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The Mission of Williams is . . .

Richard Dunn ’02 was afraid that his comment toward the end of the Marxism thread would be lost to all and sundry. There’s no need to fear, EphBlog is here! Underdog references notwithstanding, my favorite part of Richard’s comments is:

If you really think you have a definitive answer to this problem, you are simply arrogant. If you think you are approaching a solution, then you are merely delusional.

Delusional arrogance is my specialty! The rest of Richard’s comment is below, but the point he raises is an important one: What is the mission of Williams College? For me the answer is easy:

The mission of Williams is to be the best college in the world.

1) I am looking for a better, more catchy way to phrase this. Suggestions are welcome.

2) Note that, as with so many other topics, Morty and I are in agreement. Recall this phrase from the Diversity Report: “The College’s mission to provide the highest quality liberal arts education . . . ”

3) Richard (and others) seem to disagree, to believe that the College has other missions (to decrease inequality, to strengthen the country, to enhance the knowledge of mankind). I agree that many of these other goals are desirable and that, as a consequence of having a great college, some of them will be furthered. But none of these is the central mission of Williams. Those who disagree should provide us a similarly concise mission statement.

Richard’s armada analogy below.

I fear this will get lost at the bottom of this long thread, but for what it’s worth.

A story: Suppose you were building an armada. You had two choices:

1) Put all your best shipbuilders to work on the flagship. You then put all your best sailors on the flagship, with all the best cannons and your best captain. And then you throw together the rest of your fleet.

2) Spread your best shipbuilders around. Same with the cannons and the leadership and the sailors.

Your best ship is worse than before, surely, but the rest of your fleet is better.

I sense that nearly everyone in this thread is selecting a strategy based on ideology. But no one has touched on why you are building an armada in the first place. Yes, Amherst plausibly becomes a worse school by the measures we typically use here. But does that make our country worse? Sure, put a lot of smart people together and they all get smarter. But is the benefit even larger if we put less smart people together with smart people? Why and what for and no one has answered that yet.

If you really think you have a definitive answer to this problem, you are simply arrogant. If you think you are approaching a solution, then you are merely delusional.

Enjoy the banter, but you aren’t even touching anything meaningful.

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#1 Comment By Richard Dunn On February 27, 2006 @ 10:33 am

Let me clarify a position that David is attributing to me: I don’t know what Williams’ mission should be. Williams may do more good by collecting all the best students and teachers from around the world in one place (the Monitor did a fine job harassing the Union all by itself), but maybe Amherst does more good by providing essentially unlimited resources to a broader demographic.
I think this is the most salient question for elite institutions as a group right now. What obligations do Williams and Harvard and Stanford have toward America–these are not-for-profit, untaxed entities for a specific reason? Do they have obligations to the world? If so, what? They cannot simply engage in becoming great for the joy of doing so. They must have a purpose, and until we decide on that, I’m not sure we are talking about much at all.

#2 Comment By frank uible On February 27, 2006 @ 12:08 pm

Because Williams has accumulated wealth through the largesse of generations, let’s expropriate that wealth to feed the temporal purposes of some fallible mortals who care more about their visions than they do about Williams. Why the hell not? For starters, there are legal constraints on such action – that’s one reason why not.

#3 Comment By Alexander Woo On February 27, 2006 @ 8:24 pm

Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve any problems. It just takes all the controversies and puts the burden of them on defining the word “best”.

#4 Comment By frank uible On February 27, 2006 @ 9:12 pm

In this regard, Williams has no problems, only a luxury of alternatives.

#5 Comment By rory On February 27, 2006 @ 10:24 pm

this is a problem for all of education. poll a group of people with the following question and you’ll get no consensus:
the role of education is:
-teach literacy
-teach hard work and discipline
-teach a moral standard
-teach creative thinking
etc.

A prof in one of my classes this semester used a version of that question with 25 people all in similar programs. the answer with the most agreement had only 11 people vote for it.

i do believe, however, that a plural concept of “best” offers a way out. If one person is deemed one of “the best” because of one attribute and another for a different attribute, we can potentially have our cake and eat it too. it also moves away from the traditional (and flawed) assumption that there is one concept of best or smart or worthy.

