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Remotely Celebrate == Virtual Commencement?

Williams will be remotely celebrating graduation on Sunday but, under no circumstances, should you refer to that event as a “virtual commencement.”



Out in Front

Erin Burnett ’98 putting her Williams education to work tonight with a useful discussion of the Insurrection Act. Wish I had taken more history courses!

UPDATE: This is the Williams education content we are looking for!


Congrats Bates 2020

Congrats to Bates Class of 2020 on their virtual commencement today. President Clayton Spencer ’77 organized a lovely event.

Bates, being an excellent college, seems to have thrown department Zoom meetings for its seniors. Here is one for Economics:

Surely, my friends in Williams economics are planning to do the same . . .




“Virtual Commencement” or Not?

Question: Is Williams holding a “virtual commencement” in 9 days?

First answer: No! A college official told me so. The Record reported the same. I can’t find a clear cut statement to this effect on the College’s website, but this noting the lack of a “virtual ceremony in June” comes close. Key word searches only really turn up references to the “virtual graduation ceremony” being held by Africana Studies.

Second answer: Yes! Williams is obviously having a virtual commencement. Just look:

A number of academic departments and programs are hosting their own virtual events and celebrations throughout May and June. Students will be contacted directly with details by the event organizers.

And here’s a schedule of Williams-wide virtual events for Saturday, June 6:

1 p.m. Music Department Senior Recital
2 p.m. Phi Beta Kappa Induction Ceremony
3 p.m. Sigma Xi Induction Ceremony
4 p.m. Senior Athlete Celebration
5 p.m. Raising Our Gaze: an offering from the Williams College Chaplains Office featuring student voices and honoring our seniors

Williams is even providing social media advice to help with the big day.

Instagram Effects
When creating a new story on Instagram, swipe the Effects selecter all the way to the left until you get to “Browse Effects.” Search for “Williams2020” to find the Williams graduation effects.

If you do most of the things associated with a Commencement, most of the stuff that you did last year (that can be done on the web), then, call it whatever you want, you are holding a virtual commencement/graduation/celebration/whatever.

Others disagree!

I would argue that it isn’t a commencement because it lacks all ceremony; no reading of names, no marshall, no singing.

Is a Commencement a Commencement if your name isn’t read? Middlebury thinks so! I could probably find a dozen or more examples. And don’t forget this promise:

However, we can’t let your graduation day go by without some fanfare. Look for an email at 10 am (EST) from the college on June 7 for a special celebration of YOU, the Class of 2020!

You can be sure that his will include some singing, and almost certainly an appearance by College Marshall Jay Thoman ’82.

But the words that I or others write on EphBlog don’t matter much. What matters is whether or not other organizations refer to the events of June 6/7 as a “virtual commencement.” The Boston Globe is unlikely to provide any coverage, but iBerkshires and the Berkshire Eagle will probably have an article, if only something which parrots the College’s press release. What matters is if future historians refer to the events as a virtual commencement.

I bet they will. What do you predict?


Graduation for All

Good news! Maud Mandel has seen the light! Williams will be offering a graduation ceremony worthy of our community.

Williams will offer an approximately hour-long personalized celebration of the Class of 2020, to complement the earlier College wide events that will be happening on June 7, 2020. All celebrations will launch around 3 p.m. EDT, to give students and families at home a chance to break for lunch after the earlier events.

Students participating in their Group-based celebration can expect an experience that reflects the spirit of the College that they love, recognizes each of them individually, celebrates their time together over four years, and offers opportunities for real-time socializing and connection, for both them and their families.

No virtual ceremony can ever be as good as the real thing, of course. It is good that Williams, like its peers, has committed to holding an in-person ceremony as well. But students and their families come together on the day itself. Only the College can provide a way for them to gather together easily. Sounds a lot like the plan we recommended a month ago. Well done!

Oh, snap! Williams isn’t doing this (yet). The above, slightly edited, is from Harvard’s graduation today. We spend a lot of time mocking Harvard at EphBlog. And much of that mockery is deserved! But credit where credit is due. Harvard (and Bates and Middlebury and every other elite college in the country) is doing the right thing. Instead, Williams, perhaps harking back to its tradition as a rich man’s college, is doing stuff like this:

A group of seniors currently quarantining together in a cabin in Lake Placid, NY plan to celebrate their graduation by embracing the outdoors. The group, made up of some of the residents of Doughty House this past school year, plan to hike a nearby hill in their caps and gowns and call a special guest to deliver a speech. “[College official] X is going to be one of the speakers,” Y ’20 said.

I have edited out the names from this (excellent) Record article because the exact names don’t matter. What matters is the obvious discrepancy which wealth/privilege/connections create in a world in which Maud Mandel refuses to provide a centralized ceremony to which everyone is invited. When Williams cancels virtual graduation, it doesn’t cancel graduation for everyone. It just cancels graduation for the poor and unconnected. Plenty of Williams seniors will still have a meaningful ceremony, with visits from their favorite faculty and staff. Just not all seniors. For example:

Z said that her family is planning a small gathering at home to celebrate her accomplishment of being the first in her family to graduate college.

“My parents already said they want me to wear my cap and gown and dress up as if I were receiving my diploma, and they’re gonna throw me a little party, probably cook some food and just spend time together,” she said. She also stressed the importance of the accomplishment for first-generation students in particular, as graduating college is a milestone that no one else in her family has seen.

Sounds like a lovely event. If Z went to any other school in the country, her family could view a touching video as they gathered. Not as good as being there of course, but also better than nothing. Indeed, every family with a graduating senior that I know personally has made use of their college’s virtual ceremony somehow.

Oh, wait. You thought this was another EphBlog parody. Untrue! Check the link. Summary:

Rich white male seniors get meaningful virtual ceremony with participation from a college official.

First-gen, (poor?), minority senior gets nothing.

Nice job, Maud!


Showdown at Three Course Gulch

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.


3-0-3 Discussion

The Record‘s recent article on the topic of calendar changes — three courses a semester and no Winter Study — is extremely professional. Indeed, no recent article better demonstrates the Record’s resurgence. Yet, we still have questions! (Previous discussion here.)

1) Is there a single other school in the country which is decreasing its course requirements? I can’t find one. Doesn’t that make it really weird that we are doing this? I continue to believe that it is a bad idea. Any wagers on whether or not the faculty will fight back tomorrow?

2) Can we stop with the fiction that students won’t be back on campus?

These changes will take effect whether or not the College resumes in-person classes in the fall; Mandel has set a deadline of July 1 to determine whether or not classes will be held on campus. In an interview with the Record, Mandel cited the burden that students feel with remote learning as a reason to reduce the number of required courses.

