My friend Jeff claims that I have been “soundly trounced” on the issue of whether or not the same standards apply for male and female Ephs in the awarding of Bicentennial Medals at Williams.

[Previous discussion here. Strictly speaking there are two separate issues. First, are the standards lower for female Ephs and for male Ephs in general? Second, does any particular Eph, male or female, deserve to win? The second questions is much more difficult and contentious than the first. Here, let me focus on the former. Only those naive to the ways of places like Williams and to the unyielding reality of the underlying demographics believe that standards for men and women are the same.]

Jeff provides a handy “proof” of his claim, illustrating, in his view, that there are female Ephs with credentials more distinguished than Earl Potter ’68 who have not won Bicentennial Medals.

By the way, Catherine Hill has better than “the same” achievements (President of a more prestigious institution, Vassar, as well as years of service to Williams) … she has not (yet) been awarded a medal. QED.

I do not think that QED means what you think it means.

First, Catherine Hill was awarded an Honorary Degree in 2006. An Honorary Degree is much more prestigious than a Bicentennial Medal. As a rule (counter-examples welcome), the College does not award both to the same person. Consider Nobel Prize winner Robert Engle ’64, awarded an Honorary Degree in 2007. We all agree that he has displayed “distinguished achievement.” Why no Bicentennial Medal for Engle? Because the College awards honorary degrees to the real stars.

Second, even if you want to compare Cappy Hill to someone, the natural comparison is to Steve Lewis ’60. Both are Williams graduates, Williams economics professors and Williams provosts. Both became presidents of elite liberal arts colleges. Why does Lewis only get a Bicentennial Medal after a decade of being a college president while Hill gets an Honorary Degree just as her college presidency begins?

But these are quibbles. The Lewis/Hill outcomes might have nothing to do with gender. Morty might just like Cappy and not like Steve. Instead, of looking at this difficult case, let’s take a simple test. Here are neutral descriptions of three alums in the same field.

1) Successful in business and owner of a minor league baseball team.
2) Successful in business and owner of a major league baseball team.
3) Successful in business and commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Which one of these three alums has most displayed “distinguished achievement” in his/her field? Now, it would be reasonable to say that none of them have, that baseball is such a trivial part of human endeavor that none of these Ephs deserve a medal. It would also be reasonable to think that baseball is so wonderful that all three Ephs should win.

But there is no possible objective criteria by which you can prefer Eph #1 over #2 and #3. What if I told you that, in fact, #1 had been awarded a Bicentennial Medal in 1994 while Ephs #2 (George Steinbrenner ’52) and #3 (Fay Vincent ’60) had never been so honored? What would your first guess be about the gender of Eph #1? That’s right! Eph #1 is female.

Tracy P. Lewis
Class of 1983
Awarded the Bicentennial Medal in 1994.

Business woman and entrepreneur – first woman to own a minor league baseball team.

I am happy to grant that Tracy Lewis is a wonderful person (more wonderful than me) who has achieved a great deal (more than me). But if she had not been a woman, she would not have been awarded a Bicentennial Medal.

One example not enough? Fine. Let’s play again! Which of these four Ephs deserves a Bicentennial Medal?

1) Elected District Attorney in Middlesex County, Massachusetts.
2) Elected Congressman from 2nd District of Hawaii.
3) Elected Congressman from 2nd District of Colorado.
4) Elected Governor of Minnesota.

Again, maybe all of these Ephs deserve medals because elected office is so important. Maybe none of them do because politicians are venal. But there is no objective criteria imaginable by which a fair committee would choose #1 over any of #2, #3, or #4.

Who won? Surprise! It was Eph #1 in 1999.

Martha M. Coakley
Class of 1975
Awarded the Bicentennial Medal in 1999.

Middlesex County District Attorney

Neither Eph #2 (Ed Case ’75) nor #3 (Mark Udall ’72) nor #4 (Arne Carlson ’57) have won Bicentennial Medals. If any were female, they would have.

I am happy to play this game all day long, but, please, just think about the demographic reality. Women have only been at Williams for the last 30 years. Bicentennial Medal winners tend to be older because it often takes a lifetime to demonstrate “distinguished achievement.” Many/most female Ephs take substantial time off from their careers for family reasons while very few male Ephs do the same. Given all these facts (and without even entering the wonderful world of Larry Summers), there is no way that objective criteria would produce a 50/50 split between male/female medal winners.

What would the split be if the committee were gender-blind? Excellent question! I don’t know. There is already more male than female winners. A rough guess would be that 25% of the winners are female. If there were not a concern to make the winners look like Williams, the percentage would be much lower.

And, as always, this discussion should take nothing away from the female winners who would have won even if they were male. For example, it seems (counter-examples welcome) that every Eph Pulitzer Prize-winner has won a Bicentennial Medal. Sonia Nazario ’82 and Stacy Schiff ’82 fully deserved their medals. The same can not be said for some other female Eph winners. They were chosen, not for “distinguished achievement” among all Ephs, but for success in comparison to other female graduates of Williams.

It is an empirical fact that the standards for awarding Bicentennial Medals for women are lower than those for men. That may be a good thing. (I don’t really object much, if at all.) That may be a bad thing. But people like Jeff who would prefer that reality were other than it is should try to do that pretending elsewhere. They will have better luck.

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