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Faculty Departures

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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#1 Comment By PinkoCommieEph On March 14, 2007 @ 1:57 pm

I know a lot about faculty departure decisions. For example, Gary Jacobson, 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.

Uh, Kane: unlike Walter Sobchak, you’re not just an asshole, you’re wrong too! I know (from personal communication with the individual in question) that local schools were certainly a factor in one of the departures you cite above.

You say that you know ‘a lot’ about faculty departure decisions. Now that this new shit has come to light, would you care to fill us in on the sources of your un-knowledge (i.e., beliefs that I claim are false; I’ll leave it to the fray to decide if they are justified)? Have you actually communicated with each of the former faculty on the list about their reasons for leaving Williams? If not, is your assertion based in anything besides speculation?

#2 Comment By David On March 14, 2007 @ 2:24 pm

1) Did you read the Diversity Initiatives report that I linked to? Maybe you think that John Gerry is an idiot, but he wrote hundreds of words about why faculty leave without mentioning schools once.

2) Could you please check with that individual and see whether or not he would mind confirming this, either anonymously or otherwise? More information is better than less.

3) I don’t want to get into a semantic dispute about whether or not school quality was a “factor.” No one doubts that all faculty prefer better schools to worse schools. But if MGHRS had been twice as good, would this person have stayed? I doubt it. Is the school his children now attend much better than MGHRS? Details, please.

4) My deduction could be wrong and, No, I have not quizzed each of these individuals, although I did have private communications with more than one. But much of this is common sense! (Corrections welcome to what follows.) Cook, Garsten, Muirhead (and Wilder?) did not have children when they left Williams. Jacobsohn’s (and Bruce’s) were beyond school age, I think. I communicated with Sam about his decision and he did not mention the quality of the local schools. Even if MGHRS were wonderful, he would have left in order to be part of an Orthodox community, something that Williamstown could never provide.

#3 Comment By Jeff Z. On March 14, 2007 @ 2:28 pm

Pinko, you dare to question Kane’s sources? My friend, you are entering a world of pain.

#4 Comment By Anonymous On March 14, 2007 @ 4:24 pm

More absurd is the claim that David knows of no one who turned down an offer at Williams partly based on the quality of the schools here. It is indeed possible that no one in the history of the school has ever done so, but how many job candidates turned down an offer at Williams and then talked to David Kane about it?

Also, please note that the problem at Mt. Greylock seems not to be that it has always been bad, but rather that it’s getting worse (now dropping French, etc.). This may indeed be an issue in faculty recuitment in the future, even if it has not been in the past.

#5 Comment By David On March 14, 2007 @ 5:21 pm

More absurd is the claim that David knows of no one who turned down an offer at Williams partly based on the quality of the schools here.

As always, I am ready to be proved wrong, but, please, provide some evidence.

1) No one has criticized the quality of elementary education in Williamstown. Given that the vast majority of junior faculty come to Williams with no/small children, that is the main concern. Anyone with concerns about what MGRHS is going to look like in 10 or 15 years is wasting their time since, even if it were wonderful today, it might be lousy by the time you are tenured and stuck at Williams.

2) Even those concerned with MGRHS now have a great option in BArT. I have heard nothing but good things about BArT. (Contrary opinions welcome.)

3) Note also that the standard story from the College is that Williams always gets one of its top choices. This is almost certainly true in subjects like English and history. (It isn’t that Williams always beats out Amherst. It’s that department searches are often sub-field driven so candidates rarely get competing offers.) It is less true (but harmless fluff) in areas like economics. (Williams does not even try to get the top candidates, knowing that they will almost all go to research universities. Among those that apply to Williams, the College does well.)

There are candidates who turn down Williams but 99% of the reason is the stuff that you would expect. (I talk to former students on the job market all the time) Prestige (no one turns down Stanford for Williams), location, spouse, lack of graduate students and so on. The fact that Route 2 has a lot of potholes and that MGRHS isn’t wonderful don’t help, obviously, but they don’t matter in any meaningful way.

#6 Comment By johnatrisk On March 14, 2007 @ 6:59 pm

Curious how the faculty at Williams care so much about their spouse/partner’s employment, yet so little about their children’s education. Does this say more about how the survey was conducted, or does it reflect an underlying trend in faculty preferences. I for one nominate Dave to ask the faculty about why they care about their spouses more than their children.