It is true that July 1 is the deadline. But every report like this should mention that dozens of elite schools have announced that they will have students on campus and none are indicating that they won’t. The reason this matters so much is that, as best I can tell, the main justification for three courses is that the flexibility is needed if students are taking classes from home. But that will never happen! I, and every other observer, am happy to guarantee that students will be back. Planning for a scenario in which they won’t is like planning for an October blizzard. Not impossible, but also not really worth planning for.

3) Some Ephblog commentators highlighted this justification last week:

She also noted her belief that, if students are on campus, the changes could minimize the number of classrooms in use and therefore reduce COVID-19 spread. However, she clarified that students will still have the option to take more than three courses if they wish.

This is interesting! More reporting, please. My normie friends — Ephs who don’t read EphBlog and have children enrolled — find this weird. (Perhaps they want four classes for their $75,000!) Why not just use the classrooms from 7:00 AM till 10:00 PM? I don’t really have a sense of how many classrooms there are, how fully they are used, and how things would work with social distancing. Yet I know that Williams has been building, Building, BUILDING for decades, with no meaningful increase in enrollment. There is a lot of unused classroom space . . .

Even in the event that classes resume on-campus in the fall, Mandel believes that a reduction in the required number of courses will lower the number of classrooms in use and therefore assist in social distancing, even though students have the option to take four classes.

More reporting, please. And some more challenging of the Administration’s story line.

4) As we predicted, students don’t like this plan.

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.

Is this Mandel’s Hank Payne moment? If student’s don’t want a three course semester, then why go down this path? And won’t the faculty object? Note the (key?) role played by faculty in shooting down the trimester plan.

Faculty feedback was ultimately the most impactful to Mandel, she said. “It was feedback from the faculty meeting … which made us realize there was an easier way to do what we were hoping to achieve with the three [semester] plan,” Mandel said. “I think what we learned about the various versions of the three [semester] plan was that it was making things hopelessly complicated, so we went to a system which would be simpler to understand and simpler to implement.”

In the faculty meeting on the trimester and three-semester plans, numerous faculty raised concerns that focused in large part around course requirements and scheduling. Chair of Mathematics and Statistics Richard de Veaux expressed relief that the administration decided against a three-term plan. “I am very relieved that the trimester system is off the table,” he said. “I had already raised logistic[al] issues at the faculty meeting that pointed out the problems that departments with scaffolded courses like Math with 130, 140, 150 and languages would have with the trimester system.” Multiple departments expressed concern that what de Veaux refers to as “scaffolded courses,” or courses that are sequential in nature and are only offered in a chronological order, could have been hampered by a three-term system.

Professor of Chinese Chris Nugent, who is also Chair of the CPC, expressed similar sentiments. “A three-term structure would introduce different challenges [to Chinese], such as deciding in which terms to offer the two halves of a year-long course or how to repeat parts of courses to allow all students who so desired to take these courses,” he said. “Because all units at the College have designed their curricula around our usual two-semester structure, I think we were confident that sticking to this would be the most fair option across the board and introduce the fewest unexpected challenges.”

How did this crazy trimester plan ever get to a faculty meeting in the first place? A competent president figures out, ahead of time, what is possible and what is not. Sometimes — once or twice in a presidency — you role the dice on a close call which you care deeply about. But that is not this. Mandel — and her advisers — should have figured out the problems with the trimester plan ahead of time. It should never have come before the faculty, especially since it is hard to see what advantages it offers.

Will it be the same with 3-0-3? Informed commentary welcome. If I were a faculty member, I would not like this.

Again, read the whole article. It is simply excellent. I am sorry I lack the energy to go through more highlights.


Congrats to Middlebury

Middlebury held its virtual commencement yesterday.

While we’re planning to hold a full, in-person Commencement at some point in the future, we’ve celebrated and honored the accomplishments of the Class of 2020 with our online Senior Celebration.

The video is impressive. I bet that a majority of seniors and their families watched it live and enjoyed it. (Do we have any Panthers amongst our readers?) The musical interludes with pictures of the seniors — their friends, their sports, their adventures, their music, and their mountains — are beautiful.

I found myself watching ten minutes of it, and I don’t know any of these people!

A score of Middlebury Departments also held Zoom receptions for seniors. (And their families?) Raspberries to my former colleagues in Economics who seemingly failed to do so. Middlebury’s use of social media to mark the occasion — Twitter, Instagram — works well.

Why wouldn’t Williams put on an event like this in two weeks? Laziness, stupidity and stubbornness are the most likely reasons. If only 50 seniors and their families attend, isn’t it still worth it, given that the cost is zero? Any senior (and her family) who don’t want a virtual commencement — as I am sure there were a handful at Middlebury — can simply choose not to attend.

UPDATE (from comments below):

> 90% of students said they didn’t want it

What garbage. From the Record:

The form had a two-thirds response rate among seniors, more than 90 percent of whom preferred a rescheduled in-person ceremony with traditional senior-week and class-day events.

First, 1/3 of the students did not return the survey. Does that mean we can assume that they want a virtual commencement? No! Nor can you assume that they don’t want it. All we can know is that they did not care enough, one way or the other, to express an opinion. If an event is free and some students (10%?) want the event, and 1/3 of the student don’t care enough to express an opinion one way or the other, then you should have the event (assuming it has no negative effect on the 60% who voted No).

Second, note how the Record frames the issue — “preferred a rescheduled in-person ceremony.” Reporter Rebecca Tauber (who we know to be competent) interpreted the survey as a choice: either you get a virtual commencement in June or you get an in-person commencement on 2021. We know other students who interpreted the survey that way as well. Given what we know — and we have not seen the form — I would have interpreted it that way as well, and voted for 2021! But that is not the same thing as objecting to a virtual event — which I do not need to attend — in June.


Ephs Who Have Gone Before

foxWho is this Eph?

He is Myles Crosby Fox ’40.

Myles will not be in Williamstown to celebrate reunion with the Old Guard in two weeks (if reunion were still happening), for he has passed away. He leaves behind no wife, no children nor grandchildren. His last glimpse of Williams was on graduation day 80 years ago. Who among the sons and daughters of Ephraim even remembers his name?

I saw the mountains of Williams
As I was passing by,
The purple mountains of Williams
Against the pearl-gray sky.
My heart was with the Williams men
Who went abroad to die.

Fox was, in many ways, an Eph of both his time and ours. He was a Junior Advisor and captain of the soccer team. He served as treasurer in the Student Activities Council, forerunner to today’s College Council. He was a Gargoyle and secretary of his class.


Fox lived in Wood House. Are you the student who lived in the room that Fox vacated all those years ago? Are you an Eph who trod the same walkways around campus as Fox? We all walk in his footsteps.

