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Jeremiad and Eulogy, 3

Pomona Professor John Seery‘s article, “Somewhere Between a Jeremiad and a Eulogy,” is a moving description of the changes at elite liberal arts colleges over the last 30 years. (See here for a shorter version.) Almost everything he writes about Pomona is just as true of Williams, including the death of faculty governance, the growth of college staff and out-of-control administrator salaries. Let’s spend a week going through it. Day 3.

Seery pulls few punches:

For the rapid destruction of the American small college—which is what we are witnessing—I could wag my finger at a number of culprits and conditions. But I want to focus my ire here on one main responsible party: small liberal arts college presidents. They bear the bulk of the blame. The fish rots from the head down.

This conflates two separate issues. First, small liberal arts colleges have been decimated over the last 30 years. Scores have closed, almost always because students stopped applying/enrolling. Maybe a few of the presidents involved were greedy/incompetent. But not all of them! Second, elite liberal arts colleges like Pomona and Williams have changed a great deal. That is the “rot” that worries Seery.

Colleges are formally and informally governed far more like top-down Leninist organizations than hippie communes. Members of the board of trustees, operating according to a set of by-laws for the corporation, bear the legal and fiduciary responsibilities for good stewardship at the top, but in fact the president holds the keys to the Chevy and can drive it pretty much wherever he/she wishes (and over time, the president handpicks many of the members of the board and also pushes out critics, so it becomes more or less an old boys club). The president thus enjoys a great deal of formal and discretionary power, and isn’t constrained, as would be a CEO of a for-profit company, for overriding and clarifying concerns about bottom-line profit or shareholder returns.

True and false. It is true that college presidents, like corporate CEOs, have a lot of power and that, in general, trustees defer to them. But there is some amount of “market” discipline. Look at all the liberal arts colleges that have disappeared! Look at the movement in prestige and rankings. Look at the college presidents that are forced out, people like Hank Payne at Williams and Nancy Roseman at Dickison.

More importantly, it is naive to blame person X for something if that same something is happening everywhere. You can believe in the Great Man theory of college presidencies: The reason that Williams looks the way it does is because Morty Schapiro caused it to look that way. But you can’t simultaneously believe that and also observe that every elite college has changed in the exact same way. If every college now has highly paid administrators or too many staff, then the fault can not lie with a specific president. The cause must be systematic.

The hallowed and possibly countervailing notions of “faculty governance” and “academic freedom” are not professorial prerogatives or rights inscribed somehow in Nature or the Constitution but are, instead, discretionary privileges extended by the beneficence and norms of the Powers-that-Be at the uppermost echelon of the college. Oh, faculty committees can write reports and hold meetings and take votes and make a small ruckus. But the president is in charge, and can ignore or squelch all the noise below. And so the ultimate responsibility for the college’s corruption and demise should not be distributed or attenuated. No buck passing.

Huh? The faculty at Pomona used to be X powerful. It is now X/2 powerful. The same thing has happened at Williams. You can blame college presidents for grabbing more power — and Lord knows that I love to blame Adam Falk — but you have to blame the faculty as well. They could have fought much harder than they did. They could fight much harder now. What precisely has Seery spent the last few decades doing? Not much, I bet.

[S]mall liberal arts college presidents don’t know what they are talking about, and yet they talk as if they do. As a class of professional liars, they shouldn’t be trusted with the truth-seeking institutions with which they’ve been entrusted. They are to promote the college as a place of teaching. But they are not teachers. They are to sing the praises of the liberal arts classroom. But most of them have never set foot on a liberal arts college campus before heading one up. Most of them, I dare say after perusing their lifelong track records and educational and career choices, would never have sought out a presidency at a small liberal arts college but for the enormous pay and status that now come attached to those jobs.

“[P]rofessional liars?” Come on! To be a college president, you have to be a bit of a politician, you have to get along with people you don’t like — obstreperous senior professors of government, for example. You can’t tell people exactly what you think all the time. You often speak in platitudes. But that has been true of college presidents for hundreds of years. This is hardly the same as being a liar.

It is a separate question whether or not the current (outrageous!) pay of elite college presidents attract the wrong sort of candidates. I agree and, moreover, even if it doesn’t, there is no reason to expect that high pay actually leads to better presidents.

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#1 Comment By Anon88 On February 15, 2018 @ 9:53 am

More importantly, it is naive to blame person X for something if that same something is happening everywhere.

