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 two weeks going through it. Day 5.

Some long-standing small-college virtues and priorities at Pomona seem to be fading, even as we get more technologically adept and administratively enabled.

True at Williams as well. Fifty years ago, almost every single faculty member lived close to the college and centered their lives around Williams. That was less true 25 years ago and even less true today.

But notice how Seery never talks about that! How many Pomona/Williams faculty members “commute” to work, either flying in from another city or only driving a long distance a couple of days a week? How many live far enough away that they don’t really care what happens in Williamstown? If you want “small college virtues,” then you want every faculty member (and every senior administrator) to live close by. Seery never demands this of his fellow faculty members, probably because of the real sacrifices it would require.

Back in 1990, if I felt a student was in personal distress, I would pick up the phone and call a dean I knew, and we’d have a discreet conversation about that troubled kid. And because I personally knew and trusted that dean, I also knew that she would follow through and contact the student and, sure enough, would see to it that she’d soon, one way or another, have a face-to-face sit-down with the student to find out what’s going on and to provide appropriate counsel and care.

And, back in the day, that dean was much more likely to be either a fellow member of the faculty or the spouse of a college employee or both. The bigger an organization becomes, the more those personal connections are lost.

Today if I have a troubled student, I’m supposed to go to the portal.


I call BS on this claim
. I am certain that the Pomona Dean of the College (Audrey Bilger) and/or the Dean of Students (Miriam Feldblum) would love to hear directly from Seery if he ever notices a student “in personal distress.”

I am sure there is a portal, but its existence does not prevent Seery from behaving exactly the same as he did 30 years ago. The more likely explanation is that he does not know Bilger/Feldblum; he no longer feels comfortable just picking up the phone and calling them.

The portal will tell me that, first, I have to fill out an information page about who I am, and then fill out another page about the student, checking off the problem from a list of possible concerns. That portal submission goes to some midlevel dean’s office that is called (for the moment anyway) something along the lines of the Office for Student Success and Personal Wellness. My portal entry, I recently learned after inquiring, generates an email or two to the student, but no phone call, and no face-to-face sit-down (unless the student shows up on his/her own initiative). Portal-generated emails to distressed students refer those students to other portal links whereby they can seek, a click away, information about counseling services or the like. All those portal links, to be sure, sit securely behind the latest ITS-supervised security firewalls (which need constant monitoring and revamping and outside vendor support and renewal) so that a student’s privacy cannot be violated.

Meanwhile, a troubled student under my watch did in fact drop out recently, and I learned after the fact that no human being, even from the rather well-staffed Office for Student Success and Personal Wellness, had ever met with that student, even after my many portal submissions and emails and desperate phone-called pleas for expert intervention.

I bet that there is another side to this story. You really believe that, at a place like Pomona, “desperate phone-called pleas” from a faculty member about student welfare had no effect? If true, someone should be fired. More likely, Seery — the hero of every paragraph — is over-stating his attempts and/or unaware of what happened behind the scenes.

But, really, a single story and portal complaints are not the point. The main issue is the size of Pomona/Williams, the tenure of the people who work there, and the depths of the connections among them. If Seery wants to return Pomona to its small college roots — as I would like to return Williams — then we simply must a) reduce their size, b) require local residency for faculty/administrators, c) preferentially hire among faculty/administrator spouses.

There are a dozen or more faculty spouses at Williams who would love a job in the Dean’s Office. We recently had two openings. Did we hire a spouse? No. Instead, as usual, we do a “national search.” I have nothing against the folks who were hired, both of whom seem well-qualified, and one of whom is an Eph. But Williams would have been better off hiring locally. We have too many strangers and transients as it is . . .

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