The years go fast in Williams,
The golden years and gay,
The hoary Colleges look down
On careless boys at play.
But when the bugles sounded war
They put their games away.

Fox wrote letters to his class secretary, letters just like those that you or I might write.

The last issue of the Review has put me up to date on my civilized affairs. I am enclosing the only other information I have received in the form of a letter from Mr. Dodd. Among my last batch of mail was notice of the class insurance premium, and if you think it will prove an incentive to any of my classmates you may add under the next batch of Class Notes my hearty endorsement of the insurance fund, the fact that even with a military salary I am still square with the Mutual Company, and my hope that classmates of ’40 will keep the ball rolling so that in the future, purple and gold jerseys will be rolling a pigskin across whitewash lines.

Seven decades later, the pigskin is still rolling.

Fox was as familiar as your freshman roommate and as distant as the photos of Williams athletes from years gone by that line the walls of Chandler Gym. He was every Eph.

They left the peaceful valley,
The soccer field, the quad,
The shaven lawns of Williams,
To seek a bloody sod—
They gave their merry youth away
For country and for God.

Fox was killed in August 1942, fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific. He was a First Lieutenant in the Marine Corps and served in a Marine Raider battalion.

Fox’s citation for the Navy Cross reads:

For extraordinary heroism while attached to a Marine Raider Battalion during the seizure of Tulagi, Solomon Islands, on the night of 7-8 August 1942. When a hostile counter-attack threatened to penetrate the battalion line between two companies, 1st Lt. Fox, although mortally wounded, personally directed the deployment of personnel to cover the gap. As a result of great personal valor and skilled tactics, the enemy suffered heavy losses and their attack repulsed. 1st Lt. Fox, by his devotion to duty, upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the defense of his country.

How to describe a night battle against attacking Japanese among the islands of the South Pacific in August 1942?

Darkness, madness and death.

On Memorial Day, America honors soldiers like Fox who have died in the service of their country. For many years, no Eph had made the ultimate sacrifice. That string of good fortune ended with the death in combat of First Lieutenant Nate Krissoff ’03, USMC on December 9, 2006 in Iraq. From Ephraim Williams through Myles Fox to Nate Krissoff, the roll call of Williams dead echoes through the pages of our history.

With luck, other military Ephs like Dick Pregent ’76, Bill Couch ’79, Peter May ’79, Jeff Castiglione ’07, Bunge Cooke ’98, Paul Danielson ’88, Kathy Sharpe Jones ’79, Lee Kindlon ’98, Dan Ornelas ’98, Zack Pace ’98, JR Rahill ’88, Jerry Rizzo ’87, Dan Rooney ’95 and Brad Shirley ’07 will survive our current wars. It would be more than enough to celebrate their service on Veterans’ Day.

Those interested in descriptions of Marine combat in the South Pacific during World War II might start with Battle Cry by Leon Uris or Goodby, Darkness by William Manchester. The Warriors by J. Glenn Gray provides a fascinating introduction to men and warfare. Don’t miss the HBO miniseries The Pacific, from which the battle scene above is taken. Fox died two weeks before the Marines on Guadalcanal faced the Japanese at the Battle of the Tenaru.

A Navy destroyer was named after Fox. He is the only Eph ever to be so honored. The men who manned that destroyer collected a surprising amount of information about him. It all seems both as long ago as Ephraim Williams’s service to the King and as recent as the letters from Felipe Perez ’99 and Joel Iams ’01.

God rest you, happy gentlemen,
Who laid your good lives down,
Who took the khaki and the gun
Instead of cap and gown.
God bring you to a fairer place
Than even Williamstown.

Note: As long as there is an EphBlog, there will be a Memorial Day entry, a tribute to those who have gone before. Apologies to Winifred M. Letts for bowdlerizing her poem, “The Spires of Oxford.”


Three Courses Per Semester??

This seems like a big mistake. From the Record:

In an all-campus email sent today, President Maud S. Mandel announced plans to adopt a revised version of the regular two-semester academic calendar for the 2020-21 academic year. Regardless of whether classes are in-person or remote, students will be required to take a minimum of three courses each semester rather than four. Winter Study will not take place in January 2021.

“A two-semester model with reduced per-semester credit requirements and more space in the calendar offers the greatest latitude to meet diverse needs without compromising the quality of our education,” Mandel wrote in the email.

1) It was obvious to EphBlog a month ago, and obvious to everyone now, that Williams students will be on campus in September. It is OK for Williams to delay making that decision official until July, but we should focus planning on that eventuality.

2) It makes no sense to have students take just three classes. Am I the only one that sees that?

First, no other school is following such a crazy plan. (Contrary examples welcome.) Why? Because it is crazy!

Second, a danger we will face in September will be students infecting each other. We should keep them busy with academics! If anything, we should increase the workload, especially work like reading and writing that can be done alone in a dorm room. Decreasing student workload makes social distancing harder. Is there more or less social distancing during Winter Study? I seem to remember some fairly crowded Perry House parties . . .

Third, the quality of a Williams education is directly proportional to the number of classes students take, at least for classes one through four. How can Maud pretend otherwise? If the fourth class didn’t improve the quality of a Williams education, than why have we forced students to take it for the last 50 years? (History question: When did the 4 courses per semester become standardized?)

Fourth, is Williams going to prevent students from taking four courses? Presumably (?) not. I bet plenty (more than half? more than 75%?) will still take four. Heck, lots of students take five courses now. And, unless I am mistaken, none of the numerous requirements — for divisional distribution, writing intensive, majors, DPE and so on — are going away. In that world, how do you think employers will compare/contrast students who took only three courses with those who took four? It could (easily?) be that, despite the best of intentions, the causal effect of this policy will be to hurt the future prospects of the Williams students who take advantage of taking three courses. Is that what Maud wants?

3) Getting rid of Winter Study is not unreasonable. Several schools have announced fall semesters which will end at Thanksgiving, at which point they will send students home for 6 weeks or more. Williams could consider something similar. The last thing we want is students doing too much traveling back-and-forth from Williamstown to the wider world. But, at the same time, just what would we do with the students who can’t go home . . . There is some shirking here, obviously. Williams doesn’t want students to get sick, but it really does not want them to get sick while they are at Williams. The less time they spend at Williams, the better, from that selfish point of view.

4) Kudos to the Record for providing a copy of the original e-mail. It is a little thing, I know, and something every competent paper would do. But, for decades, the Record has failed to do this because it has been incompetent. Change we can believe in!

5) Key sentence from the e-mail:

These changes will maximize flexibility for students and limit the amount of time that people are required to be on campus . . .

A close reading is required. First, as discussed above, is “flexibility” the most important things to provide students? No! Williams needs to provide them, a), with safety and, b), with a quality education. I don’t see how three courses really helps with either. Second, note the switch from “students” in the first part of the sentence to “people” in the second.