(acknowledges that the above paragraph can be used to defend athletic tips i’ve occasionally criticized)

#6 Comment By frank uible On February 28, 2006 @ 5:06 am

Of course – with great deliberation pick a reasonable niche and hit it hard.

#7 Comment By David On February 28, 2006 @ 7:46 am

I am failing to make my point clear. As an example of the sort of reasoning that would not be allowed under my scheme, consider this quote from Rory:

As an institution of resources and education, Williams has an opportunity, and I would argue because of that a duty, to not only identify more [poor] students, but also help society stop failing so many of them.

No. Williams has no “duty,” no responsibility to the larger society (Berkshire, Massachusetts, US or global) to do this or that or the other thing. I do not mean to pick on Rory, especially since, on some dimensions, our opinions on the duties of society are so similar. Indeed, I would object as much to this quote if it referred to students that I am especially interested in, say US military veterans, perhaps even wounded veterans.

Imagine that Morty said something along the lines of

As an institution of resources and education, Williams has an opportunity, and I would argue because of that a duty, to not only identify more students who have served in the military, but also help society stop failing so many of them. Because of this, I am changing the Tyng Scholarship so that it will be used primarily for qualified US veterans. There are hundreds of soldiers who have served their time and would thrive at Williams. They deserve the very best college education that our country can provide. They deserve Williams.

Many on this list would object to such a policy. So would I. But it is important that the reasons for this rejection be value neutral. You can not reject this policy because you think that “society” does too much for veterans, or because you do not like veterans, or because, in the great cosmic balancing, poor people are more worthy of charity than veterans.

Instead, you must have a vision for Williams that focuses in its mission: to be the best college in the world. Within the framework of that mission, it may be best to just let in the highest academic ranks and then let the other distributions fall where they may. Perhaps such a scheme would yield 5% poor students and no veterans. Perhaps the numbers would be different. Or, one might argue (plausibly!) on diversity-improves-education-grounds that Williams should let in more poor (or veteran) applicants, including AR 3s and 4s and 5s because doing so makes the College as a whole better.

Fine. We can discuss and debate the costs and benefits of such policies. Yet it is, I think, useless to include wider considerations, to discuss, as Anthony Marx does, the future of the US and our views on the construction of a just society.

Many people of a certain political persuasion think that Marx’s insistence on ensuring that 25% of Amherst students come from poor families is great. Would those people be just as happy if — using the exact same words — he were to reserve 25% (or 5% or even 1%) of the class for veterans? I doubt it.

But, again, I (and Morty!) have provided a concise statement of the mission of Williams. This statement explicitly excludes attempts to make the world a better place (although making Williams great does, pari passu, have this effect.) Can you provide a better one?

#8 Comment By hwc On February 28, 2006 @ 10:34 am

The problem is that it is a platitude, not a mission statement to begin with. A mission statement commits an institution to a defining direction, an institutional character that differentiates from others.

“To be the best” is not really a very descriptive mission statement. Sounds like something a nouveau riche educational social climber like Duke would say, not an established old-money Brahmin school with a 200 year track record of excellence.

#9 Comment By rory On February 28, 2006 @ 10:56 am

nice dig at Duke! :P

“best” is an inappropriate term, but hwc does a better job of pointing out its inappropriateness. I can argue the “best” education means interacting with people of different social classes, thus, williams must have a form of affirmative action for the poor. Or, I could argue it means physics and chemistry, because those are really, really hard and thus take the most brainpower for most people, thus, Williams should only take chemists and physicists. Or i could argue…(you get the point)

Here we get into my interest in critical race theory, that in even the most seemingly value-neutral policies and mission statements can be found a racial and class behavior and attitude, because of said policy’s surroundings in a racially and class divided society. What I can then say is that though serving veterans is a noble, important, and missed opportunity for Williams (I wonder if any Iraq vets. are considering our beloved valley? It’d be good to have some), as a group, veterans do not face the bias of society that the poor and minorities do. As such, your analogy is somewhat invalid, and I believe I can continue to assert that programs specific to and for minorities and low income students are important and consistent with a liberal ats institution without falling into the mistake you outline.

