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12: Cut Visiting Professors

Two mea culpas: First, I forgot to include this in our original list and then left it out between items 11 and 13. Second, in our previous discussion about visiting professors, I overestimated the salary for visitors, especially junior professors. I just used the average total compensation for Williams faculty ($135,000) and then rounded down to estimate $700,000 saved by not hiring 7 visitors. I assumed that the mix of visitors was not that different, in terms of seniority, than the faculty as a whole and that Williams, being an egalitarian place, would pay equal wages for equal work. But I was wrong! Williams pays junior visiting professors much less than tenure-track visitors. Professor Sam Crane was kind enough to mention that my estimate was wrong but not patient enough to provide a better one. (That whole thread represents either the best or worse of EphBlog discussions, depending on your point of view. Highly recommended!)

Anyway, Williams hires lots of visiting professors each year. Nothing wrong with that practice when we were rich. But now we are less rich, so we need to save that money. No more visitors. (I count 9 scheduled for next year.) Some of these are paid for out of dedicated funds. Fortunately, money is fungible and most dedicated endowments provide some wiggle room, thereby the College can move that money elsewhere. Total savings? Maybe $500,000 per year.

Might the College still have one or two visitors in special situations? Sure, at least in theory. The problem is that as soon as you tell Department A that, because of their special situation, they can have a visitor, then Department B will claim (often reasonably!) that they are in the same situation as A. Best to just enforce a standard rule. A side benefit is that such a policy will help to shock the faculty into realizing how serious the situation is.

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#1 Comment By rory On April 4, 2009 @ 7:05 pm

amusingly, at the same time this was first posted, this was/is on the left sidebar. 7 visiting professors, all with named chairs. Makes you say “hmm…”

on the list david linked, over half are named chairs, and two of the remaining ones are in languages. One of the named visiting chairs is a williams graduate. Also interestingly, at least one of the tenure-track hires is a former visiting professor.

On a more positive note, three of the new professors are Williams grads, one of whom (Justin) was in my year and a very smart guy. A good guy who I expect will be a great addition to the faculty!

#2 Comment By Ronit On April 5, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

#3 Comment By rory On April 5, 2009 @ 12:15 pm


#4 Comment By Jay On April 5, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

For the most part, I agree with this cut. The absolute worst part of my Williams experience was the visiting professors. I had a few that were pretty good, but I had far too many, particularly in my own major, and they were decidedly subpar. What’s the purpose of getting an education from one of the best schools in the country, if the profs are the same profs as those at much lower tier schools?

Maybe you shouldn’t get rid of all visiting profs, but I absolutely believe that Williams’ standards for visiting profs are far too low. We’re a top notch school – all our professors should be top notch too.

#5 Comment By Ronit On April 5, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

#6 Comment By Ronit On April 5, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

The absolute worst part of my Williams experience was the visiting professors. I had a few that were pretty good, but I had far too many, particularly in my own major, and they were decidedly subpar.

There is a real distinction between short term, younger visiting professors (who, I agree, were almost uniformly terrible at teaching a Williams class), and older, more distinguished profs who technically have “visiting” status – perhaps because they retired from full-time teaching, or they already have tenure elsewhere, or have other engagements that prevent them from teaching at Williams year-round. This category includes some of our best professors, some of whom have spent many years teaching at Williams in spite of their visiting status. Losing them would be a huge blow to certain departments.

#7 Comment By PTC On April 5, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

Ronit- A lot of them are pro’s who had/ have distinguished careers outside of academia. Politicians, lawyers, scientists and businessmen… it is good to have such people teaching.

Would you rather learn about Darfur from an academic or the former Deputy Ambassador to Chad?

Would you rather learn about global warming from a prof, or a former astronaut who just retired as the head of the NASA science department?

I know which class I would take.

Can anyone in here give examples of a visiting prof they had who was a professional?

#8 Comment By frank uible On April 5, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

Has it occurred to anyone that amateurs (that’s we) publicly attempting to engage in a process of the nature and extent reflected by this thread is crossing a line into the realm of crude, indiscreet behaviour brutal to others?

#9 Comment By David Kane On April 5, 2009 @ 3:58 pm


Can you cite some of these excellent professors by name? I am unaware of any visitors who are semi-permanent beyond on economist and perhaps a spouse. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t a dozen of these folks, but I don’t see them here, for example.

