bill DeBalsio wait until day X to close the bars? Don’t make a big deal of those things now. Stay above the fray. Offer to help. Invoke federalism. Insist that you should not be making decisions for every school district in America.

April: Disaster strikes. This is now inevitable, no matter what Trump (or anyone else) does. Math plays no favorites. When things appear at their worst, have a televised address. (With no other speeches before this. Indeed, avoid the cameras for the two weeks prior.)

My fellow Americas. The wolf is at the door. Our mothers and fathers are dying in the hallways of our great hospitals. Our doctors and nurses are fighting the tide of death each day and night. Their bravery is that of our greatest battlefield heroes. Never, in our 200 years as a Nation, has the future looked so bleak.

This will be our finest hour.

I am taking personal command of the fight against COVID-19. The buck stops with me. I will, with your help, either conquer this threat or resign the Presidency.

Today I am ordering the closing of all US borders. We can no longer allow even a single infected person into our country. The borders will stay closed until we can be certain that only healthy people are allowed in.

And so on. Many more things will be done, of course. Wuhan and South Korea show how COVID-19 can be contained. We should follow their playbook. Test everyone all the time. Isolate the ill. Confine people to their homes. Federalize the National Guard. Recall our troops from Japan, South Korea and Germany. And so on.

Yet the border closing is the key political maneuver. It is consistent with Trump’s message. Only he would even consider it. Joe Biden is on record against it and will probably object when it happens. Make the election of 2020 all about whether a US president has the right to close the border — and about whether doing so was justified in the case of a global pandemic — and Trump wins.

May: Things get better on the health front, not least because the initial set of social distancing directives in March had a significant effect and because hospitals are ramping up their capacity and skills. Indeed, the reason for giving the speech in April is that, again because of math, you can be mostly certain that things will look better in May. But the economy is still frozen. How to fix that in a world where people can’t go out? UBI will probably be popular. Perhaps incentives to companies to maintain their current payrolls. But those are just delaying actions while the virus is brought under control.

June: Another televised address, either one to three months after the first one.

My fellow Americans. We are winning the war against COVID-19. The bravery of our doctors and nurses, the ingenuity of our scientists, the dedication of our public servants, the individual contributions of every citizen in every neighborhood have swung the battle in our favor. We are at the beginning of the end.

Today, I am declaring July 4th to be the re-opening of America for business. You will be able to leave your house, go out for a meal, take the family on a vacation. Life can start to return to normal.

Does this timing make sense? I don’t know. Yet regardless of the timeline, the key trick is for Trump to provide a focal point, a specific date, given a few months in advance, at which things can return to normal. The hardest part of coming out a recession is the coordination it requires. I won’t go out to eat if none of the restaurants are open. You won’t open your restaurant if no one is going out to eat. If the whole country knows that on, say, September 1, we are back in business, then all the restaurants and bars and hotels and amusement parts will open and all of us will go to them. It will be a giant national party.

Whether the “re-opening” — and we need a better phrase — happens in July or in September does not really matter. The key is that Trump gets to declare victory, in a clear fashion, to claim credit for a battle won, to cite some of the (un)popular decisions he made in leading the country. The economy will do nothing but zoom forward, from that day until the election. Trump wins in a walk.


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From The New York Times:

To the Editor:

When Cambridge University in England closed in 1665 because of the bubonic plague, a young man named Isaac Newton went home to the countryside. And there he sat under the famous apple tree and realized that the same gravity worked on the apple and the Moon.

Let us hope that the current situation leads one of today’s scholars to make a breakthrough that will help future generations.

Jay M. Pasachoff
Williamstown, Mass.
The writer is a professor of astronomy at Williams College.

Let us hope!

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Over the years there are voices on Ephblog that I have come to respect as thoughtful and reflective. So, as my family (as so many others do, too) tries to navigate this new Coronavirus world, I thought I would try the Ephblog community for some advice.

My daughter attends a major university in the southern California area. Her school has moved academic classes on line for the next 3 weeks. This will include her spring break. However, there has been no talk about closing campus. Luckily, my daughter lives off campus and could stay in town if she chose. The questions we are debating in our house are: Should she come home for spring break? If she does, should she stay home?

A couple of other factors: she has an internship which is currently having interns work remotely. She is a senior and her job search would go much better if she were in town.

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Williams is cancelling in-person classes for the remainder of the year. This puts very many people in very uncertain situations right now. Students are directly asking for specific help from alumni: help with a place to stay while in flux (whether because a student is from an affected area of the world, is housing unstable, any number of reasons), help storing belongings, help with transportation. Students have started a form for alumni and community members to fill out if they’re able to help. Here’s a link to the form, and information about what they’re seeking:

Dear Williams College Graduate and/or Member of our Support Network,

Williams College informed current students at 10:40 AM on Wednesday, March 11 that they are to be fully moved-out for the rest of the spring term and into the summer by Tuesday , March 17 at 5:00 PM because of the risks posed by the COVID-19 virus outbreak. Students were notified at the same time as all staff and faculty, so there continues to be uncertainty over how low-income, international, and/or house-insecure students will be supported in this process. Some concerns are how students can afford their transportation home and the storage or shipping costs that the College has not been clear about subsidizing, how students without stable housing can have access to stable and secure housing, and how students who it is dangerous or impossible for them to travel can have their needs met.

