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Disintegrating, 1

A Senior Williams Professor and I will be debating the following resolution: Resolved: Williams is disintegrating. Each Monday, one of us will make an argument. One week later, the other will respond. We will debate until we grow bored with the exercise. Readers are welcome to chime in at any time. Senior Professor goes first:

1. The College has abandoned its traditional standards for tenure for faculty. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, one in four of faculty members who stood for tenure received it. Note that a normal core of junior faculty hired consisted of 20 assistant professors. Half of these would wash out at the 3-year renewal mark, leaving 10 in the cohort who would apply for tenure in their sixth year. Only four of those who stood for tenure would receive it. This was the historical norm at Williams College.

2. What is the current rate of tenure at Williams College? There is no longer a 3-year washout of faculty hired. Essentially anyone hired eventually stands for tenure six years after hire.

3. As best as one can tell, 98 percent of those faculty who stand for tenure receive it. In the few instances where faculty are denied, several are given tenure after appeals.

Senior Professor argues: this is a prescription for organizational suicide.

My response next week.

26 Comments (Open | Close)

26 Comments To "Disintegrating, 1"

#1 Comment By frank uible On February 25, 2019 @ 7:46 am

Will the case be made for bringing back fraternities?

#2 Comment By BN On February 25, 2019 @ 7:50 am

Senior professor is incorrect about the tenure rate. This year 6 faculty came up for tenure and 5 received it. Last year 6 came up and 4 received it (and one faculty member was not reappointed at the 3-year mark). The year before it was, I believe, 5 coming up and 1 not receiving tenure). That’s a tenure rate of about 77% over the last three years. Perhaps the misconception is due to the fact that the number of candidates whom are denied in any given year is almost never more than 1, but the number who stand has not been more than 10 since 2009 (it’s pretty easy to get the number of positive decisions in recent years by looking at this: https://communications.williams.edu/category/news-releases/?fwp_category_search=tenure). In any case, the rate is far lower than 98% and is about even with peer institutions, if not lower.

Also, I don’t believe there as been a successful tenure appeal (that went through the full process) in at least 10 years. There was one case reversed at an earlier stage. There have been many appeals that were unsuccessful in that time.

Senior professor may be correct that the tenure rate is too high, but let’s at least start with vaguely accurate numbers.

#3 Comment By John Drew On February 25, 2019 @ 1:07 pm

I don’t think there is any doubt that identity politics has ruined the quality of a Williams College education.

I remember I was deeply offended in the late 1980s when I saw my department lower its standards by hiring black senior professors who were less skilled and less qualified than competing white senior professors.

Lonely Days and Lonely Knights: OC Resident Dr. Drew Was Once a MA Republican Political Science Professor

As far as I can see, my old department is doing everything it can to make it easier for a minority or female candidate to get tenure including placing folks on the tenure track well after they have completed their dissertations, and virtually abandoning earlier requirements for theory-based, quantitative research.

Williams College was a great institution. It was shut down in 1988.

#4 Comment By abl On February 25, 2019 @ 1:29 pm

Entry-level hiring standards are enormously higher now than they were 10, 20, or 30 years ago. If tenure standards haven’t changed to the same extent, it would make sense that the % of faculty getting tenure would have risen.

On a closely related note, the way in which these standards have changed mean that Williams is taking far fewer ‘flyers’ on faculty: incoming faculty have more established records, so Williams knows what its getting for the most part. Sometimes, professors will show up to Williams and fall off their previous pace of publication, prove to be unpleasant colleagues, or struggle with teaching — and get denied tenure. But there is far less unknown these days in hiring, which means that there are far fewer candidates who surprise in a negative way.

#5 Comment By 89’er On February 25, 2019 @ 3:01 pm

abl –

Can you elaborate more on your post?

These are important points. What structural developments and/or hiring practices have raised entry level hiring standards at Williams? Is it a function of supply/demand and/or Williams perceived standing for newly trained academics? I had been under the impression that while the demand for F/T tenured faculty nationally had plummeted (making it easier for Williams to hire better candidates all things considered) but at the same time Williams isolation and the increasing prevalence of two income households posed a distinct disadvantage for Williams over other postings closer to metro areas or with multiple colleges and universities nearby.

Thank you.

#6 Comment By abl On February 25, 2019 @ 3:59 pm

89’er – I am far from an expert on this, so take this with a grain of salt.

