Kudos to Morty for agreeing to this event and to College Council for organizing it.

College Council has organized an All Campus Question and Answer Session with President Schapiro. President Schapiro has offered to answer any and all questions students have about how the financial crisis will impact student life on campus (ranging from the impact on financial aid packages and expected family contributions, to the impact on funding for academic programs, to the impact on the resources available for student activities and residential life, to anything else students want to ask). Anyone who shows up will have an opportunity to ask questions and receive responses directly from the President.

Good stuff. My questions (with background) below the fold. What question would you ask Morty?

1) How can you expect students to be confident in the financial choices that you and the Administration are making when the College’s budget is almost completely opaque to outsiders?

Background: The most recent College financial statement is for the year ending June 30, 2007. The accountants have certainly finished with the audit for June 30, 2008. Why isn’t it posted? More importantly, the financial statements that are public are nowhere near detailed enough to allow any student to have an informed opinion about the College’s spending. Consider some specific examples: How much does Williams spend per year on the Children’s Center? How much on the CDE or the Graduate Program in Art History? I suspect (but do not know) that these are expensive items. I think that they are far enough away from the College’s central mission of educating undergraduates that, if we must cut the budget, we should start there.

But even if you disagree with that assessment, even if you think that there are better places for the College to cut, there is no way for you to reach an informed opinion on the topic because the College refuses to release the details of its spending. No one is asking to see any specific individual’s salary, but we need much finer-grained data about where the College spends our money. You can be sure that Morty has such access. Why won’t he share it?

2) Why are the strategies and performance of the endowment kept secret from students and alumni?

Background: Although the College does send out a glossy mailing to alumni once per year, it is essentially impossible for any student or alumni to have an informed opinion about the endowment because we do not have access to basic information or timely updates.

Basic information: What has been the endowments performance over the last 20 years? What is the current asset allocation and how has it changed over time? What benchmarks does the College use to compare with manager performance? How has the College done relative to those benchmarks? How well have specific managers performed against their benchmarks?

Timely updates: You can be sure that the investment committee and/or the trustees receive a quarterly (perhaps monthly) update on endowment performance. Why not make that public? Why do the rest of us need to guess?

A good example of the right way to do things comes from The Boston Foundation, led by former Williams trustee Paul Grogan ’72. Note the quarterly updates, the explicit benchmarks and the listing of individual managers, all publicly available. Kudos to Grogan.

Transparency on the budget and endowment are the two most substantive issues. But what about the trouble-making students who want a gotcha question? I am here to help.

3) Morty, your current total compensation from Williams is probably over $500,000. When you first came to Williams in 2000, it was $354,000. Wouldn’t it be an act of real leadership by you to voluntarily cut your pay back to that level? Or do you feel that you just can’t make ends meet, even during a time of fiscal crisis, on $354,000 per year?

4) The College’s letter to the Senate Finance Committee includes this mysterious passage about how Williams compensates its endowment staff.

Some members of the Investment Office are eligible for bonuses based on the return on our investments, though the office is so new that we have not completed the first year of returns on which bonuses would be computed.

How many college employees are eligible for such bonuses and what are the terms under which those payments occur? Since you are asking all members of the Williams community to cut back on unnecessary spending, wouldn’t it be fair to ask investment staff to forgo any such bonuses? Or do you feel that, without the prospect of earning extra money, the investment staff would spend all day surfing the web?

Background: Now, obviously, neither question 3 or 4 is substantively important in a Williams budget of $164 million, but how the College treats its richest employees during a time of budget cutting is of more than just symbolic value.

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