Tue 13 Jan 2009
First off, I want to thank Dave Kane for inviting me to participate in this project. Second, I hope I do not disappoint. I have been out of town for more than ten days and when I got back this weekend had to hit the ground running for the new semester, which started today. Yet frenzied timing notwithstanding, this is an apt time for me to think about the role of faculty within an accreditation process, and to look at how Williams addresses such issues.
For right now my institution, the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, is in the maelstrom of the accreditation process, so these are more than mere thought exercises: What are the characteristics of an effective faculty? (And what does “effectiveness” mean both for the bean counters at the accrediting agency, and perhaps more significantly, for the self-reflexive institution?) What are the desires that an institution has for the faculty within an institution, whether an elite liberal arts college at the top tier of American higher education, or a small branch campus of a major state university. Accreditation can be tedious. It can be rote. It can be about jumping through hoops for the accreditors. It can be about creating patently false measurements and matrixes that take time away from an institution’s mission. In sum, the process of accreditation can at times be more of a headache than it would seem to be worth (and must be even more of an annoyance at Williams, which hardly seems ever to be in jeopardy of not flying through accreditation.
Before us we have two documents. One is the college’s “Self Study” on faculty issues. The other is a pdf document on an issue that occasionally arouses controversy here at Ephblog: Diversity, in this case, faculty diversity, in the form of the college’s 2005 “Diversity Initiative Self Study.” Both reveal some of the characteristic hallmarks of the genre: prose that is at best bureaucratic, at worst just plain clunky; the jargon foisted upon the world by the solons in control of accrediting boards; a sense of simply rewording things that have been written in the past to make them seem au courant; and the general sense of the perfunctory.
In short this is evidence of a pretty tedious endeavor. After all, no one looks forward to this kind of self study. Nonetheless, hidden within, it seems to me, is a reminder of what is special about a Williams education. The Self Study is an affirmation of the college’s longstanding goals with regard to the role of the faculty. The college is committed to recruiting and maintaining a vibrant talented faculty. Williams wants to continue to hold the highest standards in the classroom, and this starts with world-class teachers, but those teachers must also be first-class scholars, writers, and artists. To do this, the college must continue to affirm and expand its support for the faculty. And the college wants faculty (and select others) to be able to advise students to allow them to maximize their Williams experience. There is nothing new here, but the Self Study shows that as the years have passed, these standards have been relatively consistent, and by most measures the college continues to move toward some sort of ideal that it will never achieve, if only because each time it clears a height, it sets the bar another notch higher.
It is clear that among the many values that the college holds dear, the question of diversity continues to be a major priority. “Diversity” is, of course, one of those culture war words that can rouse controversy. And yet for a place like Williams in particular, much of the worst of the controversies associated with diversity ought to be avoidable. For Williams is able to recruit among the very highest ranks of prospective faculty, meaning that once a search is narrowed down to the final few candidates, any of those finalists ought to be able to excel on the faculty and within their disciplines. Nonetheless, by the standards the college has set, it has accomplished much, but has a great deal more to do in terms of achieving the sort of faculty makeup that it envisions as an ideal, though (wisely) no one has come forward and laid out what exactly that ideal would look like.
In recent weeks there has been much talk about where Williams can cut its budget. This was inevitable, and probably wise. Nonetheless, I have been chewing over the old maxim (probably from Warren Buffet or some other insanely rich person who can afford to have his own advice fail him) that says to save while others spree and to spend while others are bunkering down. Might this not be a great time for Williams to continue forward with all of the hires it hoped to undertake, perhaps even to add a few to the wish list? Would this not be an ideal year, when so many institutions are canceling searches across disciplines, for Williams to spend when others are cutting back, to buy when the market is low? Would the economic crisis not offer a wonderful opportunity to target hires that would expand on the diversity of the college’s top-notch faculty without having to engage in some of the zero-sum games that detractors often see in diversity-oriented hiring?
But furthermore, looking beyond the boilerplate, how do people feel that Williams is doing with regards to its faculty goals as expressed in the two self-studies that most of you probably gave a grad school reading (ie judicious skimming)? What goals are not well articulated? Which do you see as overstated, if not unnecessary? Is this whole process useful or necessary? Is the accreditation process useful or necessary? Could we rely on Williams to maintain its own high standards without having to go through this exercise that, as I have indicated, I believe absorbs institutional resources away from the very things that the institution would be doing anyway?
I hope these questions provide fodder for conversation and a starting point for whatever ideas are on the minds of everyone affiliated with Williams. The faculty is an essential component of any college and nowhere is their role more cherished than at Williams, where the teaching ideal still is a professor on one end of a log, a student on the other.
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