Let’s spend three days discussing the College’s new fundraising campaign: Teach It Forward: The Campaign for Williams. The main webpage is here. Today is Day 3.

“We tend to think primarily of two kinds of institutions of higher learning: large research universities and small liberal arts colleges. In this campaign, we will secure Williams’ distinctive place in higher education as combining the best of both these worlds,” Falk said. “At Williams, we provide the opportunities and the rigor of a research university, in a liberal arts context and on a scale that allows for not only small classes, but also close collaboration with faculty and the mentorship and support of an entire community.”

This is either harmless pablum or a subtle sign that Adam Falk wishes he were president at a place like Johns Hopkins.

It is absurd to believe that Williams can possibly provide the “best” of what research universities do, which is, unsurprisingly, “research.” In order to do the best possible research, you need two things:

1) Professors who are selected, almost solely, on their ability to do research, and the desire to make such research the focal point of their professional lives.

2) Graduate students to assist in that research.

Williams will never have those two things, nor should it.

Now, of course, many Williams professors do research and much of that research is of high quality. But it is nowhere near as good as the research done at places like Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford (or even Hopkins). Is anyone surprised by that? Any Williams professor who does research at the highest level is offered a job by a fancy research university and then vast majority accept that job offer.

And that is OK! Williams is a liberal arts college, not a research university. Its only focus should be on the quality of the undergraduate experience, part of which will involve research with professors. But we don’t need to pretend that our professors are as good at doing research as university professors. Who cares?! What we want is for the undergraduate research experience at Williams to be as good as the undergraduate research experience at H/Y/P/S. On a lot of dimensions, this is already true and/or is a worthy goal. But that is not the same thing as “combining the best” of “large research universities” with all the wonderfulness that is Williams today.

Is Falk just engaging in fundraising puffery? I hope so. But note that many faculty members have discussed with me Falk’s focus on the faculty over the last few years, his often expressed desire to raise tenure standards (especially when it comes to research output), to make the Williams faculty more like the Hopkins faculty. Is he hinting at that here? Perhaps. But most of my sources also claim that Falk has been singularly unsuccessful in these efforts, that departments — always jealous of their own prerogatives — have pushed back and only hired/promoted the same candidates as they always have.

Informed commentary welcome!

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