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 8.

Seery has lots of complaints about the current crop of elite liberal arts college presidents.

Of the top ten best-paid SLAC presidents, nine had absolutely no prior experience in a SLAC, either as a student or professor, before being named president of one. None of the ten best-paid SLAC presidents had been a SLAC professor in his/her previous curriculum vitae. (One of the top ten had been an undergraduate at a SLAC; that’s the sum total of the collective liberal arts experience.)

Adam Falk was probably included in this analysis. He certainly had no small college experience prior to Williams.

Now, I imagine that some of my market-minded friends might jump in at this point to lecture me about the irresistible market forces that have virtually compelled these presidents to accept these lavish salaries so prudently offered to them. . . . Turns out on closer inspection, however, that none of these SLAC presidents on the 2014 compensation scale was ever a CEO in the business world (nor do any former SLAC presidents get CEO-business offers upon retiring), so the “market pressures” for ratcheting up salaries come largely from some conjured trajectory from within academe.

Correct! This is a fight that I get into all the time. There is no such thing as a “market” for college presidents.

1) There are way more plausible applicants than there are positions. Virtually every current Provost and Dean of the Faculty at all 11 NESCAC schools is a reasonable candidate for the Williams presidency. Alas, we can’t hire all 22 of them! Consider the 10 candidates on the short list for the Williams presidency. The vast majority will never be a college president.

2) There is no good way to forecast presidential performance. You can talk about a market for baseball players because it is possible to forecast their future performance based on their recent (documented and objective!) performance. Players who hit a lot of homers last year are likely to hit a lot of homers next year. There is nothing like that when it comes to administrators. No one on Earth knows, for example, who of the 11 NESCAC provosts has done the best job in the last year. Almost no one can even name half of them!

3) It is very hard to measure presidential performance. Who is, today, the best NESCAC president? No one knows! Only a handful of people can even name all 11 presidents. (I can’t name more than 3.)

Should I rant longer on this topic?

UPDATE: This post was originally scheduled to appear on February during our series on Seery. I will change the date on it so it fits in better there.

Print  •  Email