#10 Comment By Bill ’04 On February 28, 2006 @ 11:49 am

I think you miss David’s point. As I read it, the word “duty” is the real concern. Duty is a term of art as the courts like to say. Williams clearly has no duty to help society or minorities or veterans. If the courts ever found such a duty to exist, then society as we know it would fall apart. Would the government then have a “duty” help the poor and thus you can sue the US for being poor? At most you could say that Williams has a moral obligation based on your political skew.

What confuses me about this argument is why is 25% the magic number? Why not 100%. Isn’t that even more noble under your sensibilities? Wait then all the students would be poorer (both economically and by qualification standards)and Williams or Amherst’s rankings would tank.

#11 Comment By David On February 28, 2006 @ 12:21 pm

HWC claims that “The problem is that it is a platitude, not a mission statement to begin with.”

I disagree. I realize that most mission statements are longer; my purpose is just to sum up the goal or mission or purpose of Williams in a single sentence. Provide a better one, if you can.

I also don’t think that it is a platitude since it explicitly removes all sorts of things from the discussion. Enrolling AR 4s at Williams of various sorts may improve the overall education provided. That is an empirical question and I am ready to debate the merits.

Indeed, one of the reasons that I make obnoxious observations like this one is that I do not believe that most such preferences actual improve the education provided; but perhaps I am wrong.

My point here is just to establish, as an initial and commonly-held assumption, that appeals to duty or responsibility or armadas should play no role in this debate. If letting in an AR 4 students who is type X (very rich, URM, very poor, veteran, hockey player, whatever) increases the overall quality of Williams for everyone more than admitting another AR 1 would, then fine. Let us admit the AR 4.

In other words, I am happy to grant that Rory is correct when he writes:

I can argue the “best” education means interacting with people of different social classes, thus, williams must have a form of affirmative action for the poor.

Fine. Then we need to have a detailed discussion about just how this works, how much class interactions matter (or should matter) at Williams, how the admissions office can (or can not) identify “poor” applicants and so on.

But those are the only things to argue about. All of the rhetoric of someone like Anthony Marx about the future of the country or the unfairness of society or the responsibilities of the privileged play no (useful) role in the discussion.

#12 Comment By hwc On February 28, 2006 @ 12:29 pm

Mission statements provide an interesting window into the nature of various colleges. When I was helping my daughter sort through options, I sought out the mission statement of each school. In many cases, a mission statement makes very clear what a college is about. For example, the first three paragraphs of Davidson’s Statement of Purpose make it quite clear that Christianity is a major emphasis:

Statement of Purpose

Davidson College is an institution of higher learning established in 1837 by Presbyterians of North Carolina. Since its founding, the ties that bind the college to its Presbyterian heritage, including the historic understanding of Christian faith called The Reformed Tradition, have remained close and
strong. The college is committed to continuing this vital relationship.

The primary purpose of Davidson College is to assist students in developing humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds for lives of leadership and service. In fulfilling its purpose, Davidson has chosen to be a liberal arts college, to maintain itself as a residential community of scholars, to emphasize the teaching responsibility of all professors, and to ensure the opportunity for personal relationships between students and teachers. Further, Davidson believes it is vital that all students in every class know and study under mature and scholarly teachers who are able and eager to provide for each of them stimulation, instruction, and guidance.

The Christian tradition to which Davidson remains committed recognizes God as the source of all truth, and believes that Jesus Christ is the revelation of that God, a God bound by no church or creed. The loyalty of the college thus extends beyond the Christian community to the whole of humanity and necessarily includes openness to and respect for the world’s various religious traditions. Davidson dedicates itself to the quest for truth and encourages teachers and students to explore the whole of reality, whether physical or spiritual, with unlimited employment of their intellectual powers. At Davidson, faith and reason work together in mutual respect and benefit toward growth in learning, understanding, and wisdom.

While I may or may not agree with various mission statements, I do applaud colleges that have a defining quality and are willing to put it out there. I think doing so is particularly important for a liberal arts college which, due to intentional choices about the size of the institution, really can’t be all things to all people.

As far as I have been able to find, neither Williams nor Amherst has publised a clear, definitive mission statement. Both rely on quotes from historic presidential speeches to layer a tapestry of goals.