Students have to spend the same amount of time on campus regardless!

Working class employees at Williams — janitors, cooks, B&G, et cetera — all have to spend the the same amount of time on campus.

White-color employees who interact with students have to spend the same amount of time on campus.

White-color employees who don’t interact with students have to spend the same amount of time (zero) on campus.

The only people this policy — requiring three courses rather than four — affects are faculty. Is the Williams faculty really so cowardly as to agree with this special treatment? Read Swarthmore’s Tim Burke.

6) Isn’t it a bit presumptuous to announce this before getting faculty approval? Maybe Maud just knows that the faculty will go along with whatever she wants. Maybe! And that is what Hank Payne thought when he announced the donation for the ’62 Center . . . Perhaps faculty readers could chime in.

7) Why announce this all now? The longer you wait to announce things, the more information you will have. Of course, you can’t wait forever. But, if we don’t have to announce to July 1 whether or not students will be on campus — Hint: they will be! — then we certainly don’t need to announce changes in course requirements.

Am I missing something here?

Rest of the (excellent) article below the break. Should I spend a week going through this?

Read more


The Significant Beauty of Nonessential Work

Lovely article by Economics Professor Greg Phelan.

“Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”

That’s the question Sam Gamgee asks an exhausted, starving, and despondent Frodo Baggins as they struggle to march through Mordor. Frodo has lost hope that he’ll reach the end of his journey. But rather than saying, “Muster up your strength! We have essential, important work to do,” Sam simply asks: “Do you remember the Shire?”

Do you remember the butter and bread, the flowers in the orchards, the songs and the rain, the laughter around tall pints of brown ale? While the important mission in the world is destroying the Ring—defeating Lord Sauron and all evil—Sam reflects on strawberries and cream.

Why? Because their way of life in the Shire was worth saving. Oh, you can live without beer and bread and strawberries. Sam and Frodo made it through Mordor without them. Those things are far from essential.

And yet.

Those nonessential things are worth preserving, worth protecting, worth marching into Mordor for. Sam finds courage because of the frivolous joys of the Shire, not despite them. They are not essential, but they are significant.

On a visit to the American Museum of Natural History one day, my wife noted the deep-sea creatures that live in darkness miles below the water’s surface. We humans never see them, and we barely know anything about them—God must have made them just for himself out of sheer delight. In wonder at the numerous creatures God made for seemingly no other purpose than his own pleasure, my wife was struck by this thought: And of all that God created, people are his treasured possession.

Recently, as my daughter toddled around our backyard laughing in the sun, I was overwhelmed anew by the knowledge that life is beautiful. A baby’s giggles, like strawberries and cream and orchards blooming in the Shire, are worth living and dying for.

Significant and good, they inspire us to live for what is most important, most essential. I find strength and courage to sacrifice for my children, to attempt the hard work of laying down my life for my wife, and to labor for peace and prosperity in our world because the splendor of God’s beauty breaks through in my children’s playful smiles.

Even after the pandemic passes and our economy shifts back into gear, we’ll still be in Mordor. May we always ache for something more. And while we wait, may we find in the laughter of children, the beauty of sea creatures, and the taste of strawberries not only a promise of what is to come, but also the motivation to keep going.

Your work may be nonessential. But it is absolutely significant.

Read the whole thing.


Economics Thesis Presentations

Economics senior thesis presentations are today and Tuesday. See here for the schedule and here for the posters. Good stuff!

1) I will be at today’s 9:00 AM presentation. The public is welcome, although you need to e-mail a request for the Zoom link.

2) I hope/trust that families and friends have been invited. Indeed, were I a member of the Department, that would be a requirement. CV-19 has mostly ill effects, but having an event like this on Zoom makes it much easier for others to participate.

3) Kudos to the Department for its commitment to transparency! I like both the requirement that students prepare posters and that those posters are public. But why do three students (just seem to?) not have posters?

4) Which presentation would you recommend to our readers?

5) Thanks to former faculty member Mike McPherson for being an excellent thesis adviser, just a few short decades ago . . .


Record Plans

From Record Editor-In-Chief Samuel Wolf ’21:

For us at the Record, as for the rest of the Williams community, the past several months have been tumultuous. Since we departed campus, scattering ourselves around the country and globe, the Record board has been wrestling with how to provide trustworthy and compassionate journalism during a trying time.

Much will happen this summer, from the graduation of our seniors into an unstable job market, to the acceptance of rising first-years who face an unpredictable environment, to the work of several committees to reach a decision on the fall semester. We will continue to shed light on these stories, and we hope to be a consistent and reliable resource to all community members.

Over the summer, our coverage will re-center primarily around breaking news and investigative pieces. We hope in particular that our work will help elucidate the process and outcome of the administration’s deliberations on the fall 2020 semester, and, as always, we welcome your thoughts and feedback. If you have any critiques, questions, or leads, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at

As a close reader of the Record for many years, I think that this spring’s reporting and writing have been excellent, the best that I have seen in more than a decade. Kudos to all involved! I will reach out to Wolf and see if he wants to follow up on some juicy leads . . .


Once Belonged

John DiGravio ’21 writes in the Wall Street Journal:

The economic fallout from the coronavirus is forcing colleges across the U.S. to cut costs and re-evaluate priorities. With so many students already burdened by rising tuition costs and student loans, colleges should look beyond the enrollment list to find savings. They can begin by rolling back decades of costly administrative expansion and replacing it with greater levels of faculty governance and student independence.

According to a 2014 report by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, the number of nonacademic higher-education staff more than doubled between 1987 and 2012 at private nonprofit colleges, far outpacing growth in students. This has had an especially strong impact on small colleges such as my own, which have fewer students to bear the cost of retaining so many administrators.

Many of these new positions have taken over roles that once belonged to faculty and students. At Williams College, students used to gain valuable experience by managing student organizations, club sports and events. Now an office of professional staff oversees these activities. Colleges can cut costs by turning to professors—rather than expensive search committees—to fill essential senior administrative positions. Tasks like community building and management of student activities can be handed back to students. In addition to saving money, these adjustments would help restore the influence of faculty and students in running their own colleges.

Exactly right. Remember the Tablecloth Colors!

The Record — which has done an excellent job this spring — should do a series on this. How many more administrators does Williams have compared to 10 or 20 years ago? How much are they paid? EphBlog could help!


