Morty repeatedly sang the praises of the tutorial program. He mentioned that this was Williams’ “signature” program and cited impressive numbers as to tutorial growth over the last 8 years, something like 20 tutorials to 71 and 160 students enrolled to 760. [Does anyone have the exact numbers? I am (mis)remembering as best I can.] He thought that the College was on track (perhaps for the class of 2009?) to have at least 75% of the students graduate having taken at least one tutorial.

 Morty discussed a conversation he had with (previous president) Frank Oakley about tutorials. Oakley pointed out that, given Williams strength in tutorials, it made sense to devote more resources to them rather then towards areas of weakness. This made perfect sense to Morty since it is (more or less) the economic principal of comparative advantage.  Morty told this story in an amusing fashion, somehow managing to both compliment Oakley and make fun of his fellow economists.

Quick quiz: Can you see how that claim illustrates Mark Taylor’s critique of Morty as a “wise guy” rather than a “wise man?” Screed below.

[A Morty-critic (not me!) would point out that this was another example of Morty’s glibness. Comparative advantage only makes sense in the context of trade. From Wikipedia:

The principle of comparative advantage explains how trade can benefit all parties involved (countries, regions, individuals and so on), as long as they produce goods with different relative costs. The net benefits of such an outcome are called gains from trade. Usually attributed to the classical economist David Ricardo, comparative advantage is a key economic concept in the study of trade.

If Williams is good at tutorials and Harvard is good at lectures, then it makes sense for each to specialize in its area of expertise as long as it is possible for Williams to “trade” some of its tutorials to Harvard in exchange for some of Harvard’s lectures. Alas, this makes almost no sense within the current structure of US higher education.

Given that Williams students are, for all practical purposes, stuck at Williams, it makes no sense to invoke “comparative advantage” as a reason for the College to devote the marginal resource to making tutorials better rather than to some other academic output in which Williams is particularly weak.

Now, to be fair, Morty was speaking off the cuff and a certain amount of glibness is a (highly) desirable characteristic in a college president. Moreover, I was probably the only person in the room who picked up on the error. No blood, no foul. Also, one could, perhaps, tell a story in which a comparative advantage argument makes sense because of the high turnover among students. If there are a set of students who love tutorials (lectures), then it maximizes their welfare if Williams (Harvard) specializes in tutorials (lectures) while other colleges prioritize differently. That makes everyone better off relative to a system in which all colleges try to be all things to all students.

Yet that story is probably not what Morty had in mind when he uses the “comparative advantage” line. Consider the above criticism as an attempt to maintain my street cred as a Morty critic despite lavish praise like this.]

Anyway, Morty mentioned that the faculty had considered and rejected making a tutorial a requirement for graduation, a decision with which he was comfortable. He thought that teaching a tutorial with a couple of students that really did not want to be there would be an incredibly painful experience. He mentioned that he was of two minds about requirements. First, he did not want Williams to become like Brown [with its pass/fail grading and overall lack of academic seriousness] but he was very conscious of “opportunity costs.” [And here he used the economic term correctly!] For example, Morty seemed glad that there was no requirement to take a foreign language at Williams. [I think that a new requirement to do so failed by one vote in 2001.] He didn’t have anything against learning a foreign language, but he felt that the opportunity cost of not getting to take 4 semester courses that one would have gotten to take otherwise was a major issue. He also noted that the foreign language faculty were, perhaps surprisingly, against the requirement. [No good teacher wants to have unwilling students in her class.]

Print  •  Email