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WBUR on Williams II

Fred Thys ’80 reports for WBUR about the cost of Williams College. Fred is a knowledgeable and sympathetic alum but this story painted an incomplete picture. Perhaps later stories will flesh out the scene? In the meantime, let’s spend 10 (!) days dissecting this article! Today is Day 2.

In the 1960s, economists William Baumol and William Bowen pointed out that it takes the same number of musicians to play a string quartet today as it did in Beethoven’s day. So the productivity has not increased in 200 years. That explains why the cost of going to a live classical musical performance has gone up more than the cost of a drinking glass. You can manufacture the drinking glass more productively now than you could 200 years ago.

To appreciate labor costs, Falk compares the faculty to another group of highly trained workers: a string quartet. He says you could make it more productive by removing one of the instruments.

“I mean, after all, there are two violins, and really, do you need two violins?” Falk asked. “Couldn’t you play it with one violin? You could reduce the cost by 25 percent.”

What utter bollocks! Why won’t Thys challenge Falk, and every other College president who trots out this gibberish?

First, the College has spent the last 50 years reducing the amount of violin playing time that it requires of its faculty. Fifty years ago, the College required faculty to teach “4-4” — meaning four classes each semester. This was the amount of violin playing required. Since then, the ratchet has gone in only one direction: downward. From 4-4 to 4-3 to 3-3 to 3-2. The last step occurred 15 years ago when President Morty Schapiro reduced the teaching load from 3-2 to 2-2. (I am ignoring Winter Study.) (Here is an overview about similar changes at the University of Vermont. Any pointers to relevant history at Williams?)

Now, Falk might argue that the change from 4-4 to 2-2 was a good thing, that it freed up Williams professors to spend more time on their oh-so-important research. Or he might argue that the competitive market for professors made the change necessary, lest every Williams professor move to Princeton. Or he might claim that the quality of teaching has increased since professors now have more time to devote per class.

But, you can’t use the string quartet analogy to justify ever increasing costs if you are, simultaneously, cutting by 50% the amount of time you require your violinists to play.

Moreover, there is little if any evidence in favor of the other possible arguments.

Second, Falk ignores (or is unaware of?) the argument made by informed critics. We don’t think that Falk should fire half his violinists. By all means, keep the academic faculty headcount at 250. Instead, we think that Williams ought to move from 2-2 back to 4-4, or at least to 3-3. But that is a rant for tomorrow.

Third, Falk ignores, and Thys lets him get away with ignoring, the dramatic decreasing in courses taught because of the ever-increasing administrative bloat of Williams. Consider just the office of the Dean of the Faculty. Fifty years ago, Williams did not even have a Dean of the Faculty. The office now includes three Ph.D.’s (Buell, Park, Gerry), excellent teachers all, none of whom are teaching a single (?) Williams student this academic year. (Yes, I am simplifying things here since Gerry is not, in truth, a member of the faculty, but the point about moving resources from teaching to administration is the same.)

Falk should not use the string quartet analogy if he is not actually going to have his well-paid violinists actually, you know, play their instruments