Under the Rainbow Banner

Latest from Professor Darel Paul:

In June 1970, America’s first gay pride parades hit the streets. Four U.S. cities—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco—hosted crowds ranging from several hundred to a few thousand marching with homemade signs declaring “pride,” “power,” and “liberation.” Like the 1969 Stonewall riots that inspired them, early parades began as intentional acts of disruption, combining political protest with cultural defiance. Fifty annual marches later, Pride parades are backed by our most powerful individuals and institutions. Fortune 500 corporations bankroll them. Senators, governors, and mayors campaign through them. Major league sports teams, churches, hospitals, government bureaucracies, protective services, universities, and K–12 schools march in them. In the largest American cities, over a million spectators line the streets to wish and be wished “Happy Pride.”

The 2020 coronavirus lockdowns have dramatically interrupted public life throughout the United States. Easter and Passover celebrations were shunted online or cancelled outright. So, too, the central public liturgy of the contemporary cosmopolis, the Pride parade. For our leading cities and their elites, this is of far greater consequence than suppressing any traditional holy day. While cities will certainly miss the economic benefits, the greater consequence is an interruption of the cultural work of expressing our society’s core dogmas and reenacting our society’s central myth.

Why and wherefore this annual national carnival of queerness? Mainstream society’s enthusiasm for Pride is no doubt motivated in part by marketing and virtue signaling. Some have argued that corporate America’s “performative wokeness” is a legitimation strategy aimed at culturally left elites who might otherwise support the breakup of tech giants or the taxation of Wall Street. Others have noted that rich consumers with ample disposable income tend to be cultural progressives, and therefore it simply makes commercial sense—especially for luxury brands and high-end consumer services firms—to embody the progressive values of their most desirable clientele. These arguments aren’t wrong, but they say nothing about what attracts elites to progressive causes in the first place. They are silent, in particular, on what makes an association with queerness so alluring. After all, Americans are not turning out in the millions for annual civic celebrations of abortion rights, slavery reparations, or gun control. In the annals of performative wokeness, Pride holds pride of place.

Queerness has conquered America because it is the distilled essence of the country’s post-1960s therapeutic culture.

Read the whole thing. Is Professor Paul the most important public intellectual on the Williams faculty today? If not, who is?


Disastrous Mistake

Jonathan Kravis ’99 writes in the Washington Post:

Three months ago, I resigned from the Justice Department after 10 years as a career prosecutor. I left a job I loved because I believed the department had abandoned its responsibility to do justice in one of my cases, United States v. Roger Stone. At the time, I thought that the handling of the Stone case, with senior officials intervening to recommend a lower sentence for a longtime ally of President Trump, was a disastrous mistake that the department would not make again.

I was wrong.

Is lying the best way to start a Washington Post op-ed? I don’t know! But surely Kravis is lying here. There is no way that he believed, three months ago, that “senior officials” — in which group he must include AG Barr — were not going to involve themselves in DoJ decisions. After all, we have an executive branch! The AG works for the President, who gets to weigh in whenever he wants. Every president in history has done so, at least when the DoJ starts doing stuff he does not like.

Last week, the department again put political patronage ahead of its commitment to the rule of law, filing a motion to dismiss the case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn — notwithstanding Flynn’s sworn guilty plea and a ruling by the court that the plea was sound.

That is a mendacious summary of the Flynn case. Read here for a contrasting view. One subtle point is that I suspect that Kravis’s buddies in the DoJ are glad that the Flynn case has been dismissed. Do you really think that they would want to try that case again, providing Flynn’s excellent lawyer Sidney Powell with the power to question them and the FBI agents who entrapped Flynn under oath? I doubt it! Yet Kravis, being a smart Eph Deep Stater, can portray a win for his side as a loss for the rule of law. Clever!

Prosecutors are trained to make their cases in the courtroom and let the results speak for themselves.

It is bad enough that we have to put up with the Deep State. Must we also parrot its lies? Must we shout that we “Love Big Brother!” Just who, exactly, has “trained” prosecutors to “let the results speak for themselves?” No one! In fact, every junior DA learns the exact opposite lesson as their boss works the press and the cameras, angling for the next step up the political ladder. When Karvis worked under the sainted Obama, did the DoJ not give press conferences?

[M]y colleagues who still serve the department are duty-bound to remain silent

I love Big Brother! I really, truly do! DoJ lawyers have never, ever talked to the press. They never leak anything. They “remain silent,” except for maybe some nasty Republicans, of course.

Last week came an equally appalling chapter: the department’s motion to drop the Flynn case. Flynn pleaded guilty to the crime of making false statements in connection with lies he told in an FBI interview about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. Flynn twice admitted under oath that he had committed this crime, and the trial judge issued a lengthy opinion upholding the plea.

And why did Flynn plead? Because you and your DoJ thug buddies threatened to jail his son for “crimes” that half of Washington is “guilty” of. Justice has been served in this case, at least.

Prosecutors must make decisions based on facts and law, not on the defendant’s political connections.

I love Big Brother! DoJ never once, in its history, did anything on the basis of “political connections,” at least until January 2016.

Perhaps that is enough of a rant for today. Justice — in the form of John Durham — is coming. With luck, Kravis will not get caught up in the carnage.


Remember the Tablecloth Colors

A Record op-ed from 14 years ago:

I am frustrated by many of the ways in which the campus has changed, most particularly the sudden prominence of the well-intentioned but detrimental Office of Campus Life [OCL], which is locked in a stagnating cycle of its own design. By in effect naming itself “the decider” when it comes to student life, the campus life office has alienated the College’s best leaders. As a result of this rift, the office has become inwardly-focused, self-promotional and deeply resistant to constructive criticism. Student life is student-driven no longer.

No kidding. EphBlog has made this prediction over and over and over again. The more control that Williams students have over life at Williams, the better. The more people (intelligent and well-meaning though they may be) that are hired by the College to “help,” the less active students will be.

The main rational used by CUL (Committee on Undergraduate Life) in establishing OCL 18 years ago — All the other schools have one so it must be a good idea! — was stupid then and it is stupid now.

Writer Ainsley O’Connell ’06 tells a depressing tale. Anyone who cares about student life at Williams should read the whole thing.

When I arrived on campus, director of campus life Doug Bazuin and his staff were a distant idea, not a reality. Barb and Gail administered activities on campus, helping students schedule events from their fishbowl office at the heart of Baxter Hall. Linda Brown administered room draw, her maternal warmth and firmness easing the process. Tom McEvoy (who has since departed) and Jean Thorndike provided big-picture support and served as liaisons between students and administrators. When students were moved to champion a new policy or party idea, Tom and Jean were willing to listen, and often to lend moral and financial support. The execution fell to students, but this sense of responsibility fostered greater ownership.

Great stuff. One of the purposes of EphBlog is to capture this sort of testimony, the thanks of current students to the staff members that have done so much.

