Among the Williams faculty, the center of discussion over the next week will be the May 7th vote on whether or not to cancel the Williams in New York program. Good luck to both sides. Let the lobbying and coalition building commence! Key, as in all elections, will be turn out. Perhaps a reader will attend and give us a blow-by-blow.

In the meantime, I want to turn the discussion toward some specific parts of the report. I suspect that for many faculty members, the key issues will be cost and popularity. If WNY isn’t that expensive and/or is very popular, then why cancel it? Let’s start with the issue of cost.

Summary: The Waters Committee has failed to provide a disinterested faculty member with enough information to fairly estimate the “cost” of the WNY program. Until that information is provided, one should not vote to cancel the program.

Endless details below

1) The report provides very little information on costs. Given how central this topic is to how an informed faculty member should vote, I suspect that there may be a bit of shading going on. A majority of the committee [Call it the Waters Committee?] clearly want to cancel the program. The best way to do that is to make the program appear more expensive than it actually is. I am not accusing anyone of lying, but I do think that a more honest presentation would have been much more detailed.

2) We are told that the per pupil “subsidy” is $31,000 (at 8 students per semester) while the the same figure for Williams-Exeter at Oxford is $2,230 per student per semester. The obvious conclusion intended by the Committee? WNY is 15 times more expensive than WEPO and no more popular, so cancel it. But no details are given on how the cost for WEPO is calculated. In fact, the Committee admits (is forced to admit?) that “The comparison, however, is difficult to make, given that the expenditure on facilities in Oxford (maintenance and operation) is calculated differently.” Well, then, for all we know the comparison is useless! How can anyone know what the true figure for WEPO is given this caveat? If I were a pro-WNY member of the faculty, I would push the hard on this point at the faculty meeting. I would claim that, without more detail, it is impossible for me, or any other professor, to cast an informed vote. In fact, I would write to Professor Waters right now with these and other questions so that I could claim (truthfully!) on Wednesday to have given the Committee time to come up with some answers.

3) Why are we forced to look only at an “estimated” budget for the future rather than the actual budge for this year? I suppose that they might be similar, but I would want to see some evidence of that. In fact, I would like a detailed breakdown of all the costs. Given that I know that the Committee wants the faculty to cancel the program, I would be suspicious that they had overestimated the future costs. The best way to cross-check those estimates is to look at this year’s actual spending.

4) As Ben Sykes ’08 points out, there questions about the accuracy of the budget estimates.

Furthermore, the cost figures are exaggerated–the committee factors in tuition for every student to take 1 class at NYU: something which will only be done for next year’s program and is opposed by much of the WNY faculty. This adds $5,000 in per pupil expenses.

A faculty member has no way to judge the reasonableness of Ben’s complaint because the budget is not itemized. I am certain that committee member Keith Finan has a nice Excel spreadsheet somewhere with all of the messy details of where these numbers come from. He should share the spreadsheet with the faculty.

5) The “facilities cost” of $187,500 is, more or less, made up out of this air.

Facilities expenses are calculated at 2.5% of the current estimated value of the Williams Club ($15m), as a proxy for the cost of maintaining and operating a College-owned building in the city.

Well, why not 1% or 5%? Now, to be fair, this is one number that the anti-WNY forces might claim is underestimated. What would the cost on the open-market of the rooms that the WNY program uses? For starters, that cost would scale linearly with the number of students in the program. It would also be, almost, impossible to get a collection of rooms close together, in Manhattan, for just 9 months of the year.

But, to have an informed opinion, you still need more data. At the very least, could some explain just what the actual status of the Williams Club is? Does the College own it or not? And how are their finances currently? And is $15 million really a fair market value estimate for the entire building? That seems absurdly low to me.

I would think that it is hard to disentangle the future of the Williams Club from the future of WNY and that, therefore, it is not fair to charge the WNY students extra for their room and board. The Report notes that:

Costs as shown are estimates per semester and are predicated on the Williams New York Program housed in a renovated Williams Club, owned and operated by the College.

I think it is fair to assume that. But then why do we treat this particular building any differently than we treat Greylock or Mission or Lehman? All buildings owned by Williams have different cost structures. You can be sure that a room in Chadborne costs more than a (double!) room in Sage. But the College charges all students the same rate regardless. Why wouldn’t the same apply to WNY students? Why not just charge them the same room/board that all other students are charged?

The counter-argument, reasonably enough, is that the “true” costs for a bedroom in mid-town is much higher. And that is fair enough. But the College could also make a lot of money by selling Chadborne and many of the other beautiful buildings around campus. In fact, given that WNY students live in small doubles (?), it is not clear that their cost — measured in market value — is any higher than the cost of Milham. If I were a pro-WNY person, I would work out some numbers for this example. What does a one room apartment rent for in NYC? Divide that amount by two, and you have the per-student cost of WNY housing. What would Milham rent for in Williamstown? Divide that amount by eight (?) and you have the per-student cost of (great) Williams housing. If those two numbers are close (I have no idea), then we should just get rid of the facilities charge in the calculation (or just replace it with the standard room charge that all students pay). And, if the Milham versus NYC comparison doesn’t quite work, how about WEPO? What is the rental market like in Oxford?

6) Are the “salaries” figures accurate? Tough to know! I am suspicious of the need for a “WNY Program administrator.” What would that person do all day? And, given how popular (I think!) the WNY program is among faculty, I hardly see a need for another bureaucrat. I also wonder why the entire salary of any Williams faculty are included as a cost of the program. Besides teaching, faculty like Bob Jackall do lots of research. That research expense should hardly be applied to the cost of the WNY program. After all, Jackall will be doing research regardless of whether or not WNY exists a year from now. Indeed, if we assume that Williams faculty teach as many students as while at WNY as they do at Williams (a tricky assumption, I know!), then there is no reason to apply any of the cost here. The only costs that should be counted are things that WNY requires (say for travel or extra office space) that are in addition to what the College spends anyway. All of which is a more difficult topic that I will get back to.

Summary: The Waters Committee has failed to provide a disinterested faculty member with enough information to fairly estimate the “cost” of the WNY program. Until that information is provided, one should not vote to cancel the program.

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