Interested in my thoughts on the debate over WNY? Read below.

1) If I were a faculty member, I would want more detail on who voted how. Recall that the vote was 6-3 in favor of termination. But no details are given about who voted for what. Why? Is that typical? All Williams committee reports that I am familiar with have been unanimous so I don’t know of a precedence for this, but at least a few faculty members must be curious. Someone should ask at the meeting.

The reason that this matters is that two members of the Committee, Keith Finan and John Gerry, are not members of the faculty. They work for and are accountable to the Administration. That doesn’t make them bad people, but they have no tenure protection. If they piss off enough people, they will get fired. Now, no one is suggesting that their bosses (Provost Bill Lenhart and Dean of the Faculty William Wagner, respectively) would force them to do something unethical, but it is not at all clear that they had freedom to vote their consciences. Note in particular that the Report lists them as, respectively, the “Provost’s representative” and the “Dean of the Faculty’s representative.” If they were on the committee as the representatives of Lenhart and Wagner, weren’t they supposed to vote as Lenhart/Wagner wanted them to? Again, there is nothing wrong with that per se, but it adds color to the 6-3 vote.

I suspect that both Gerry and Finan voted to kill the program and that these votes were consistent with the wishes of their bosses. So, the “real” vote, the vote among faculty members, was only 4-3 against. In fact, it was probably 3-3 with Chris Waters casting the tie-breaking vote.

2) Who holds the knife pointed at the heart of WNY? Smart college presidents know that the way you get things done at a place like Williams is not to simply say, “Make it so.” You must, slowly and carefully, bring the community to agreement. And, the best way to do that is to create an “independent” committee, stocked with people who you know agree with you, and then let them make a recommendation. Then, when the decision comes down to, say, raise the academic requirements for athletes or prevent all the black students from living together in Brooks House, you can claim, “Not my idea!” This was recommended by the Committee on Varsity Athletics or the Committee on Undergraduate Life or the Committee on WNY.

Is that what happened here? I don’t know. I always thought that Morty was a fan of WNY, that he wants to see Williams expand globally, that we could expect to see more Williams in Oxford, Williams in Africa, Williams-Mystic and WNY-like programs a decade from now. So, why close WNY now? It could be that this wasn’t really Morty’s call, that he had no strong feelings about the issue. Since WNY was due for review, a committee was needed no matter what. It could also be that Wager and/or Lenhart were not WNY fans. Or it could just be that the Committee members themselves, with no preconceptions or biases, just decided that WNY was a waste of money. More gossip needed!

3) Key to the vote, I have heard, is what Morty says at the faculty meeting. If he stands up and sings the praises of WNY (while also praising the hard work of the Committee), then he will be sending a clear signal that he does not want the program to end now. To vote to kill it would be to vote against Morty. How many faculty would do that if they didn’t much care about the issue one way or the other? But, if Morty says nothing, then he will be indicating that he is just as happy to see WNY ended. Silence does not guarantee the end of WNY, but it would make clear where he stands. At a faculty meeting, you need to listen to what is said and what is not said.

4) Perhaps there is a longer game being played here. I am a fan of WNY (and Professor Jackall) but the report does make many good points, especially about the intellectual coherence of the program and its ability to continue once Jackall retires. Read the Report for details. So, perhaps the Administration does not really want to end WNY, they just want to force it into a different, less sociology/Jackall- specific incarnation.

And that would make sense to me. The reason that Williams-Mystic (WM), Williams-in-Oxford (WIOX) and WNY work is not so much because the fields of study are tailored to those locations. There is nothing wrong with such tailoring, especially in the case of WM, but the real magic comes from putting a little bit of Williams in a radically different part of the world, from creating a small platoon of Ephs far from the Purple Mountains. You could teach radically different classes at WM, WIOX and WNY and still have them be just as successful as they are.

Now, in reality, comparative advantages and institutional traditions will always dictate the maritime focus of WM. And perhaps it will always be hard to do much math/science at WIOX. (Why is that?) But there is nothing that forces WNY to be primarily sociological in outlook. Indeed, that is clear enough from the dramatic change to an Arts focus for next year.

So, I, for one, would like to see an explicit declaration that WNY, despite being created by a sociologist, in not just about sociology. (I don’t think that Jackall would disagree with me on this. Indeed, I bet that he finds these parts of the Report particularly annoying.) But let’s leave this issue for another day. The point is that Schapiro/Lenhart/Wagner might not really want to end WNY. They just might want to force some fairly major changes it; they might want to light a fire under WNY’s proponents so that they get serious about recruiting students, making changes, and so on.

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