Want more evidence that the Bolin Fellowships should be first on the chopping block during an era of belt-tightening? An anonymous faculty member writes:

Ephblog readers may not be aware that Fellows are not selected in anything like the way that visiting faculty, let alone tenure track faculty, are selected. The primary difference is that there is no rich pool of applicants in the same field against whom the Fellow competes for the job. Instead, the Dean’s office, when it finds an applicant that appears promising, asks a department whether it would be acceptable for that grad student to be around for a year. Many of us — even those who are supporters of the abstract values that the Bolin program is supposed to serve — think that that is an incredibly poor way to find excellent contributors to the academic community. We have absolutely no information on whether they can teach, little information about the ultimate quality of their research (since they haven’t written their dissertations yet), and no grounds for determining whether they are standout scholars in their cohort.

In our previous discussion, Professor Sam Crane reported that:

The Bolin program is great. Fellows bring an infusion of new ideas, they are immersed in what is going on in graduate programs right now. They add to the intellectual life of the college in many ways. I learn from them and that learning enlivens me and, thus, benefits my students, who do not want a brain-dead teacher.

Parent ’12 wrote

Based only on this press release, I think they [the Bolin Fellows] have the potential to enrich the Williams community.

I am happy to believe that both Sam and Parent ’12 are correct, that Bolin Fellows do “enrich” the community and that Professors like Sam “learn from them.” But are those very real benefits worth $300,000 per year? No.

Imagine that the College sent Sam on an around the world cruise every summer. I have no doubt that this would enliven him and, thereby, benefit his students. But advantages need to be balanced against costs.

Imagine that instead of a Bolin Fellowship, the College had a Parish Fellowship, devoted to bringing former military officers and current Ph.D. candidates to Williams for two years. Would they “enrich” the community? Would they “bring an infusion of new ideas?” Of course! But those real benefits would not be worth the cost.

If you accept, as I do, that the fundamental mission of William is to be the best college in the world, a place centered on undergraduate education, then the only plausible purpose for the Bolin/Parish Fellowship is the direct impact that the fellows have on undergraduate education. If the fellows are not chosen for their teaching abilities then they are most likely to be average teachers, almost by definition. Spending $300,000 per year for six average classes is a waste of money.

Moreover, I predict that the classes are likely to be worse than average since the fellows are inexperienced teachers. Even a fan like JG couldn’t generate much enthusiasm for their teaching abilities.

(UPDATE: JG objects to my characterization of her views. Readers should consider JG’s opinions carefully and not rely on my summary of her views. Apologies to JG if she thinks that phrasing is inaccurate, but, relative to her praise of several tenured/tenure-track Williams professors, I do not see much enthusiasm in her description of the teaching abilities of Bolin Fellows.)

From what I have heard, Laura is not the only Williams student with this experience.

I had a completely terrible class with a Bolin Fellow. It too was quite popular and over-enrolled, and I was really looking forward to it based on the course description. It was a complete disaster and a waste of tuition dollars (she cancelled 5 classes and we spent 2 others at the dance studio learning cultural dances). The classes that we did have were often interrupted by her 10 minute smoking breaks. She often didn’t respond to emails, wouldn’t give feedback on papers, and never learned the names of half of our 25 person class. It was so bad that I typed up several pages of blue sheet comments for her and expressed my concern to the Dean (or someone appropriate, I can’t remember who).

As always, this is an empirical question. There have been 30 or so Bolin Fellows at Williams over the last decade. The College knows what their average students ratings have been. That no one at the College (including Sam Crane) will tell us is how they compare to tenure-track/tenured faculty tells me all I need to know.

Finally, it is a sign of the intellectual life of the College that the above quoted faculty member feels the need to remain anonymous.

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