I don’t think it would be difficult to identify the elements of a Williams mission statement. The obvious components include:

a) preparing students to become productive members of society through

b) rigorous academic study and

c) a commitment to athletics and physical activity

Two additional Thoreau-esque elements would be a bit harder to phrase, but are key defining elements of what makes Williams Williams, IMO:

d) the luxury of a rural community that is free of outside distractions

e) the beauty of the surrounding area

#13 Comment By hwc On February 28, 2006 @ 12:40 pm

David:

The inherent problem with “the best education” mission statement is its lack of intellectual honesty. I think that any critical-thinking Ephman (male or female) would acknowledge that there is no “best” education; that all types of colleges and universities offer educational advantages and disadvantages. I can certainly point to advantages that large research universities will always have over my prefered small liberal arts colleges.

So by limiting ourselves to “the best education” we are stripping the mission statement of all meaning. There isn’t a college on earth that doesn’t strive to offer “the best education”.

#14 Comment By rory On February 28, 2006 @ 12:44 pm

sigh…i should be writing a research proposal. but total words written here far exceeds my success on that slightly more important topic (unless ephblog can fund my proposal…)

Bill: First, i call a cherry-pick on David :) the duty was to identify students who are being failed by society but could succeed at williams. perhaps i’m more radical than i believe, because i think it would be nice for the poverty line to both be a legitimate definition of poverty and be a minimum assured income for anyone who works or is disabled. But that’s not the central point.

My point is that creating idealized mission statements that sound wonderful in the abstract have real world implications, particularly on racial minorities and low income individuals, that are not detailed in seemingly fair mission statements. The mission statement “to be the best” begs the question of what is “best”, how is it defined, and does everyone have a legitimate chance at being “best” if they have the genetic material that requires. If we are in a society where that chance is not universal, and my institutions job is to “be the best”, then I believe said institution should put resources towards making the opportunity more universal.

David: my point in that quote about definitions of best was not to proffer my own definition, but rather to assert that the term is too ambiguous to rally any group around. best at what? how do we know? what does it take? everyone can agree on the vaguest of missions, but taht does not mean we’d get anywhere.

And I will continue to defend a larger role than the purely insular definition of education you are expressing. “duties” or “responsibilities” toward the larger society I believe are inherent in education. Not only as the educated have a responsibility to use their education to be responsible members of society, not only because the education of a society is its marker in many respects of its moral and practical philosophy, but because, to be cliche, to those much is given…

education, in particular, though, has even more duty. These schools are the training grounds of future leaders throughout society. If they are insular training grounds of the already-elite, then society’s future leaders will have, as a large subsection of them, people who only know the non-elite as “the other”. That’s dangerous, and a morally unacceptable position for these schools to hold, one that society cannot allow them to have. As such, they need to ensure a critical mass of nontraditional students so that society’s leaders do not become an officially meritocratic aristocracy. and from that, i see a duty.

#15 Comment By David On February 28, 2006 @ 1:36 pm

1) I urge Rory to write his research proposal.

2) Again, I am not looking for a “mission statement” per se, just a one sentence summary of the goal/mission/purpose of Williams. Most mission statements are much longer, along the lines of HWC’s quote.

3) I think that HWC is very wrong when he writes:

The inherent problem with “the best education” mission statement is its lack of intellectual honesty. I think that any critical-thinking Ephman (male or female) would acknowledge that there is no “best” education; that all types of colleges and universities offer educational advantages and disadvantages. I can certainly point to advantages that large research universities will always have over my preferred small liberal arts colleges.

So by limiting ourselves to “the best education” we are stripping the mission statement of all meaning. There isn’t a college on earth that doesn’t strive to offer “the best education”.

First, research universities like Harvard see themselves very differently. For example, they would be eager to hire a Nobel-winner as a professor even if he insisted that he would do no teaching. Williams would/should never do this. Harvard sees the expansion of human knowledge as central to its mission. I think that this should play no part in Williams’ purpose, except in so far as it contributes directly to undergraduate education.

Second, HWC is correct that there is no “best” for everyone, but the concept of a best is still meaningful. For example, Williams would be the best College in the world if a large majority of the students it accepted/enrolled were a) highly sought after and b) better off at Williams than elsewhere.