My understanding is that this is a shift that has happened nationwide and across disciplines. My sense is that this has a lot to do with the persistent and longstanding relative oversupply of talented would-be academics, which, in turn, has given rise to credential creep, with your average PhD today having a far more developed research agenda and publication record than would have been the case 20-30 years ago. It’s difficult to say whether the quality of would-be-academics today is higher; but I do think that job candidates today tend to be relatively further developed as academics.

As to Williams specifically, I would be surprised if its relative hiring power has decreased much over this same period. With the internet, I think Williams’ reputation has substantially broadened (as have LACs more generally) — and at the same time, Williams’ unprecedented run at the top of US News has cemented its reputation as a, or the, top liberal arts college. Moreover, my guess is that the Berkshires are relatively *more* attractive now to young candidates than they would have been ~30 years ago (given, among other things, generational shifts in the relative desirability of the suburbs). And although the rise of two-family households is a factor that cuts the other way, telecommuting (or simply just commuting) is pretty ubiquitous–and it certainly has never been easier.

One change that I think is significant is that Williams is now working pretty hard to diversify. There isn’t the same buyer’s market for elite candidates from under represented backgrounds, and I do think that Williams’ location is a relatively bigger disadvantage for this pool of candidates. But I couldn’t tell you how that’s working out — e.g., whether Williams is consistently landing its top tier URM candidates for positions or whether there is a recruitment and/or matriculation problem here. I do think that Green/Love at least point to potential problems in this area.

#7 Comment By John Drew On February 25, 2019 @ 4:01 pm

I think the desire to advance affirmative action hires at Williams College has too often motivated high risk hiring decisions and produced more than its fair share of catastrophic failures.

Risky Business: Affirmative Action Backfires at Williams College

While Dr. Kai M. Green ’07 is the most recent high profile example, I’m most fond of the story of Bernard Moore who, like me, was once an assistant professor in the political science department. Moore plead guilty to a diverse (and inclusive) amount of student aid, bank and Social Security fraud in 2009.

#8 Comment By BH On February 25, 2019 @ 8:17 pm


If this is going to turn into the John Drew-complains-about-not-being-reappointed-in-1988 blog again, please let your readers know so that we can ignore it again. I really don’t think JD is capable of more than, say 3 or 4 posts, without returning to this issue. Much as I appreciate his deep need for therapy, this is not the place.

#9 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On February 25, 2019 @ 8:58 pm

BH: I am sure that JCD has said all he has to say on this topic, at least for a few months. But you can hardly deny that affirmative action is a part, at least, of this conversation.

abl is exactly correct in #6 above. Outside of a few departments (really only Stats/Ec/CS), Williams gets hundreds of applicants for each opening. Some are cranks. But scores are qualified and a dozen or more will be excellent. William may, on occasion, lose a first choice to a research university or for other reasons. But it can always get its 2nd or 3rd choice, generally someone who is, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable from its first.

#10 Comment By BH On February 25, 2019 @ 10:31 pm

DDF- That’s not correct. Williams rarely gets hundreds of applicants for positions in most humanities fields. For many searches it’s more like 50–70. It is also incorrect that it “can always get its 2nd or 3rd choice.” I’ve seen many searches in recent years (and again, I’m thinking of humanities fields) in which searches failed either because the top three candidates turned down offers or because the top three or four ended up being unacceptable based on their campus interviews and job talks. I would say that, in the cases I’ve seen, Williams gets it’s #1 choice in a search less than 50% of the time. Location probably remains the #1 factor (and spousal employment the #1 factor within that category), but we will almost always lose to any R1 institution (though this is often a mistake on the part of the candidate, IMHO).

#11 Comment By revenire80 On February 26, 2019 @ 5:31 am

Has anyone in this thread ever been on the hiring side at Williams?

#12 Comment By anon On February 26, 2019 @ 5:41 am

BH- How does location demographics cause problem with retention?

I would imagine that Williams gets just about everyone it wants that are the top 1% of the candidates (top 5 out of 50), but of those who choose to teach at Williams, what % moves on after they see how little the area has to offer?

There is very little here for anyone who is in their late 20s early 30s (early prof age), and if you are black, then there are literally almost no people in Berkshire County of the same race. That makes Williams the primary focus of the social scene- and Williams can be pretty stuffy.

There is very little middle ground here. You have academic elites, and other working people. That might be enough to make anyone move on after cutting their teeth and padding their resume.

Does Williams look to hire primarily people who have spouses or partners? Anyone who is single and a young prof at Williams, will definitely not find a wide range of people in this area to date.

Just saying… that the area probably hurts retention as much or more than who wants/ is willing to start out at Williams.

