In a recent thread, I claimed that “I have never heard of a faculty member whose decision to leave Williams (or not to accept an offer) was significantly impacted by local school quality.” An anonymous reader disagrees.

I know of several, and I don’t even know that many members of the current faculty.

This is an empirical question. Who are these faculty members and where are they now if not Williams? Actually, we don’t need to know their names (although I would like to think that someone who has left Williams would not mind if their reason for leaving was publicly know). We just need more details on their departures.

The reason that I doubt this is because I know a lot about faculty departure decisions. For example, Gary Jacobsohn, Tim Cook, Bryan Garsten, Russ Muirhead, Sam Fleischacker, Kim Bruce and Craig Wilder all left Williams for reasons unconnected to the quality (or lack thereof) of MGRHS.

Not enough examples? More below.

Consider this excellent Record article on the topic. It highlights the departures of nine faculty (8 + Fleischacker) and does not say a single word about local schools. Instead, it covers the real issues that Williams faces in faculty recruitment and retention (location, spousal opportunities, prestige, money, no graduate students and so on).

Still don’t believe me? Check the Diversity Initiatives Report on the reasons for faculty departures.

Would you be willing to discuss, generally, your reasons for leaving Williams? Were there particular negative/positive aspects of your experience here that were important in your decision to leave? What were the particular positive/negative aspects of the new location that were important in your decision to leave?

The most common response to these questions focused on the spouse/partner employment issue, especially for those individuals whose spouse or partner was also an academic. Several of those interviewed stated unequivocally that they left Williams because there was no real promise of a meaningful career for their spouse or partner. When they were offered positions at institutions that were willing to hire their spouse/partners, they felt that they had no choice but to go. Others left for positions in metropolitan areas, where employment opportunities were greater, even when their spouses or partners didn’t yet have firm offers in hand. For those involved in weekly or daily commuter relationships, they said that being on the road grew wearisome. In one case, a daily commute of one hour added enough stress to the family dynamic that the couple leapt at the chance to relocate. Among the seven who mentioned spouse/partner employment as a major factor in their decisions to leave, most said that there wasn’t much the College could have done about it; two of them, however, left feeling that the College could have done more to help their spouses/partners, and thus hadn’t worked hard to retain them.

The second most common set of responses to these questions focused on the issue of social isolation. Young faculty members, in particular, left Williams to expand their social networks and to settle in livelier communities. They spoke of the natural beauty of the Berkshires as a real plus, and of the wholesome outdoorsiness they enjoyed, but said that these things were not enough to offset neither the loneliness that they felt, nor the dearth of social opportunities available here. More than one of them observed that Williamstown is wonderful for families; it is clean, safe, quiet, and oriented toward children. But they continued to say that it is too small and isolated, not “hurly-burly” enough, for single people. The only suggestion they offered was that the College work harder to promote more community building events among the faculty and staff.

Social isolation was not just a factor for young, single faculty members. Several of those who were married while they were here said that they left because they wanted to live in urban settings. The commute to New York or Boston was just a bit too long.

A final common theme among the responses to these questions focused on the “aura” of Williams. One assistant professor (White female) said that she left primarily because Williams was “too White and too upper class.” Another (White male) said there was a sense of eliteness (“Aren’t we special!”) to the College that really turned him off. Others were less extreme on this point but nevertheless said that the intensity of the work ethic (“too much teaching, too much service”), and the seriousness with which most faculty members took their work, was not to their liking. A third assistant professor (White male) commented on his relationship with the students, and described it as a poor ideological fit. He explained that the students here, while spectacularly smart and capable, were largely from a different world than he was accustomed to. He had trouble relating to them and didn’t feel that he was making much of a difference in their lives. He left to work at a college where the students are not as talented, but where they appreciate him more. Moreover, there’s less pressure in his new job, thus more research productivity. He only complained that his earnings potential is not as high now as it would have been if he’d stayed at Williams, but he has no regrets about leaving.

In a topic related to diversity, a couple of faculty members said that they left in part because they felt that Williams was not a truly intellectual place. They sought a research environment where a higher premium was placed on scholarship (in tenure reviews, for example) and less emphasis given to teaching. The draw of working with graduate students was part of this, as was the allure of belonging to larger departments, with more colleagues sharing similar research goals. But most of all they said that they needed to be in a place where new ideas were being generated, and that this was most likely to happen at a university, where there would be a larger and more diverse faculty, and a larger and more diverse student body.

There were just a few additional comments about diversity that were raised in response to this question, but this topic seemed not to be as important as the other reasons listed above. Diversity was sometimes seen as a “pull” factor in their decisions to leave, rather than a “push” factor; i.e., they left to go to a new job where there would be greater diversity, and this was seen as attractive, but they didn’t leave Williams because they were bothered by — or pushed away by — diversity issues here.

I can’t find a single mention of local schools in the entire discussion.

The faculty would love nothing more than for the College to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to turn MGRHS into the world’s greatest high school. But the College’s refusal (I hope!) to do so will have virtually no impact on faculty retention and recruitment.

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