But those with long memories will note what a mockery this makes of the CUL’s discussion in 2001 of the lack of staff devoted to student life. Indeed, if there is any table which demonstrates the dishonesty/incompetence of CUL during those years it is this description Staffing at Comparable Institutions. Click on the link. Let’s take a tour. (The line for Williams (all zeroes in bold) is at the bottom.)

First, note how the JA system magically disappears. The “50 junior advisors” for Bates are listed under “Student Staff” but, at Williams, they have vanished. Second, the CUL pretends that Dean Dave Johnson ’71 does not exist. The countless hours that he spent working with the JAs and First Years don’t matter. Yet you can be sure that one of the “3 Assistant Deans” at Emerson does exactly what Johnson does at Williams, although probably not as well. Third, the CUL erases all the work and commitment of people like Linda Brown and Tom McEvoy, as evoked so nicely by O’Connell.

None of this is surprising, of course. Former President Morty Schapiro decided in 2000 that there were certain things about Williams that he was going to change. By and large, he (temporarily!) changed them. He and (former) Dean of the College Nancy Roseman and (former) CUL Chair Will Dudley implemented Neighborhood Housing, the biggest change at Williams this century. It was a total failure and has now, thankfully, been removed. Schapiro, Roseman and Dudley went on, despite this disastrous own goal, to college Presidencies at Northwestern, Dickinson and Washington and Lee, promotions which doubled (even tripled) their Williams salaries.

O’Connell goes on:

I will not dispute that in 2003 Williams needed a stronger support system for students looking to launch new initiatives and throw events open to the campus. For many, extracurricular activities had become a burden, with unreasonably long hours spent planning and preparing events down to the last detail. Yet today, some of the best and most innovative groups on campus remain far-removed from campus life, driven by highly motivated and talented individuals. Take Williams Students Online, for example, or 91.9, the student radio station: Their success lies in their student leaders, who have been willing to commit their time to making sweeping changes that have transformed WSO and WCFM, respectively.

It may have been reasonable for O’Connell not to see, in 2003, how this would all work out, but she is naive in the extreme not to see now that this evolution was inevitable. How shall we explain it to her? Imagine a different paragraph.

I will not dispute that in 2003 Williams needed a stronger support system for students looking to launch new publications and manage current ones. For many, writing for and editing student publications had become a burden, with unreasonably long hours spent planning and preparing everything down to the last detail. Yet today, some of the best and most innovative groups on campus remain far-removed from the Office of Campus Publications, driven by highly motivated and talented individuals.

In other words, why isn’t it a good idea for Williams to create an Office of Campus Publications [OCP], with a Director of Campus Publications and a staff of Campus Publication Coordinators? After all, as the meltdown of the GUL in 2001 (?) and the Record‘s regular destruction of its online archives demonstrates, students sometimes need help. They often make mistakes. Who could deny that having someone to “help” and “support” the Record (and GUL and Mad Cow) wouldn’t make those publications better? No one. Perhaps OCP would even have prevented the demise of Rumor and Scattershot.

But would the experience of the students writing those publications be better with a bunch of (intelligent, well-meaning) paid employees of the College hovering over them? No. That should be obvious to O’Connell. Writing for and editing the Record those last 4 years probably taught her as much about life its own self as any aspect of her Williams education. If she had had a Doug Bazuin equivalent supervising her all this time, her experience would not have been as rich, her education not as meaningful.

As always, critics will claim that I am advocating that the College provide no help or support, that we abolish the Dean’s Office. No! Some support is good, just as some social engineering is desirable. But, on the margin, the contribution of the OCL is negative.

Vibrant means “long hours spent planning and preparing events down to the last detail.” This is exactly why student institutions like WCFM, WSO and others — Trivia? Rugby? Current students should tell us more — are so vibrant. O’Connell acts as if you can have a vibrant organization or community without time and trouble, sweat and tears. In fact, you can’t.

O’Connell writes as if vibrancy appears from nowhere, that someone just sprinkles magic pixie dust on WSO and WCFM. No. Vibrancy, community, innovation and almost everything else worth having in this imperfect life require “unreasonably long hours” and “preparing everything down to the last detail.” You don’t think that Ephs like Evan Miller at WSO and Matt Piven at WCFM sweated the details? Think again.

Unfortunately, the Office of Campus Life and the Dean’s office, which oversees it, have not fostered this model. Instead, both offices have moved in the opposite direction, at times going so far as to render student involvement wholly superficial, as with the planning of this year’s Senior Week. The senior officers elected by the Class of 2006 do nothing more than choose tablecloth colors; it is assistant director of campus life Jess Gulley who runs the show. Hovering over student shoulders, the campus life staff of today is like a mother or father who wants to be your friend instead of your parent. The office should cast itself as an administrative support service, not the arbiter of cool.

Harsh! True? Current students should tell us. But note that this is not Gulley’s fault! I have no doubt that she is wonderful and hard-working, dedicated to making student life better. Each day, she wakes up and tries to figure out how to make this the best Senior Week ever. That is, after all, what the College is paying her to do. In that very act, of course, she decreases the scope of student control and involvement.

Back in the day, students handled almost all aspects of Senior Week. I still remember dancing the night away, in my dress whites, at Mount Hope Farm, the most beautiful Eph of all in my arms. I am sad that, due to CV-19, this year’s seniors, 30 years younger than I, will not have that experience. Because of Gulley’s successor’s involvement, it may even be true that the events would have been better planned and organized. Yet everything that she does used to be done by students, hectically and less professionally, but still done by them.

The more that students run Williams, the better that Williams will be.


If Bates and Middlebury Can, Why Can’t We?

timothyjohn, a valued member of the EphBlog community, writes:

I just think that pretty much everyone except David realizes that virtual commencements are, in the end, a complete waste of everyone’s time.

Is there a reason that “pretty much everyone” does not include Bowdoin, Wesleyan, Middlebury, Bates, Connecticut College, Tufts, Swarthmore, Hamilton, Trinity, Amherst and so on?

Middlebury College — which, of course, is completely different from Williams and filled with seniors with totally different preferences — is having a virtual commencement on May 24th.

Considering federal and state public health recommendations, Middlebury will not host an in-person Commencement on May 24, 2020. We will instead recognize the class of 2020 in May with a virtual celebration, as well as a traditional in-person ceremony to be held at a later date.

How weird is that? Williams officials have assured us that, among seniors, there is “almost no support for a virtual Commencement.” Middlebury seniors must be completely different!

Bates College, run by noted EphBlog fangirl and all-around firebrand Clayton Spencer ’77, is also holding a virtual commencement on May 31, to be followed by an in-person event in the next year or so. (The Bates plan includes lots of thoughtful details, although it is not as good as this proposal.) Are Williams seniors (and their families) so different from Bates seniors (and their families) as to make a Williams virtual commencement uniformly despised?