I know several profs who moved on as soon as they got good offers after teaching at Williams for a couple of years…

#13 Comment By PTC On February 26, 2019 @ 6:06 am


Moreover, my guess is that the Berkshires are relatively *more* attractive now to young candidates than they would have been ~30 years ago (given, among other things, generational shifts in the relative desirability of the suburbs).

Your guess is way wrong.

The Berkshire’s population has been drastically reduced and aging since 30 years ago. There are very few people here who are in early to mid (30s, 40s) adulthood. There are almost no young adults here out of high school other than college students. That’s just a fact. There is little to no opportunity for young adults in Berkshire County.


#14 Comment By BH On February 26, 2019 @ 7:30 am

revenire80- Yes.

anon- I think the biggest problem remains spousal employment. It is far more unusual for a faculty member to have a non-working spouse than it was 40 years ago (to say nothing of most of the college’s history). Abl is correct above that there are more telecommuting opportunities than than there used to be, but it still much more difficult to find rewarding and well-paying work in this area than in one closer to a major urban area. There are also issues with the schools which, while not bad, are nowhere near the level one would find in, say, the Boston area or even Northhampton area (especially in terms of choice).

And as you suggest, it can be a challenging place for faculty of color, queer faculty, and single faculty (being any combination of those would make it even more challenging).

“Does Williams look to hire primarily people who have spouses or partners?”

Williams, like any employer in the state of MA, is not allowed to ask candidates about this topic. There are challenges on either side (will the person be lured away to another place for spousal employment reasons? Will they be unhappy in the area because dating opportunities are so limited? And so forth).

At the same time, most faculty who are hired do not leave. As academic jobs go, Williams is pretty hard to beat so long as you don’t have a strong desire to work with grad students and like or can at least tolerate the area. Great resources, smart and dedicated student, strong support for research—that’s a winning combination. Also, the academic job market is bad enough in most fields that it’s just not that easy to find a better position after a few years here.

#15 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On February 26, 2019 @ 7:51 am

Williams rarely gets hundreds of applicants for positions in most humanities fields. For many searches it’s more like 50–70.

I have had conversations with two different professors in two different departments who cited 200+ as the number of submissions. But you could still be right! One of these was a non-humanities department. And maybe the other was an outlier. But 50 to 70 is still a lot!

The main reason, however, for “only” getting 50 applications is the ridiculously narrow way that many job openings are constructed at Williams. The history department rarely (ever?) says: We are looking for the best historian teacher/researcher we can find. If it did that, it would get hundreds of applicants. Instead, it looks for a person with a specific area of expertise.

Now, there is nothing wrong with that strategy. Even with that (arbitrary?) restriction, it will get scores of excellent applications. That is enough. But this method under-estimates the true demand — from people with recent Ph.D.s from elite universities — for positions at Williams. It is limitless.

It is also incorrect that it “can always get its 2nd or 3rd choice.” I’ve seen many searches in recent years (and again, I’m thinking of humanities fields) in which searches failed either because the top three candidates turned down offers or because the top three or four ended up being unacceptable based on their campus interviews and job talks. I

1) The fact that job searches fail because there is no candidate that the Department wants is not counter-evidence to the claim that the College always gets one of its top choices. There was no top choice in this case! (It may be a sign of Department incompetence.)

2) The top three candidates turned down job offers!? There have been 100+ or so job searches for junior tenure track faculty in the last 5 to 10 years. How many resulted in the top 3 candidates turning down the position? One?

#16 Comment By anon On February 26, 2019 @ 7:58 am


Interesting. I was curious because I live next to a Williams property. Recently one cool couple who was very engaging split town after two years. The prof who was a spouse got a job at a much bigger, and equally (more by many standards) academically challenging university in the south.

They could not leave town any faster than they did on their own terms. It was easy to tell after the first year here that they were short on this area. They did not like it here- for good reasons.

And this couple had a ton going for them. Two of the most capable (and down to earth) people I have met at Williams. Rock stars, basically.

So, in recent history I have seen your talent pool move on for the reasons discussed.

#17 Comment By BH On February 26, 2019 @ 8:09 am

“The history department rarely (ever?) says: We are looking for the best historian teacher/researcher we can find. If it did that, it would get hundreds of applicants. Instead, it looks for a person with a specific area of expertise. Now, there is nothing wrong with that strategy. Even with that (arbitrary?) restriction…”

Well, of course. History tries to have decent coverage of different areas and time periods. what is “arbitrary” about that? Is there any History department anywhere in the world you does what you suggest they should? That could result in a very odd department.

