Editors note: President Emeritus Francis Oakley has followed closely the discussion of his post as a part of the recent winter study on Williams Presidents inaugural speeches.That analysis, written by the president who actually presented the address in 1985, may be read here

Below follows his observations and replies to his post. His further observation on EphBlog will be posted later.

Let me make a few comments on specific, mainly factual points.

THE BOLIN FELLOWSHIPS.

Although Gaius Charles Bolin was himself an African-American, the address makes it clear that the fellowships were intended for minority graduate students in general. That was the case at the outset; to my knowledge, it remains the case today. Nor, of course, are they irrelevant to the wellbeing of Williams undergraduates. They were established, in fact, with the needs of Williams students specifically in mind.

When I became president I had just completed the better part of eight years as Dean of the Faculty and, at a time when we were working hard to increase the percentage of minority students at Williams, I was acutely conscious of the difficulty we were confronting in the effort to appoint minority faculty.

At that time, African Americans made up no more than 3 percent of current Ph.D recipients in the arts and sciences; Latino/as an even smaller percentage. Williams and other institutions of higher education needed to do whatever they could to increase those percentages and to enhance their own recruitment efforts.

The Bolins and related initiatives by other colleges and by the Ford and Mellon foundations were modest long range efforts to do precisely that.

There were also some more immediate and direct benefits for our students. The academic quality of successful candidates for the fellowships has proved to be uniformly high, and they are each, after all, required to teach a course during their year at Williams.

But, however small the cost involved, (and it really was pretty small), did that not leave the College with slightly less to put into financial aid grants instead of loans?

Yes. I suppose it did. But that would be true of a host of other budgetary commitments, many of them much less directly linked with the College’s
instructional programs. The comparative importance of all the claims on our financial resources has constantly to be weighed in the balance and measured against our overall educational mission. And it is.

One is, of course, at liberty to fault the decisions made as an outcome of that process ( infallibilty is not in overgenerous supply) but such decisions do have to be made.

What I have had to say here assumes, of course, agreement on the idea that the promotion of racial diversity in our student body and faculty is an important goal worthy of sustained support.

Obviously, I myself believe very strongly that it is and, as dean and president, I worked hard to promote it. I was not alone. By my presidential years trustees and faculty alike had long since endorsed the same conclusion. I should note, moreover, that an opinion survey that we conducted (via social scientific sampling) on the eve of our bicentennial year indicated overwhelming support among Williams alumni for that commitment.

If agreement on the matter were altogether lacking, then a very different and more fundamental debate would be called for. I have no reason to believe that it is lacking.

LOAN INDEBTEDNESS AND THE ENDOWMENT.

No one at the College with responsibility for such matters could (or can) fail to be sensitive to the burdens loan-indebtedness can place on college graduates or to be concerned about the possibility that it might have the effect of inhibiting career choices.

But if a species of disheveled anecdotage is readily available on the issue, hard evidence for any such impact has proved difficult to come by. I cannot speak to the situation today, but a study commissioned in the late-eighties by one of our educational research organizations uncovered no hard evidence supporting the claim that the undergraduate loan burden was determinative of career choice –at least among students graduating from colleges like Williams. That qualification may be an important one.

The American higher education system is a vast, sprawling enterprise. Global statistics are not always readily available, and it is not easy to generalize accurately about the whole.

But perhaps you will permit me to add a personal note. My presidential years coincided with the college years of my four children (three of whom, in one financially difficult year, were at college at the same time). As they went on to contemplate further education– professional or graduate — with the prospect of further debt, we remortgaged our house (i.e. our own house, not the President’s residence!) to pay off their undergraduate loans. So the whole issue was very much on my mind for personal as well as administrative reasons.

ENDOWMENT FETICHISM.

I think that that was the term used by one contributor—a fetching term the intent of which I may well have misunderstood.

But if what was implicitly being suggested was that in the 1980s the College could
prudently have drawn down the endowment more aggressively in order to replace
loans with outright grants, I must beg leave to differ.

And on two grounds, the first historically specific, the second on a more general level of principle.

(i) In 1985 the College’s endowment had reached approximately $200 millions, significantly up it seemed from where it had stood in the late-1960s. But only, alas, in nominal dollars.

In constant dollars, after slumping sadly during the economic and market turbulence that marked the 1970s, it had only just clawed its way back to where it had stood in 1967. In the interim, the size of the student body had been increased by 50%, so that endowment per student was lower than it had been for at least twenty years. Things were, in fact, quite tight. Hence the focus of the Third Century Campaign on building up endowment, and especially so for financial aid.

(ii) I suppose that one could still argue that we could have dipped more deeply into endowment for so good a cause, but not, I submit, if we were properly responsive to the principle of intergenerational equity. I.e. one has to find the proper balance between being too stingy to the present generation of students in order to protect the interests of generations to come, and being too generous to the present (likely to be popular!) at the expense of the future. Of course, one can always second guess or challenge the validity of the precise balance being struck at any given time.

But surely not the principle that such a balance should be struck.

Francis Oakley
President Emeritus

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