#10 Comment By Jay On April 5, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

Ronit, I never had any of the sort of experienced visiting profs you’re describing – they sound great. My beef isn’t with the “visiting” status, it’s just the lack of qualifications of the young, short term visiting profs. These profs seemed to have been screened far less carefully than the students themselves.

#11 Comment By Ronit On April 5, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

Can you cite some of these excellent professors by name?

I have no desire to bring individuals into this discussion. I find that idea distasteful. It is not our role to nominate professors who should be fired or kept on.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t a dozen of these folks, but I don’t see them here, for example.

No kidding. That’s a list of new visiting professors. Not those who’ve been at Williams for many years.

#12 Comment By PTC On April 5, 2009 @ 6:37 pm


I believe there is an example or two in this thread… some of those “visiting profs” may just be responsible for getting an eph a job or two or three…

#13 Comment By Alexander Woo On April 5, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

Cutting visitors basically means going back to 5 courses a year for faculty, or increasing class sizes by a proportional amount.

Williams already has too many 30-50 person classes as it is.

My observation is that Williams will do better at attracting the young faculty it wants paying $60K for 4 courses than paying $80K for 5 courses.

It’s not too surprising that the young short-term visiting professors aren’t so great. They are almost always people who failed to get a tenure-track job that year at any place to which they applied. Now the job market doesn’t work absolutely perfectly, but by and large it is the best people on the market who get the tenure-track positions. Someone whom hypothetically Luther and Centre and several other similar schools passed over for a tenure-track job is unlikely to be as good as the average Williams tenure-track professor. Unless there are special family circumstances at play, just about no one would take a one-year job at Williams over a tenure-track job at Centre.

It should be said that especially in fields where demand for professors is low compared with the supply, there will still be some excellent professors Williams can hire on a one-year basis.

#14 Comment By MAR On April 5, 2009 @ 10:05 pm

I would argue that, among these other cuts, this sticks out as not terribly wise. Many of the assumptions in the comments are problematic. For example, visitors are not always people who “failed” to get TT jobs, but are often earlier in their careers, like ABD, and looking to strengthen their teaching cred. Once they have finished their degrees, they won’t be coming to a liberal arts college. Also, those who don’t get the R1 positions are often superb teachers, but their resumes don’t have the publication quota needed at those places. That said, I think the interview process should be as stringent for a TT position, and teaching excellence should be foremost. But honestly, the ‘rough’ teaching of an ABD is a tradeoff for mastery of and access to the latest scholarship, just as the tapered research component is sometimes the tradeoff for an expert teacher. Students benefit from both. At least as often as they suffer from either.

#15 Comment By eph ’07 On April 5, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

I agree with MAR, young visiting professors aren’t necessarily visiting because they’re not good enough teachers to get tenure track jobs. They can be utterly fantastic teachers, and their lack of tenure track offers can have to do with their recent graduation, their publication records, or bad luck in an incredibly oversaturated and competitive job market.

(I don’t want to name names here either because of how it would reflect on visiting and permanent faculty, but I hold a junior visiting professor directly responsible for inspiring me to take on one of my majors. I also think this professor’s teaching was responsible for the small department having twice as many majors as usual my year.)

Really, visiting professors are cheap labor. The alternatives are reducing students’ academic options or seriously overloading faculty, both of which would harm the educational experience at Williams.

#16 Comment By Jay On April 5, 2009 @ 10:47 pm

I say, either reduce the number of short-term visiting profs, or make the screening process for them better.

What I don’t like is that students are sold a bill of goods: “Come here because we have a great faculty-student ratio!” when that favorable ratio is achieved by filling the ranks with unqualified teachers.

Visiting profs can be fresh out of school or old as Moses, but they need to be good, or someone’s not doing their job. Williams can find the best students, it should be able to find the best profs, young or old.

And maybe everyone else reading this had nothing but excellent short-term visiting profs. Sure wasn’t the case with me.

#17 Comment By current eph On April 6, 2009 @ 2:44 am

There are some visiting profs who are married to tenure or tenure-track profs, or have other similar strong ties to Williams. Most profs in this category are super qualified, “get” Williams, and for one reason or another, simply aren’t interested in tenure track positions. I also know that at least one of Williams’ more prominent faculty members technically is a “visiting” professor.

Now that said, the worst professor I had at Williams was exactly what David was thinking about when he suggested we cut visiting profs–a young teacher who was essentially filling in at Williams for a year, didn’t really get the place, and wasn’t particularly invested in learning. However, it’s important to note that many (most?) visiting profs really don’t fit this category.