Yes, there are occasional search with over 100 applicants. As I said, “rarely” (you wrote “for each opening,” which is not even close to true).

I can think of at least 3 searches in recent years in which the top 3 candidates turned down offers or withdrew. But yes, losing the top 3 is unusual. Losing the top choice is not at all unusual.

Anon— Yes, I know cases like you describe (likely even THE case you describe), but they are definitely not the norm.

#18 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On February 26, 2019 @ 9:48 am

> I can think of at least 3 searches in recent years in which the top 3 candidates turned down offers or withdrew.

Without breaking any confidences, can you give us some details? In particular, where/why did these candidates go?

#19 Comment By BH On February 26, 2019 @ 9:51 am

Sorry, I can’t do that (don’t know in some cases, in others it would indeed break confidences to give details). I will say that in some cases it was to R1-type places (which were also, of course, in larger urban areas).

#20 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On February 26, 2019 @ 10:43 am

BH: Understood.

By the way, why not join EphBlog as an author, anonymous or otherwise? Your perspective belongs on the main page, not buried in comment threads.

#21 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On February 26, 2019 @ 10:47 am

BH: Can you help me come up with good phrasing to describe the supply/demand of faculty from the point of view of Williams hiring? How about:

Almost every Williams faculty opening receives applications from scores of highly-qualified and well-credentialed candidates, at least a dozen of whom would make excellent professors and would eagerly take the job.

I just need a one sentence summary of the state of the academic job market, from the point of view of Williams. Of course, there are even more people who would never consider even applying to Williams, for all the reasons we discuss above. But is my one sentence summary fair? If not, how would you change it.

#22 Comment By anonymous On February 26, 2019 @ 11:08 am

I’m not a professor, but I am a professional. I’ve been living in Williamstown for almost 20 years. It’s a tough place to live, depending. If you are young and single, forget it. If you are married with kids and your spouse can get a job (or is a stay at home parent), it’s decent. It’s safe, the schools are decent for the relatively low taxes we pay, and it’s easy – no commuting stress, etc. You can buy a reasonably nice house for not too much money. If your kids are active in things, you meet a lot of nice people and that becomes your social life. Once your kids are gone, however, it starts to be pretty dire again. Nothing much in the way of culture, entertainment, restaurants, zero retail, etc (except for a brief period in the summer) – and it’s getting worse all the time. There is a lot of buzz about some things happening at MOCA, the Tourists hotel, etc – but that doesn’t affect permanent residents all that much, as it is really more geared toward the New Yorkers, etc. The big name James Beard chef from San Fran who was at Tourists’ restaurant just bailed. Not surprising.

The place is hemorrhaging residents. The elderly remain. Recruiting healthcare professionals is very difficult. When I moved here I was in my early 30s with spouse and two young children and it was great; but I’m not sure I’d recommend the same for a similar family at this point. I really feel a sense of deterioration all around here – the heroin problem not helping – and I can’t imagine I’ll be spending a large part of my “golden years” here.

All this is to say I’m sure this has a huge impact on recruitment and retention at Williams. I’ve heard many of the faculty and staff actually “commute” these days. They book their classes on T/Th and are gone the rest of the time. This is probably why Williams is now allowing “second home” purchase up on the faculty ghetto on Pine Cobble, which wasn’t always the case.

I see a real problem for the college moving forward. My two kids at LACs in more urban areas have such better experiences with internship availability and this is increasingly important and for the most part unavailable at Williams during regular semester time. The career counseling at Williams is really not up to snuff at all and this will catch up with them too. Surprised it hasn’t already.

Interested in other locals’ thoughts on my impressions/experiences.

#23 Comment By 69’er On February 26, 2019 @ 4:45 pm

@ 89’er
I’d recommend having that large cyst on your foot removed. Also, what class year were you?

#24 Comment By BH On February 26, 2019 @ 9:52 pm

DDF– The problem is that this is very much field dependent.

I would say that “Almost every Williams faculty opening receives applications from scores of highly-qualified and well-credentialed candidates” is true for most fields for which Williams does a tenure-track search, at least on paper.

However, “…at least a dozen of whom would make excellent professors and would eagerly take the job.” Is not true of all of the fields I know best at the college. It’s actually a more difficult issue than I think you imagine. Other than the biggest fields (such as, for example, modern European and American history or some fields of English), there are not as many strong applicants as you might think. The less strong ones have different sorts of weaknesses. Some might have research that is so specialized that it would not be a good fit for a SLAC like Williams or might clearly make it difficult for them to publish in important venues. Some, based on their campus visits and job talks, would clearly have a challenging time teaching at the level Williams expects (that is, very high).

