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 7.

The real reason tuitions are skyrocketing and educational integrity has been compromised is because administrators, not educators, now run the show, all across America. They call the shots. They build the fancy buildings. They call for and approve the costly amenities. They fund what they want to fund. They hire the people they want to hire and pay them top dollar. They make the decisions about branding campaigns, and they set the agenda for student affairs staffs. They fund the kind of curriculum they want. They control the purse strings. They hold the power.

No. No. No. Even if I ran Williams, tuition would still be as high as it is now. Williams, like all elite colleges, is a luxury good, and all luxury goods come with high prices, almost by definition. Seery has the causation exactly backwards. Williams doesn’t increase tuition because it wants costly amenities. It has the money for costly amenities because it has increased tuition. (Indeed, liberal arts colleges that have tried to differentiate themselves by having lower tuition have found that students react negatively, that students use price as a signal. A Williams that only charged $30,000 would enroll lower quality students.)

That pyramidal model in which intellectual labor is transferred from the faculty to the president and his administrators and their strategic plans systematically siphons money and attention and purpose away from what matters most, the classroom.

“Intellectual labor?” What is Seery talking about. Nothing prevents Seery, in his own classes, from being just as good a teacher today as we was 30 years ago. Maybe (maybe!) he has more meetings to attend now than he did then, but that effect is trivial, and more than made up by the decrease in his teaching load. How much “money” does he need to teach political science? Who is stealing his “attention and purpose?”

To the extent things have changed for the worse in his classroom, Seery, and no one else, deserves most/all of the blame.

Historically, SLAC alumni have donated to their small colleges because they genuinely believed in the small-college, residential, face-to-face, liberal arts form of education.

Yeah, maybe. Do people donate to Yale or to the University of Texas or to Andover for different reasons? I don’t think so. People donate to institutions to which they feel a personal connection and whose mission they support.

The current crop of SLAC presidents are (with a few possible exceptions) no longer fellow travelers and true believers in that cause. Their words ring hollow. Yet their pocketbooks grow fat. That alumni donations have dropped off dramatically in the past twenty years at SLACs across the country should come as no great surprise.

Seery is much more cynical than I. I believe (most of) what Adam Falk and Tiku Majumder (and Pomona President Gabrielle Starr) say about the importance of small classes, faculty interaction, and the whole liberal arts college shtick. Who doesn’t think that small classes are good?

Seery is also sloppy in claiming that “alumni donations have dropped off dramatically in the past twenty years.” First, is that even true? I doubt it. My sense (contrary opinions welcome) is that Williams has raised much more money — even in inflation-adjusted dollars — over the last 10 years than in the decade prior, and in the last 20 years relative to any 20 year period before 1998. SLACs have tons of money to spend on all the things that Seery and I hate precisely because they have become such efficient find-raising machines. Second, it is true that there has been a drop in the rate of alumni giving. But, I think that there are many more plausible explanations for that than concern over administrative empire building — none of which the vast majority of alumni know anything about — and, more importantly, the college doesn’t really care if the rate of small-dollar gifts has declined from 60% to 50%.

Print  •  Email