I strongly agree with this critique. I would add that not only are some of the trends he blames on college presidents things that are happening at all colleges and universities, many are things that are happening in other fields. For example, the rise in highly compensate administrative staff has also occurred in medicine (with extreme consequences for society).

#2 Comment By JAS On February 15, 2018 @ 10:18 am

To balance my strong critique of another post on this blog, I must say that this post is quite good, and has done the good work of making me think a bit more carefully about the problems raised.

I am honestly not certain whether the erosion of faculty power is a root cause of the troubles small colleges face, but it certainly a reasonable theory. I wonder whether the erosion of power has come as a result of changes in tenure process. While most colleges claim that tenure is based on a “three-legged stool” of scholarship, teaching, and service, it is clearly true now that the latter two have substantially less weight, with service being the least important. Sit on a faculty search or two, and that box is checked. Putting effort into service pays no professional dividend unless you parlay it into an administrative position. If tenure/promotion committees (made up of faculty) put more emphasis on service, one would expect faculty to become more involved. What I do not know is whether such committees in the past did value service more.

#3 Comment By sigh On February 15, 2018 @ 10:50 am

I recommend Paul DiMaggio’s classic “The Iron Cage Revisited” for understanding both how college presidents are at fault (for following the trend in their efforts to change their school) and the inevitability that they would have to follow said trend and thus aren’t at fault.

They are the actors who played that role; had it not been that particular president, it would have been their replacement that played that role.

#4 Comment By anonymous On February 15, 2018 @ 1:25 pm

It seems to me this higher education balloon bubble is about to burst. The federal government student loan programs have fueled the tuition increases. The large amounts of untaxed wealth the colleges stash is obscene. The fact that the profs and admins spend their lifetimes in these ivory towers makes them blind to reality. The fact that they are all politically liberal makes it even more hypocritical. Someone in the last post stated that Steve Klass makes more than an average anthesiologist – this is indeed true! I don’t think the academies understand how disgusting it is. Increase the manpower, increase the salaries, no problem – we are sitting on millions/billons of untaxed wealth. They hand out financial aid to the poor minorities like Santa Claus and outright reject and/or overcharge upper middle class white people who need to “check their privilege” upon arrival. Why not use the endowment money to reduce the costs for ALL students and get back to the mission of educating the best and brightest. Cut out the administrative bloat and stop building up the college campuses to look like 5 star resorts. And stop begging alums for money! I’d much rather give my hard earned dollars to the local homeless shelter.

PS Someone asked in a previous post who “Professor Fisher” is and why did he make 500,000 in 2016?? He’s a retired alpine ski coach who filled in for the AD that year while she was on sabbatical (which begs the question: what the hell does an AD do on sabbatical??). So for those of you who are aspiring for your little Joey to become a pediatrician – better to encourage him to be a consultant/substitute AD for a rural, Div. 3 athletic program. It’s pretty good money and no malpractice insurance!

#5 Comment By Doug On February 15, 2018 @ 2:23 pm

anonymous: “They hand out financial aid to the poor minorities like Santa Claus”

Eh, I wouldn’t cite that as an issue of overspending, in fact our financial aid program stands to be improved! We have 50% of our students on financial aid, versus Amherst at 55% and Harvard at 60%. Our financial aid packages are certainly generous for those who do receive them, but I was asked to take out $2,000 in loans a year, a significant imposition for me and my family. If the salary of a career administrator like Klass was reduced to the still astoundingly generous sum of $300,000 a year, 39 students could have the loans in their financial aid packages eliminated. This would have a massive impact on what those students choose to do with their lives directly after graduation, allowing them to put their education to the best possible use instead of worrying about what job will help them overcome their debt.

I truly hope the next president will help address this issue of administrative bloat and overcompensation. Of course, that’s entirely a pipe dream, as the article by Seery explains.

I hope Ephblog can raise more awareness on this issue so that alumni can donate to worthier educational institutions/other charities that won’t funnel money into the pockets of dubiously important administrators at the cost of students.

#6 Comment By anonymous On February 15, 2018 @ 2:57 pm

Doug:

Excellent point. However, in my final analysis I asked that the college tap the billions to make the costs less for ALL. I realize that $2000 in loans is a lot for you. And $68,000 retail is a lot for me. Never mind the ridiculousness of the salaries of Klass et al, with the billions they have, they could make it FREE for EVERYONE for a long time! It’s a joke.

I completely agree with your final point. Why anyone in their right mind would give $ to the alumni fund is beyond me.

