Fellow blogger (and Yale graduate student) David Nickerson ’97 notes that “Keeping good faculty members at a liberal arts college like Williams is hard to do,” and provides a useful discussion of the issues involved. Fortunately, this is an easily solvable problem. But first a bit of background for those not in academia.

1) For all practical purposes, other schools only steal Williams faculty on the basis of scholarship. LSU does not care that much, if at all, that Tim Cook is a good teacher. LSU cares that he has in the past written (and will in the future write) books and articles that have a scholarly impact, that other academics will read and cite and be influenced by.

2) The job market in most of academia is horrible (if you are an academic). There are dozens of highly qualified applicants for almost every opening at Williams.

Now, with those facts as background, it is easy to come up with a plan that would decrease the number of faculty who leave Williams for elsewhere.

1) Hire more Williams graduates. People like Tom Smith ’88, Katie Kent ’88 and Will Dudley ’89 are much less likely to leave Williams than their peers because they feel a real affinity for Williams and Williamstown. They are truly Ephs. Faculty members who were undergraduates elsewhere are, presumably, not as Ephphilic.

2) Place a much greater emphasis on teaching talent and desire than one scholarly output, both in hiring and tenure decisions. This is an area of some dispute and goodness knows that Williams strikes a better balance than most schools. But, if your goal is to decrease faculty departures, you want to weigh things that other schools don’t care about (teaching) much higher than things they do care about (research). By hiring people like Russ Muirhead and Bryan Garsten, people with scholarly output that could get them positions at Harvard and Yale, the political science department is making a mistake. Instead, it should hire people who are better teachers than Muirhead and Garsten even though they might be worse scholars.

3) Focus on dual-Ph.D. couples. Anytime the College can provide academic positions to a couple, it can essentially lock them in for life because such opportunities are so raw. If Gary Jacobsohn’s wife had had a faculty appointment at Williams, there is no way he would have left for Texas. There are several (anyone have a list?) current examples at Williams. Of course, the difficulty here is coordination across departments. That is, the economics and biology departments would each have to take their second choice candidates (who happen to be married to each other) instead of their first choices.

These policies would decrease faculty turnover. But I am not sure that that is a useful way to frame the issue. The goal should be for Williams to improve the “quality” of it faculty — where quality is defined in terms of impact on current students. The way to do that is to give much higher weight to teaching and, pari passu, less weight to scholarship.

There are all sorts of reasons why this is unlikely to happen, but that is a topic for another day.

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