Of course not. Williams has made a mistake. That is OK! I make mistakes all the time. It is uninteresting (to me) why we made that mistake and/or who is responsible. The important thing is that we fix the mistake, that we not be trapped into defending the indefensible. Is Maud wise enough to see that? I hope so!

How could it possibly make sense for Williams not to ask parents whether or not they want a virtual commencement and then, without asking them, to not hold such an event even though every peer school is doing so?


Ask The Families

Are Williams students more self-centered than I expected?

Example 1: “As a student, I can tell you that I have not yet met a peer who is interested in a virtual commencement.”

Example 2: “We don’t want it. It’s not even an issue about having two–we could have two if we really wanted to! We just don’t.”

Example 3: “[S]top pushing for a virtual commencement which we clearly don’t want.”

My message to these seniors: Commencement is not (just) about you! What about your parents? Don’t you think that they might be interested in Commencement? What about your grandparents and extended families? Commencement is a celebration, not just of you and what you have achieved, but of your loved ones who have helped make it possible.

Williams College has not asked parents or families whether or not they are interested in a virtual Commencement on June 7th.

So, perhaps the College is re-enforcing the selfishness of Williams seniors?

Again, I am making an empirical claim. Send the parents an e-mail like this:

To the parents of the class of 2020:

As discussed, Williams is committed to celebrating your child’s achievements in person, as soon as we are allowed, by Massachusetts state officials, to do so. In the meantime, we are exploring options for June 7th. There are two possibilities:

1) No virtual Commencement.

2) A virtual Commencement involving speeches, performances and other celebrations. This would be viewable by all via the College’s Youtube channel. It might also include aspects of a “Zoom Commencement” which would involve grouping students and, separately, families into Zoom breakout rooms for intimate conversations and visits from favorite faculty and staff, but the technology for that is untested.

My prediction: A (vast?) majority of parents would vote for 2). After all, the College has explicitly warned them that they might not even be invited to the in-person event in 2021!

Do you disagree that (at least!) a majority parents would vote for a virtual Commencement?

If a majority of parents voted for a virtual commencement, would you object to one being held? You (obviously!) would not be required to attend.


Save the Date

College officials insist that, among seniors, there is “almost no support for a virtual Commencement.” How do we explain this?

1) Maybe this ceremony won’t feature seniors? After all, there is “almost no support for a virtual Commencement” among them!

2) Only black Ephs want a virtual commencement?

3) Maybe the College is planning for separate-but-equal virtual commencements, one for each racial group?

Stop the madness! There is obvious demand for a virtual commencement. Have a unified celebration!

It is not too late to pivot! Yes, College Marshal Jay Thoman ’82 has not covered himself with glory these last few weeks. (And declining to respond to e-mails from knowledgeable alums just highlights the traditional parochialism of too many Williams insiders.)

There College should announce that we will hold a full scale unified virtual commencement on June 7th, with breakout sessions which allow specific groups to gather for intimate celebrations. Just follow this handy schedule!


Ask the Seniors and Their Families

I am having some back-and-forth with college officials about their decision to have “no virtual commencement” in June. (Readers may be surprised to discover how rarely I reach out to Williams. I save my capital for the really important issues! Indeed, this debate generated my first e-mail to Maud since her induction.) One official (not Maud!) notes that, among seniors:

There was almost no support for a virtual Commencement.

The people who run Williams are smart and experienced, which is why I agree with 99% of their decisions! (But such agreement makes for boring reading, which is why you see so little here.) But, on this topic, they are very, very wrong. Seniors and their families want something on June 7. But you don’t have to believe me! Just send this e-mail to the 500 seniors (and, separately, to their parents).

To the members of the class of 2020 and their parents:

As discussed, Williams is committed to celebrating your achievements in person, as soon as we are allowed to by Massachusetts state officials to do so. In the meantime, we are exploring options for June 7th. There are three possibilities:

1) No virtual events.

2) A video broadcast featuring speeches, performances and other celebrations. This would be viewable by all via the College’s Youtube channel.

3) A “Zoom Commencement” which would involve both joint broadcasts but also grouping students and, separately, families into Zoom breakout rooms for intimate conversations and visits from favorite faculty and staff.

If it is really true that there is “almost no support for a virtual Commencement,” then option 1) will win in a landslide. It is an empirical question.

My prediction is that at least 200 students (and the parents of at least half the students) would vote for option 3.

Would we all agree that, if 200 students/families wanted a Zoom Commencement, Williams should host one? Students who don’t want to participate don’t have to! Either way, we all agree that the College should/will host an in-person event in 2021.


Have a Commencement

The decision to cancel Commencement is a mistake, the worst of Maud’s tenure. From the Record:

Yesterday, the College announced its decision to reschedule the commencement ceremony for the class of 2020 to an undetermined future date, ruling out the option to hold a virtual ceremony on June 7.

After the College cancelled in-person commencement at the start of the month due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor of Chemistry and College Marshal Jay Thoman ’82 sent a survey to the class of 2020 asking their opinions on whether to organize virtual proceedings in June or a rescheduled ceremony in the future. The form had a two-thirds response rate among seniors, more than 90 percent of whom preferred a rescheduled in-person ceremony with traditional senior-week and class-day events.

“There seemed little support for a faux Commencement in June,” Thoman said. He explained that while no official commencement will happen this spring, the College is soliciting student comments for a few virtual celebrations during the first week of June.

1) There is no way to know if an in-person ceremony will be possible in 2021! If CV-19 is still around (and why wouldn’t it be?), odds are that Massachusetts will still be outlawing large gatherings.

2) Scores (hundreds?) of members of the class of 2020 (and their families) won’t be able to attend a ceremony in 2021, even if one is held.

3) There is no reason we can’t have both a virtual ceremony in June and an in-person ceremony in 2021. A virtual ceremony is free! It costs nothing beyond the time of the faculty/staff who organize it, time that Williams has already paid for.

4) It is possible to make a virtual ceremony meaningful. Here is a plan under discussion at a competing institution. It is excellent! Williams could do even better.

For all these reasons, it was absurd for Thoman/Williams to frame the question as a choice for the senior survey. Is the explanation incompetence? That is always my first guess! But never discount laziness. Whatever else is true, Jay Thoman and the other staff/faculty involved in graduation planning just saved themselves from having to do hundreds of hours of work this month . . .

Side note: The Record‘s coverage of this and other issues has been excellent all spring. Kudos to all involved! Full article below.

Read more


Mika and Joe

Mika Brzezinski ’89 is getting rave reviews for her interview of Joe Biden.

MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski was lauded on social media for her questioning of former Vice President Joe Biden about an allegation that he sexually assaulted a Senate aide in 1993.

