One of the more contention issues on EphBlog in years past has been the quality of the Mount Greylock Regional High School (MGRHS) and its relationship with Williams. See below for background and rant. More news coverage to follow.

Most/all Williams faculty and administrators feel that MGRHS is not as good a school as it should be and that this hurts Williams since good faculty are, therefore, less like to come to, and stay at, the College. They argue that Williams should spend its own money (i.e., alumni contributions that I and my fellow class agents are busy raising) to fix this problem.

I have argued (here, here and here) that this is 95% bunk. Four years ago (in the first post that got me in trouble with the powers-that-be), in the context of the College’s gift of $250,000 to MGRHS, I argued:

Who decides where the college donates money? Senior members of the administration. Where do the children of senior members of the administration go to high school? For at least some, the answer is Mount Greylock. Indeed, we can read about the exploits of Matt (son of Morty) Schapiro on the Mount Greylock tennis team here.

So, is it any wonder that Morty Schapiro and other senior people at the college might think that the worthy goal of providing a better education at Mount Greylock High School is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars of the College’s money?

Followers of recent financial scandals on Wall Street will note the similarity to the case of Jack Grubman and Citigroup and the 92nd Street Y. You can read many of the details here, but the relevant part of the puzzle was the alledged use of Citigroup’s corporate philanthropy to facilitate the educational goals of star employee Jack Grubman. The basic claim is that Citigroup gave money to an elite Manhattan pre-school in order to better the odds of admission for Grubman’s twin children.

The central problem for both Citigroup and Williams is that any act of philanthropy is a) good in and of itself; b) potentially useful to the larger goals of the insitution (Williams benefits from having better faculty and better faculty are more likely to come to Williams if the local school system is good); and c) potentially beneficial to specific senior employees with decision-making authority over the philanthropy (Morty Schapiro benefits if his son’s tennis team has nicer facilities).

Of course, we at Williams Blog Central think highly of Morty Schapiro — and not just because we want a job from him some day! — so it is out of the question that Williams might have given to Mount Greylock for reason c). But the conflict of interest doesn’t go away just because one has faith in the specific people involved. If you disagree, ask yourself how things would change if Williams gave $250 thousand every year, or how about $2.5 million, or even $25 million. Whatever the amount, reasons a) and b) would still be true.

But the problem is not merely a theoretical conflict of interest. The actual facts are not what the Williams administration often tells us.

First, MGRHS is an excellent public high school.

The school [MGRHS] was listed among the top 500 schools in the nation last week by U.S. News and World Report. The weekly magazine, famous for its annual college rankings (which named Williams as the top liberal arts school for 2008 – and its nemesis, Amherst, as No. 2) awarded Mount Greylock a silver medal, one of 24 awarded in Massachusetts. Five other schools received gold and 14, bronze.

The magazine based its rankings how well students did on state tests, how well disadvantaged students were educated and whether the school provided college-level coursework. It analyzed public information from nearly 19,000 schools nationwide.

Travis said the school district’s low poverty level may have played a role, but Mount Greylock students have performed well on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests and a large number of students take Advanced Placement courses.

The magazine found more than half of the student body participated in AP, taking an average of three tests with a pass rate of nearly 80 percent.

This is the second time in six months the school has been cited in a national magazine. Earlier this year, Newsweek ranked Mount Greylock 413 out of 1,300 schools.

If MGRHS is really in the top 5% of high schools (and I believe that it is), then what is the problem? Why does Williams need to spend my alumni donations on items that the taxpayers of Williamstown feel are not important?

MGRHS is not St. Paul. But Williams faculty (both prospective and current) don’t have the option of sending their children to St. Paul. If they don’t work at Williams, they need to work at some other college. Are the local schools around Amherst or Swarthmore or Middlebury any better? No! Moreover, the vast majority of Williams faculty don’t even have the option to move to a similar position at a competing school. Even if the local high school near Bowdoin is excellent, only a small percentage of tenured Williams faculty could get a tenured slot for the same pay at Bowdoin, not because they are stupid but because the academic job market is so competitive, especially outside of Division III.

Now, in a very small set of circumstances, this might matter. Perhaps Economics Professor Steve Sheppard would not have left Oberlin to come to Williams if MGRHS had been worse (see here). Perhaps former Political Science Professor Marc Lynch would have stayed at Williams if MGRHS were better (see here). But you don’t make policy on the basis of outlier cases. And, more importantly, we now have clear evidence that MGRHS is a top 5% school. How much benefit would we really get in terms of faculty recruitment and retention if the College spend millions of dollars to move it from top 5% to top 3%? Almost none! After all, Morty has told us many times that the College already gets its top choices when it hires, even with MGRHS as it is.

My views are the same as they were three years ago.

Can anyone point me to a specific faculty member whose decision about whether or not to come to, or stay at, Williams was determined by the quality (or lack thereof) of the local high school? I doubt it.

Consider some of the professors (Cook, Jacobsohn, Fleischacker, Muirhead and Garsten come immediately to mind) that have left Williams. Does anyone argue that had Mount Greylock High School been better (10% better, 50% better, whatever), they would have stayed? I don’t think so.

Consider William’s recent recruitment efforts. Morty reported in the Alumni Review (sorry, can’t find the link) that the College was getting, essentially, all its top choices in recent faculty hiring. Given the oversupply of faculty applicants, I certainly believe that Williams does this well.

But if it has done so well (over the last few years), why does Williams need to start giving money to Mount Greylock High School (and other local works) now?

If giving millions of dollars to local charities is neither sufficient for faculty retention nor necessary for faculty recruitment, then what is the point?

There may be reasons for Williams to spend money on MGRHS, but faculty recruitment and retention is not among them.

More to come tomorrow! Contain your excitement.

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