Keeping good faculty members at a liberal arts college like Williams is hard to do.

I learned yesterday that Bryan Garsten will be leaving Williams’ political science department for Yale’s (where my political theory brethren are very excited). The news of this defection falls on the heels of Gary Jacobsohn (probably the strongest academic in the Williams political science department and a very good teacher as well) announcing that he has accepted an endowed chair at the University of Texas.

Now, I didn’t have Bryan Garsten as a professor when I was at Williams. He was still a mere graduate school at Harvard with starry eyed dreams of a tenure track job. In fact, very few of the political science professors I knew remain at the school. Sam Fleischacker left for the University of Illinois at Chicago, Tim Cook moved to LSU, and Russ Muirhead is now teaching at Harvard. The reasons each of the professors left were idiosyncratic and personal, but all of them received offers from other schools that they deemed preferable to Williams. While the academy may seem like a warm and fuzzy place, the truth is that schools try to pilfer each other’s most talented professors.

I’m sure that the experience of the political science department is not unique at Williams (e.g., Louise Gluck was just hired away by Yale). Williams is faced with something of a dilemma. It wants to hire professors who are valuable contributors to their field because such professors offer unique insights and have an incentive to stay on top of the field. However, if Williams is successful in hiring academic stars, then the professors are likely to be lured away by research universities offering more salary, prestige, research opportunities, and bigger cities. Continuity in faculty is highly desirable in a college setting because it gives students and alumni a sense of place and increased ties to the institution. Maintaining continuity and hiring valuable contributors to the field are at odds with one another.

There is a further dilemma in the process. If tenure standards are low, then the most talented professors are likely to be hired away and the department will be left with a mediocre senior faculty. However, if tenure standards are high, then a department faces divisive tenure fights, uncertainty and stress among junior faculty members, and a generally uncongenial atmosphere. The poor atmosphere would provide increased incentive for professors to leave and hurt the students.

What is a college to do?

Answer that question and you can land yourself a job as a college president.

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