#7 Comment By Anon88 On February 15, 2018 @ 3:31 pm

Sigh,

Thanks for the recommendation of “The Iron Cage Revisited.” I was not familiar with it, and it does gives an excellent theoretically frame work – from a sociological rather than the usual economic perspective – on why bureaucracies proliferate and tend to drive organizations toward homogeneity.

#8 Comment By Doug On February 15, 2018 @ 5:59 pm

anonymous: I don’t think that’s a realistic analysis. They could make the college free for everyone for a period of time, sure, but I wouldn’t describe that period as “long”. Last year, the total expenditure of the college was $214 million (1). 2.5 billion / 214 million = about twelve years of operation drawing on the endowment instead of endowment + tuition. The college actually operates on slimmer margins than most people realize, with gains from the endowment being important (as well as outright donations), but the gains from the endowment are often proportional to the size of the endowment. It wouldn’t be sustainable in any sense to get rid of tuition, not to mention the fact that the 68k a year sticker price isn’t much of a burden to a great many families here.

(1) https://provost.williams.edu/priorities-and-resources/

#9 Comment By anonymous On February 15, 2018 @ 6:14 pm

Doug: What evidence do you have that 68k is easily afforded my many? I am paying that x 2 for 2 kids. I make considerably less money than Steve Klass (although I am a physician). So after taxes, pretty much my whole take home pay goes to tuition. I think you are drinking the cool aid if you think 68k is easy for most people to pay. Have some respect for the people who make it possible for others to pay considerably less.

#10 Comment By Doug On February 15, 2018 @ 6:43 pm

I never said it was easy for most people to pay 68k a year. I said that it isn’t a burden for many Williams families to foot that bill, which is true. I have friends whose parents are doctors who are on financial aid… those who pay full tuition are likely to be extremely well off. Look at the addresses of certain students here, or the cars that their parents drive during visits on parent’s weekend. This school is extremely wealthy, and I think that for families with net incomes well above $1,000,000, 68k a year isn’t a “burden” — it’s an expected cost associated with raising a child and sending him/her to college. Their standard of living isn’t sacrificed.

There’s an interesting article I read a while back talking about this disparity in families who attend elite institutions. It’s a short read but I thought it made some interesting points: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/24/opinion/is-private-school-not-expensive-enough.html

#11 Comment By anonymous On February 15, 2018 @ 6:58 pm

Doug: You are completely wrong. You don’t have to be very well off to be expected to pay full tuition. Most upper middle class people – who do not make in excess of 1 million per year- pay full boat. I know. I’m living this.

#12 Comment By Hi On February 15, 2018 @ 8:54 pm

I have friends who are faculty/administrators at various colleges. Apparently, a school will also pick up their kids college tab, even if their kids go to different school. This little perk likely does not show up on the public filings although it is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. So their kids are insulated from the horrors of the tuition bubble.
It is insane.

#13 Comment By abl On February 16, 2018 @ 2:19 am

Hi —

That’s not a benefit everywhere. I’d say full tuition at a different school is definitely the exception.

anonymous —

Actually, most upper middle class families will get financial aid at Williams. See, e.g., http://time.com/money/4991215/upper-middle-class-characteristics/; https://admission.williams.edu/costestimator/.

#14 Comment By Hi On February 16, 2018 @ 7:20 am

From the times article:
“By that formulation, the upper middle class might be the fourth-highest income quintile—the one above the middle but below the wealthiest. Those households range from $74,875 to $121,017 in income, nationally”

So, a family of a firefighter and a teacher from NYC making HHI of 150,000$ is considered wealthy? I have not gone thru tuition calculator but I would bet that someone like that is paying the full freight. Should that family have their savings sucked try because lil Johnny and Tim want to go to a LAC?

#15 Comment By Hi On February 16, 2018 @ 7:29 am

“That’s not a benefit everywhere. I’d say full tuition at a different school is definitely the exception.”

Do you have any idea how ridiculous such a perk would be in any private company? Worse yet, it completely missaligns incentives because now anyone employed by colleges does not have personal incentive to fight the tuition bubble.
At this point, I am actively hoping that the whole thing pops in the next 10 years.

#16 Comment By BH On February 16, 2018 @ 7:43 am

Picking up full tuition for kids is NOT the deal at Williams for either faculty or administrators. I would also note that Williams has the SAME deal for all full-time employees, whether they are the Provost or a dishwasher in food services (and percentage-wise, it’s a much much better deal for the latter).

