Is today’s faculty meeting the biggest showdown between a Williams president and the faculty since Hank Payne’s presidency-ending decision to accept Herb Allen’s ’62 gift for what would eventually become The ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance 25 years ago? Or is it a foregone conclusion heading for a near unanimous vote after 15 minutes of Zoom Kabuki? I don’t know!

Here (pdf) are the details:

Dear Faculty,

As you already know, the academic calendar for 2020-2021 will consist of two regular semesters only, without winter study, whether or not Williams returns to in-person instruction with social distancing and other health precautions, or it continues to work remotely only. Students will be required to take the minimum of three regular courses in order to maintain a full-time load. These temporary, emergency changes will only be in effect for the next academic year, and therefore do not require a full faculty vote. The related changes in graduation requirements for students who enroll in 2020-2021 do require a faculty vote, because they will potentially be in place for the next four years.

This seems really weird! Well-run institutions plan things out and enact major changes in one fell swoop. It is crazy to (publicly!) make major Announcement A if the success of A depends on Decision B, which has not been made yet. Why would you announce the three course plan unless the faculty had already approved it, or at least announce it at the same time as the faculty vote? Is announcing it weeks ahead an attempt to bully the faculty into accepting the plan, since they would hate to rebuke a popular president during a difficulty time? Maybe!


The next academic year, 2020-2021, comes with numerous, heterogeneous and unprecedented challenges, and with great uncertainty.

Whoah! To put “Justification” in Bold (and Centered) screams desperation. A more normal academic framing would be “Reasoning” or “Background” or, perhaps best, “Summary.” Criminals provide justifications.

We cannot, at this point, predict whether either, both or neither of our semesters will be taught in a fully remote mode.

If I were a faculty member, I would be insulted by this sort of nonsense. It is 99% certain that Williams students will be on-campus in September.

We do know that even if we are able to resume in-person instruction, such instruction will of necessity have to be combined with remote teaching and learning, and all in-person classes will have to observe social distancing requirements and other mandatory health-related protocols. Even if we return to in-person instruction, a number of our students and faculty will not be able to participate in it.

Huh? Says who? With 2,000 students, there is a tragedy or two each year — a suicide attempt, a cancer diagnosis, a father’s death, something which prevents a student or a professor from carrying out their duties. The College handles those cases with compassion. There will be such cases next year, and the year after, and forever more. Yet the fact that, maybe, there will be more of those cases next year is not reason enough to make wholesale changes in how the College operates.

Also, just what about CV-19 will prevent a professor from doing her job? I could imagine a professor who, because of health concerns, has to teach remotely. But that has nothing to do with the College’s requirements about the number of courses a student needs to take.

In addition, a number of courses, especially large lecture courses, will have to be at least partially remote due to social distancing requirements. Should a serious outbreak of the virus hit the campus, we will have to abandon in-person instruction and revert to remote work, as we had to this semester.

Again, this does not make much sense to me. We all agree that remote learning is worse. But I have seen no evidence that it is more time-intensive for students than in-class learning. If anything, I think that the average student at an elite college spent less time on her courses in the spring of 2020 than she did in the spring of 2019. (Contrary opinions welcome!) And, to the extent that remote-classes take more time in some cases, the professors of those classes need simply adjust the workload, as I am sure that they would be ready to do.

But the above is just throat-clearing! The real question: Does a three course requirement help or hurt Williams students? These are the issues which I hope some faculty bring up today. (All quotes below are from this excellent Record article.)

3) Will students who take three courses learn less than students who take four courses? Yes! Isn’t that true by definition? And so what sort of favor is Williams doing for those students who accept this poisoned chalice? We have a responsibility to educate students as best we can, and to have high standards for certifying the fulfillment of that obligation. The switch from 4 to 3 courses will make this cohort of Williams students less educated than those who went before and than those who come after. The burden of proof for making such a change is immense.

2) How many courses will Williams students take?

In a Wednesday Record survey of approximately 550 non-seniors, which received 294 responses, 86 percent of respondents reported that, if the fall semester were on campus, they would prefer to take four classes rather than three.

Williams students like to learn. They like their classes. There are some slackers and malcontents, of course, but a majority — if not quite 86% — will probably take four courses. This makes a change in requirements mostly irrelevant to planning issues involve classroom social distancing and the like.

3) How will the outside world perceive students who take three courses?

“One concern I have is what graduate schools/other institutions may think regarding a student’s choice to take three classes when they may take three or four,” said Peter Hollander ’21. “As someone who is applying to graduate school next year, I definitely feel pressured to take four classes, even if I’m allowed to take three, out of fear that schools would see my application as less competitive.”

Peter Hollander ’21 is smart! Graduate schools and employers will look askance at any student who takes three courses. Is that fair? No! But life is unfair. The problem is that the X students who take three courses will be a mixture of two types: slackers and those who have a legitimate reason — be it health or otherwise — for only taking three courses. Williams would like to pretend that every student who takes only three courses will have a legitimate reason for doing so, but we are doing nothing to ensure that. (And note that Williams could do that. It could require students to seek permission to take just three courses, to provide a justification for why special treatment is necessary.)

So Yale (and Google and Goldman Sachs and Teach for America and . . .) will look at a student who takes three courses and say: “You might be the sort of student who needed to take three courses. Or you might be a slacker who I don’t want. Why risk it when I can just accept/hire someone who took four courses?”

Anyone who doesn’t think that elite institutions won’t do exactly that has never served as a gatekeeper. I have and they will.

4) Will the impact of this policy change be disparate, more likely to (negatively!) impact students from poorer families, who went to less well-endowed high schools, who are more likely to be Black/Hispanic? Of course! How could it not?

As usual, I — who am often accused of racism and classism — am left to defend the interests of the poor and the POC. Will rich white kids be hurt by this? No. They went to Andover! They have well-connected parents who will tell them what’s-what. They will take four courses, regardless of what the faculty does today.

Decreasing the course load from four to three courses will hurt Williams students in aggregate, but it will hurt the least privileged among them the most.

5) Why hasn’t the Administration provided more details about the options available?

In addition, a number of courses, especially large lecture courses, will have to be at least partially remote due to social distancing requirements.

Williams has a lot of classrooms. And a lot of faculty. And there are a lot of hours in the day. Why not offer classes at 8:00 AM or 7:00 PM? Why not have some of the (many!) faculty in administrative roles teach a full load, or at least half a load? It is really not that hard to provide a full set of 8,000 classroom seats (2,000 students times 4 classes each) while maintaining social distancing. No More Lectures!

At the very least, were I a faculty member, I would want a lot more details on why this change is necessary. And I would be pissed about not being better consulted earlier in the process. I decide what qualifies a student to be a graduate of Williams, not Maud Mandel.

Questions: What do you think the faculty will do? What do you think they should do?

My answers: I don’t know what they will do. (My sources are silent!) I think they should vote “No” and force Mandel back to the drawing board.

Print  •  Email