Job searches can’t go on forever. If a department brings four candidates and, say, the top two take other jobs and the next two end up being less impressive than their applications materials would lead one to believe, the department (and likely the Dean of the Faculty) would be reluctant to dip back into a pool of candidates who didn’t look at all impressive in their applications.

Again, this really depends of the field. The range of depth is much greater than one might expect from the outside looking at the numbers in the academic job market.

#25 Comment By John Drew On February 27, 2019 @ 1:49 am

I imagine my case was typical for most young Williams College professors. I remember I was told I was among the top four candidates out of about 100 applicants. I was the political science department’s second choice. The first choice was a female applicant who turned down the job and took another one at the University of Chicago.

In my case, I had outstanding research. I was one of the few grad students in the nation who could explain my thesis in a sentence. (Modern welfare programs for children are caused by the enforcement of existing child labor laws and not by modernization, party competition, or urban rioting.)

I remember I hit it off with the students who interviewed me. I already had three years of college/graduate school teaching experience. I had served on a thesis committee at the University of Oregon. In Eugene, I discovered I did well in a large lecture hall and that my sense of humor was appreciated by the students.

I split up with my girlfriend to come teach at Williams. She didn’t want to go back to an isolated rural area on the east coast. She ended up working for a top real estate investment company and spent the rest of her life in CA. Ironically, she now lives a few miles from my boyhood home in Santa Clarita, CA. I do remember quickly realizing moving to Williamstown was profound social and professional mistake.

Like a guy doing time in prison, I made the best of it. I joined the Quaker group in Vermont. I got active in local Republican party politics. I got regular massages. I took advantage of the school’s recreational facilities. I took voice lessons. I met a ton of people and ended up with a lot of friends in the community. I did radio interviews and became acquainted with the top political reporters in the region. I met one of the hottest girls I ever dated in my life through a personal ad in the local paper. I was a frequent party guest of the elderly couple who were my neighbors across the street. I had fun over the summer hanging out with the movie and television stars who were part of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. That was blast.

Even so, I was happy to get out of Williamstown and move back to California.

For me, I found out that I really missed working with graduate students and sitting on dissertation committees. As much as I loved the kids at Williams, I found that teaching undergraduates was boring once I figured it out.

It was basically all about helping someone overcome the life hurdles associated with ages 18 to 21. 1) Should I follow my own dreams or my parent’s dreams? 2) Am I normal or weird? 3) How do I balance powerful sexual and emotional connections with the reality that everything else in my life is in a state of transition and uncertainty. After a while, I had my answers to the big three questions established and that was it.

The pay was also ridiculously low. Kids would leave my classroom to take jobs on Wall Street that were double or triple what I was earning as their political science professor. The low pay was made all the worse by high MA taxation levels.

Finally, I absolutely hated the weather. I hated the bad roads, the backward rural conditions, the constant snow and ice. I especially hated the ice.

So, today, I live in a much nicer climate. I never suffer from SAD. My neighbors are largely conservative business owners/management consultants like me. My wife and I have a good life now filled with friends, recreation, family, and adult education classes in art and film appreciation. I can take my easel out to the beach and paint the ocean. I still teach on the side once in a while. I still sit on dissertation committees and provide coaching to doctoral students.

Just because Williams might be a great place for undergraduates doesn’t mean it is a great place for the faculty and administrators who work there.

#26 Comment By dm ’10 On February 27, 2019 @ 3:01 pm

Academic culture has (thankfully) moved on from the ritual hazing of Senior Professor’s day. Most top universities have tenure rates in the 70-90% range these days. Williams does not look to be at all unusual in that sense.

I didn’t apply for academic jobs after my PhD, but many of my friends did, and are now profs at top R1 schools. Among applicants these days, a low tenure rate is seen as a sign of a toxic environment. A healthy department expects its junior faculty to succeed and is invested in providing the resources, mentorship, and guidance for them to do so. It fosters a culture of collaboration, camaraderie, and growth, not back-stabbing over a restricted number of spots. And it uses these advantages to make a compelling case that it’s going to continue being able to hire the best people as your colleagues.

Why would anyone with a choice (and the best people have many choices) want to move to a rural area to work in a toxic competitive environment for a job that doesn’t provide a plausible long-term career path? And why would anyone think that limiting the pool of job candidates to people who have no other plausible choices would increase the long-term quality of the faculty?