If you are able to host a student for any duration after Tuesday until they are able to return home and/or find other housing and/or until their summer job starts, or are able to store some students’ belongings for the rest of the spring semester and through the summer (until late August / early September), we would greatly appreciate the help in this difficult and confusing time.

Thank you so much for your generosity.

Sincerest regards.

(Thank you to the First-Generation and Low-Income Students at Harvard College for their model and for inspiring this one. Much of their language and questions are copied into this form.)

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Dear Faculty, Staff, and Students,


As we prepare the campus for potential spread of the COVID-19 virus, we recognize that not all members of our community are likely to be impacted in the same way.  According to the CDC, the immediate risk of being exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19 remains low for most people in the US. In addition, information so far suggests that for the majority of people who contract the virus, COVID-19 illness is mild.  At the same time, older people and people of all ages with severe underlying health conditions seem to be at higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 illness. For instance, COVID-19 may be more dangerous to people who have had chemotherapy; suffer from heart problems, diabetes or respiratory issues; or are immune-compromised.


If you fall into any of these categories and are concerned about continuing to work in your standard setting (whether that be attending class, working in an office, or another setting), we encourage you to reach out to us so that we can determine what sort of alternative arrangements might be possible in order to increase your safety. Faculty should reach out to Kashia Pieprzak (; staff should reach to either Danielle Gonzalez ( or Megan Childers (; and students should reach out to Cyndi Haley ( so that we can provide a streamlined, confidential process for your request.


All best wishes,

Denise Buell, Dean of Faculty

Fred Puddester Vice President for Finance & Administration and Treasurer

Marlene Sandstrom, Dean of the College

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In other news…


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timber_wolfEphBlog’s advice: Close Williams today.

1) There is no better time to close Williams than a week before Spring Break. Pull a Harvard! Tell students they have to pack up and leave. (Allow some flexibility for low-income/international students.) Treat it like the end of the semester. Empty the dorms. Cancel all sports. Go online.

2) The people who run places like Harvard and Yale (and even Amherst!) are smart and serious. If they are closing — and closing Harvard is much harder logistically than closing Williams — then we need a really good reason not to close.

3) What about graduation? Graduation has already been cancelled! You just don’t know it yet. The Governor of Massachusetts will, within weeks (if not days!), ban any gathering over 1,000 people. And then he will ban gatherings over 100. And then he will institute a quarantine with the National Guard patrolling the streets. That is how bad this is going to get. Whatever else the next few months will bring, Williams will not be seating 500 graduating seniors together on June 7.

4) Might this be an overreaction? Maybe! (EphBlog does occasionally overreact to global events.) South Korea seems to have bought things under control. The warmer weather may help. But overreaction in an attempt to fight a global pandemic is no vice. If things look much better in two months, you can invite the seniors back to spend three weeks on campus prior to graduation. What a party that would be!

Good luck to all!

UPDATE: EphBlog gets results!

Williams College will end in-person classes on Friday, March 13, and dismiss students for spring break on Saturday, March 14, a week earlier than planned. We will be moving to remote learning beginning on Monday, April 6.

This seems a touch panicky to me. There are, presumably, a number of in-person exams which were scheduled for next week. How easy for is it for students to move already-bought plane tickets up a week? Then again, closing is the right call and reasonable people can disagree on the timing. Maybe the goal is to move out 80% of the campus by this Saturday, including the 50% (?) who drive, and then have a week to deal with the laggards.

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Amherst is closing on Thursday. Who knows when it will re-open . . .

Dear students, faculty, staff, and families,

The COVID-19 virus continues to spread and affect many parts of the U.S. and the rest of the world. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has announced that we are past the point of being able to contain this disease. While there continue to be no reported cases of the virus on our campus, we need to focus on mitigating its possible effects.

We know that many people will travel widely during spring break, no matter how hard we try to discourage it. The risk of having hundreds of people return from their travels to the campus is too great. The best time to act in ways that slow the spread of the virus is now. Let me make our decisions clear and then provide additional information:

Amherst will move to remote learning after spring break, beginning Monday, March 23, so students can complete work off campus.

Classes are cancelled on Thursday and Friday of this week, March 12-13, so faculty and staff have time to work on alternate modes of delivering courses, and students have every opportunity to secure transportation.

All students are expected to have left campus by Monday, March 16. Only those students who have successfully petitioned and have remained in residence over spring break will be allowed to stay on campus to do their remote learning.