#7 Comment By Anon ’89er On March 14, 2007 @ 7:43 pm

How poor is the situation at MGRHS? I can see there is room for improvement, but as I live in a somewhat similarly situated Western Mass regional district (yes, the dreaded ‘herst), I am aware of some severe funding problems for regional high schools around here.

Still, dropping French seems crazy… how bad could it get that you could not afford a few good language teachers?

#8 Comment By Anon ’89er On March 14, 2007 @ 8:06 pm

oops, my link did not work. Try Massstats.com and check out the educational rankings. Raw info available at Mass DOE.

The impression I get is that MGRHS under-preforms (70th percentile statewide) but not drastically so.

#9 Comment By Aidan On March 14, 2007 @ 8:07 pm

potential confound: concerns about spousal salary might well be a proxy for a variety of other factors (including mortgage and private education) that are exceedingly relevant in hiring and retention situations. Perhaps people would be willing to “suck it up” vis a vis Greylock, but nobody’s going to “suck it up” vis a vis Greylock (ie, by paying private school tuition) and also “suck it up” vis a vis having a badly underemployed spouse.

#10 Comment By frank uible On March 14, 2007 @ 9:07 pm

Perhaps unless they have substantial independent means.

#11 Comment By Diana On March 14, 2007 @ 9:39 pm

I heard a specific example of a tenured professor looking to go elsewhere because Mt. Greylock was not very good and his or her children were about to be of the age to go there.

#12 Comment By Anonymous On March 14, 2007 @ 10:32 pm

Even if Greylock’s quality (or lack thereof) is not a decisive factor in faculty departures, is it possible that having a truly extraordinary public education system would attract new professors to Williams? Given the circumstances that Williams cannot change (i.e. isolation, few spousal job opportunities), making MGRHS into an extraordinary public high school is one thing that Williams could do to help in drawing new professors. It’s only money…

#13 Comment By frank uible On March 14, 2007 @ 11:03 pm

But only one of many.

#14 Comment By Ken Thomas ’93 On March 15, 2007 @ 12:02 am

is it possible that having a truly extraordinary public education system would attract new professors to Williams? Given the circumstances that Williams cannot change (i.e. isolation, few spousal job opportunities), making MGRHS into an extraordinary public high school is one thing that Williams could do to help in drawing new professors.

But only one of many.

It could also, emulating Google, MicroSoft and Oracle, organize a low-cost, flexible, on-demand and environmentally friendly transport system to ferry faculty (and students) to locations where they need to go.

Three-quarters of a century ago, the train station meant you could travel from Williamstown to Boston or Bennington, Albany or New York, quickly, cost-effictively, and conveniently– while working at a desk for the journey.

Equivalent convenience would change everything about Williamstown’s perceived “isolation,” and is acheivable at reasonable cost. Run diesel limosines on excess grease from local restaurants…

If we had a political culture of inquiry and exploration, the cost and value of such propositions would be (being) compared to the cost and value of a Steton-Sawyer project or support of MGRHS. (And there’s no reason a Williamstown child can’t attend a school in Amherst or Albany: average busing time in most of the US is close to an hour, and average commute is higher).

Iterate over the problems: solve the transport-isolation problem, and you give spouses and partners access to more job opportunities; you give faculty access to the ‘intellectual’ and ‘cultural’ communities of Boston and New York; and any transport system is two-way, opening the Berkshires to workers and visitors from surrounding locations.

Innovate. Use the credit position of Williams to underwrite faculty loans, lowering interest costs. Bank salaries to investment trusts, deferring taxation. Compensate in (pre-tax) services, not (post-tax) dollars. Create cross-institution appointments; let professors cross-teach the same course at two local institutions at the same time, increasing efficiency. {…}

#15 Comment By frank uible On March 15, 2007 @ 5:57 am

An alternate approach directed at the College’s attracting and retaining faculty with high school age children, which might very well be less expensive and would be easier to administer and less subject to abuse and waste than many others but less grand than some, would be for the College to offer Williams faculty and staff credit vouchers for application against any secondary school tuition for their children. This action would have the feature of avoiding significant alteration of the current tension between the school district taxpayers and the teacher’s union.

#16 Comment By Anonymous On March 15, 2007 @ 7:31 am

Anon 89- %70. You mean it beats the schools in Springfield, Lowell, and Roxbury? No way!