#17 Comment By Hi On February 16, 2018 @ 7:46 am

“Picking up full tuition for kids is NOT the deal at Williams for either faculty or administrators. I”

Ok, so what IS the number? 50%?

#18 Comment By JAS On February 16, 2018 @ 9:09 am

Hi: Maybe you should do the research. A family making $150K with some rough guesses at home and retirement savings, would pay $33K/year at Williams, far from full freight.

Also, there ARE private companies that have tuition benefits. Sure, they are rare, but hardly ridiculous. I actually think tuition benefits should be phased out and replaced by higher wages, as they create large disparities among employees who only differ in their reproductive status.

#19 Comment By anonymous On February 16, 2018 @ 10:22 am

BH:

The tuition reimbursement deal that Williams has for both dishwashers and the Provost is an untaxed benefit. How does that pass muster with the IRS? Seriously? It is a joke and the only reason it hasn’t been nuked by the government is because it benefits liberal democrats (i.e. college employees). Why in god’s name should the Provost get any tuition assistance? He makes hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you weren’t such a bunch of liberal hypocrites, the people at the Provost’s level would donate that money to the dishwasher. That, I could respect.

#20 Comment By anonymous On February 16, 2018 @ 10:35 am

After revolution, Provost will pay tuition to dishwasher for re-education.

#21 Comment By Hi On February 16, 2018 @ 11:07 am

My bros from high school who became dishwashers at local diners got tuition reinbursement for private college for their kids all the time. It was not a big deal.

#22 Comment By sigh On February 16, 2018 @ 11:08 am

well, this is a new reach into the bizarro conspiracy part of ephblog. The IRS isn’t taxing a perk because “it benefits liberal democrats (i.e. college employees).”

lol wut?

#23 Comment By amunzer On February 17, 2018 @ 9:54 am

$68K vs. $2K is a completely unfair sharing of the cost burden. Then they want the people paying $68K to “Pay it Forward.” Yeah, maybe not.

#24 Comment By anonymous On February 17, 2018 @ 10:47 am

True supporters of people would donate to public schools like Evergreen State, not corporation for production of next generation capitalists.

#25 Comment By abl On February 17, 2018 @ 11:37 am

amunzer —

Re $68k and $2k, that’s how need-based aid works. Maybe there’s a problem with how Williams is calculating need — maybe anonymous really can only afford $50k, for example. From my brief exploration of the quick calculator, though, I’m actually surprised by how generous Williams’ finaid appears to be. I wouldn’t have guessed that a family making $150k/year with a house and some savings would still get a substantial percentage of tuition covered. But I would still believe that there are circumstances, possibly including anonymous’s, in which families’ ability to pay are being miscalculated. If so, that’s something that should be fixed. (Also, if I recall correctly, anonymous doesn’t actually send her kids to Williams–and it is possible that her kids’ schools aren’t as generous with finaid.)

Williams should be a school that attracts and matriculates the best students, irrespective of the wealth of their family. If that means that Doug has to pay less to go to Williams than I did, so be it. Williams heavily discounts the price of its education for all of its students. Without serious changes, some of which would materially impact the quality of the experience, Williams cannot afford to sustainably discount the price to zero for every single student. The current system–in which students get somewhere between a 50% mark-off and a 100% mark-off based on need–strikes me as being likely the best way to matriculate the best overall possible student body without sacrificing the quality of education.

Personally, I would be in favor of reducing the discount rate for the wealthiest students further: why should Barron Trump get any discount in the cost of attending Williams? It is unlikely that prospective students of his level of wealth have any effective price sensitivity around these things. He’ll go to whatever school he wants to (and can get admitted to), irrespective of whether it costs $60k/year or $70k/year or $80k/year — the marginal difference in these costs is effectively meaningless to his family. Given that Williams’ resources are limited, why is offering the Trump family a discount, when it is unlikely to impact Barron’s matriculation decision, the best way for Williams to use its limited resources? Wouldn’t that $10k or $20k be better used to fund additional summer research or post-graduate fellowships? Or, for that matter, wouldn’t that $10k or $20k be better used to further subsidize the education for people like anonymous, for whom Williams could do more to lessen the burden of attending?

#26 Comment By anonymous On February 17, 2018 @ 12:01 pm

Finding sustainable way to maintain capitalist corporation just delays revolution. Thus, fiscal conservatives at Williams are enemies of the people.