Campus will remain open and all faculty and staff should continue their regular work schedules.

0) Amherst is closing! Our work at EphBlog is done!

1) Wuhan Flu is the greatest crisis (90% certainty) of my lifetime. So, I will try to make fewer jokes. This is all going to be much less funny in April when sick old people are being turned away from Berkshire Medical Center and left to die at home.

2) If I were Maud, I would be sorely tempted to do the same. One argument against is that Williams is a much more isolated location and so, perhaps, less likely to be hit as quickly as Amherst/Northampton/Holyoke. But that is far from certain. And, moreover, Spring Break is the most obvious time to do this.

3) Although the message above is not overly clear, I believe that this is as extreme as it sounds. Amherst is sending students home, not just early or for a few weeks. It is sending them home for the rest of the semester. There will be no classes at Amherst until September, at the earliest.

4) Does this mean that Amherst will be forfeiting the rest of its athletic contests? Presumably so. It would be beyond weird if sports teams could petition to stay on campus while non-athletes were sent home. No Directors Cup for Amherst this year!

5) Will students receive refunds on, at least, room-and-board charges?

6) How tough will Amherst be with the “petition” process? It might allow hundreds of students to stay. It might allow only a score. I assume it will be very tough.

7) If things are bad enough, in Biddy Martin’s view, that Amherst should close now, what are the odds that things will be better enough to open in the fall? Many of the experts I read think that things might be worse next October than they are now.

What do you predict Williams will do? What do you think Williams should do?

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Williams students, faculty and staff,

The COVID-19 virus is continuing to spread nationally, including a confirmed case in Clarksburg, MA, 7 miles east of Williams, and another in Bennington, VT. I am writing today to announce further steps to protect campus and prepare for the possibility that a case occurs here despite our best efforts. You can always find this information on the college’s COVID-19 website, too.

Since activities involving heightened personal interaction, including gatherings and travel, can be a source of exposure, we are making the following changes as of today:

First, college-sponsored international travel will not be allowed through April 30, 2020, with a possible extension beyond that time if it becomes necessary to ensure campus health. College funds may not be used for any trips occurring during this time. This is partly to limit the risk to our community, and partly because all of us as members of society have an ethical obligation to avoid activities that increase the risk of contagion. It is not a decision we make lightly, and we will continue to review the situation with the goal of lifting the prohibition as soon as evidence indicates it is safe to do so.

Second, we are canceling all campus events between now and April 30, 2020 that have an expected attendance of 100 or more. The college has meeting spaces that can accommodate crowds of fewer than 100 while allowing the recommended six-foot minimum distance between guests to limit contagion. For this reason, we believe 100 people is a meaningful cutoff point for now. Again, we are continually reviewing the situation and will inform you if it becomes necessary to extend or amend the policy. As part of our decision, we are also canceling Previews, our campus program for admitted students and families, which was scheduled to begin on April 20. There will also be no admission tours, info sessions or admitted student overnights during this time, all decisions comparable to those made by a number of other schools around the country.

The COVID-19 team has begun contacting many organizers of affected events. If you fall into this category, faculty with questions should please contact the Office of Commencement and Academic Events, while students should reach out to the Office of Student Life. Staff, your point of contact will vary, so please work with the appropriate liaison for your particular program.

This global outbreak challenges all of us, not just logistically or economically, but psychologically. While in the great majority of cases the symptoms of COVID-19 will resemble the flu, the uncertainty demands resilience. It is important that we take time to care for ourselves and each other, and especially to think about the most vulnerable. Any Williams employee with a complicating condition or circumstance should contact the Office of Human Resources to request accommodations. The HR team will offer a streamlined, confidential process. Students, if you have health concerns please call Student Health Services right away—they will not accept walk-ins for now, to limit the risk of contagion, but are there to help you. The college will work with every student to help you complete your academic program safely.

This outbreak is challenging schools to think creatively about how to guarantee academic rigor under adverse circumstances, and I thank our faculty and staff for problem-solving to keep us on mission. Indeed, I’m grateful to everyone, from custodians and dining staff to Health Services, Study Away, Admission and Financial Aid, CSS and deans, student leaders, event hosts, and others who are all adjusting your work—sometimes day to day—to keep people safe and the college operating smoothly.

Our team has reviewed the situation with local, state and national public health experts, and they consistently ask us to emphasize to campus that the number one thing we can all do to protect ourselves is to practice good hygiene: wash hands frequently and for a minimum of 20 seconds at a time, cover coughs and sneezes with the crook of an elbow, avoid touching our faces, and avoid contact or proximity with anyone who is already ill.

Again, I appreciate your cooperation with the prohibition on travel and the ban on large campus events. We will review the outlook on both decisions frequently, and will let you know whether we need to extend them or whether they can be curtailed. These decisions have real consequences for our mission, jobs and lives, and I appreciate your temporary sacrifices for our collective health and safety.


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