This is a counterfactual that we have seen before. Consider 100 students accepted by both Harvard and Williams. My claim is that Williams is the “best” college if most of those students are better off — happier, more educated, more engaged, more satisfied during college and afterwards — if they go to Williams instead of Harvard. Now, we will always have trouble measuring this since we can never send a student to both Harvard and Williams for four years. But, conceptually, the goal is clear.

Surely HWC realizes that Williams is “better” than INSERT-POOREST-COMMUNITY-COLLEGE-IN-WORLD-HERE even though one student out of 50 (100? 1000?) would be more miserable as an Eph.

#16 Comment By hwc On February 28, 2006 @ 2:06 pm

First, research universities like Harvard see themselves very differently. For example, they would be eager to hire a Nobel-winner as a professor even if he insisted that he would do no teaching. Williams would/should never do this. Harvard sees the expansion of human knowledge as central to its mission. I think that this should play no part in Williams’ purpose, except in so far as it contributes directly to undergraduate education.

David:

You just made my point for me. Harvard and Williams have very different priorities. Yet, I suspect both fancy themselves as striving to be “the best”. That’s why “the best” is so meaningless. It communicates nothing about the specific mission of the school, i.e. the things that make Williams’ and Harvard’s institutional priorities different.

#17 Comment By Bill ’04 On February 28, 2006 @ 2:23 pm

Well if you are hung up on the word “best”, maybe a slightly modified version of what David wrote in his last post is more satisfying. Williams goal is to have the happiest, most influential and successful students and alumni of any college.

#18 Comment By David On February 28, 2006 @ 2:43 pm

I guess that “best college” is a key phrase here. No research university would find this goal complete. I am using the term “college” as the referent to highlight the fact that the goals of a place like Williams are very different from the goals of a place like Harvard, especially of Harvard College, the undergraduate portion of Harvard University.

Even Harvard College would put a big emphasis on expanding the knowledge of mankind.

So a phrase like “best college” helps to separate what Williams (should/does) try to do versus what Harvard does, at least indirectly.

For example, few at Harvard (at least among the people who set policy) think that it is a problem that very little of the written feedback that Harvard undergraduates receive on their papers is from faculty. (Almost all comes from graduate students.) The situation at Williams is very different, of course.

In other words, I think that “best college” highlights what Williams does well (interaction with faculty) and what Harvard (and others) do poorly. Now, someone might claim that “best college” does not entail faculty interaction but that is precisely the discussion that we would like to focus on.

Perhaps I should use “liberal arts college,” but I find that too wordy.

#19 Comment By Richard Dunn On February 28, 2006 @ 4:59 pm

The problem with David’s argument is that Williams does have a duty. If we argue that Williams has no duty to society then it should not be not-for-profit. If Williams is there to be the best without regard to its social responsibility, then we forfeit any reason for out tax exempt status. In this case, we are merely a service provided to paying customers. This is precisely the problem with educational consumerism.

If David wants to argue that collecting the best students and faculty at Williams provides a valuable service to the community–however you wish to define value and community–then by all means, lets follow David. But, I think Marx is arguing two points: 1) elite private institutions have duties, which I am in complete agreement and 2) the way Amherst will interpret this includes lowering admission standards to get particular types of students. I am still open to this latter argument.

#20 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On March 1, 2006 @ 5:55 am

My two cents is:
“A small liberal arts college in rural New England, drawing on a long history of teaching excellence, that teaches students with a wide variety of backgrounds and aptitudes to write well, think critically, and remain curious as a way to be valuable leaders in an ever-changing world.”

Put another way, (1) it ain’t BU or Columbia: if you want to get lost in a city university, look elsewhere, (2) yes, Mark Hopkins was here and still is here in different guises, (3) it tries to have a diverse student body (compared to religious oriented colleges or colleges giving out few scholarships) that studies a variety of subjects (unlike CalTech or MIT), (4) rote learning is not highly valued, but thinking through a complex problem is, and (5) we expect you to have an impact on society in some form, dealing with issues that can’t necessarily be foreseen today.

#21 Comment By frank uible On March 1, 2006 @ 12:46 pm

Guy: Add “be tolerant of others’ differences”.