Brzezinski questioned Biden for approximately 18 minutes on Friday, asking the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee if he assaulted former staffer Tara Reade, if he would give permission to the University of Delaware to release relevant records, and if he was guilty of hypocrisy given his statements during Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.

What do our readers think?



Latest from Professor Darel Paul:

The California roadmap is the latest in a long line of policies practically and symbolically distancing the Golden State from the rest of the country. California has long been the only state granted the right to maintain its own auto emissions standards. Since 2017 it has prevented state employees from traveling on official business to other states that, in the evaluation of its Attorney General, maintain legal “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.” California is a self-declared “sanctuary state” limiting the degree to which state and local law enforcement may cooperate with federal immigration officials. In 2019 it began covering certain illegal immigrants in its state Medicaid program, and this year created a state-based coronavirus relief fund specifically for residents who are in the country unlawfully.

There is no doubt that California is both very peculiar and very large. Yet neither quality lends it the status of a nation, nor does it make California a state in the international legal sense of the term. Nonetheless one day it could become so, and the coronavirus pandemic is creating novel opportunities for California to travel down just such a path.

California has already begun to erase the distinction between resident and citizen. It allows non-citizens (both legal and illegal residents) to vote in some local elections, to serve on state government boards and committees, and to receive state-based coronavirus relief funds. A California with its own immigration policy on top of its own nascent sense of ‘residentship’ would be a California that has taken a real step toward independence. And much like the plurality of English voters now looking at Scotland’s continuing demands for independence, the rest of the United States could be perfectly willing to let such a California go.

I certainly would be. States’ rights forever!


Thrust More Daggers

Oren Cass ’05 is the most important policy wonk on the right, if not in all of American politics. Latest evidence:

When Oren Cass announced a new conservative organization (American Compass) to advocate what is, essentially, a neo-Hamiltonian approach to economics, Senator Pat Toomey took to the citadel of Conservatism, Inc.—the Heritage Foundation—to describe it as a “dagger thrust into the heart” of the neoliberal consensus that has dominated the American Right.

Let’s thrust more daggers into that heart. Otherwise, we may wake up in ten years to the realization that we wasted the political moment of COVID-19 because we were obsessed with distractions: reopening a broken economy and whining at the Chinese instead of reforming a system in a way that would do damage to Chinese leadership—and the American elites who profit from them.

Indeed. Cass’s main (only?) flaw is his failure to recognize how much immigration negatively effects the aspects of American society he, correctly, cares so much about. Instead of staying connected to the Marco Rubio Eph Maphia, he should reach out to folks like Ron DeSantis and Kris Kobach. They are the future of conservative politics in the US.


Make Class/Professor Evaluations Available

Why doesn’t Williams have something like the Harvard Q Guide?

The Q evaluations provide important student feedback about courses and faculty. Many questions are multiple choice, though there’s room for comments as well. The more specific a student can be about an observation or opinion, the more helpful their response. Q data help students select courses and supplement Harvard’s Courses of Instruction, shopping period visits to classes and academic advising.

Faculty take these evaluations seriously – more than half logged on to view their students’ feedback last spring within a day of the results being posted. The Q strengthens teaching and learning, ultimately improving the courses offered at Harvard.

All true. The Q Guide works wonderfully, both providing students with more information as they select their courses and encouraging (some) faculty to take their undergraduate pedagogy more seriously. Consider STAT 104, the (rough) Harvard equivalent of STAT 201 at Williams. The Q Guide provides three main sources of information: students ratings of the class, student ratings of the professor, and student comments:

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Background Information (comments welcome):

1) Williams has Factrak, a service which includes some student evaluations.

See below the break for more images. Factrak is widely used and popular. Representative quote:

Factrack is super popular here — sigh is dead wrong. Any student serious about their classes spends some time on that site during registration periods. I’ve also found the advice on the website to be instructive. Of course, it takes some time to sort out who is giving levelheaded feedback and who is just bitter about getting a bad grade, but once you do there is frequently a bounty of information regarding a particular Prof’s teaching style.

2) Williams students fill out student course survey (SCS) forms, which include both numeric questions and allow for written comments. None of this information is made available to students.

3) Nothing prevents Williams, like Harvard, from distributing this information, either just internally (as Harvard does) or to the world art large. Reasonable modifications are possible. For example, Harvard allows faculty to decline to make the student comments public. (Such an option allows faculty to hide anything truly hurtful/unfair.) First year professors might be exempt. And so on. Why doesn’t Williams do this?

  • Williams is often highly insular. We don’t make improvement X because we have never done X, not because any committee weighed the costs/benefits of X.
  • Williams cares less about the student experience than you might think.
  • Williams does not think that students lack for information about courses/professors. A system like Harvard’s is necessary for a large university. It adds little/nothing to Williams.
  • Williams faculty are happy to judge students. They dislike being judged by students, much less having those judgments made public.

Assume you were a student interested in making this information available to the Williams community. Where would you start?

On a lighter note, EphBlog favorite Professor Nate Kornell notes:Screen Shot 2018-05-07 at 2.35.50 PM

Factrak screenshots below the break:

Read more


Zoom Commencement

Williams graduation will be on-line. Zoom is a powerful platform. What advice do you have for College Marshall Jay Thoman ’82, the professor in charge of Commencement?

1) The more time spent in small groups, the better. The Zoom terminology is “Breakout Room.” The biggest challenge for Williams will be figuring out the default rooms to assign every graduate senior to. This is a good job for the senior class leadership. Basic idea is that every student must be assigned to a smallish (at least 3, no more than 10) core group, with whom she will spend most of the ceremony. Call this their “Home Room.” Roommates are the obvious grouping mechanism. But it is certainly possible that, say, all the female soccer players want to be together for the event.

2) In addition to these 100 or so Home Rooms (all run out of the main Zoom session), we need several dozen Gatherings, separate Zoom sessions where students can go to reunite with other seniors who share their interests. Almost every sports team will have such a room, as well as all the major student organizations. Some Gatherings will allow parent visitors. Some will be restricted to students. I suspect that many sports teams will have both, a Gathering for students and one for parents. All individual houses would also have a Gathering. We need a public spreadsheet which lists all of these so that students/parents can find them.

Also, there are separate Zoom Gatherings corresponding to each student Home Room. Many parents know the parents of their Eph’s roommates and will want to hang out in a parallel session.

3) Create a list of potential guests: faculty, coaches, staff and administrators. Then, ask the Home Rooms who they want to have visit them, if possible. Wouldn’t it be fun to have your favorite professor stop by your Zoom room for a quick hello?

4) Base Zoom limits attendees to 200 and only 50 breakout rooms. I think there is a ZoomXL version which could accommodate many more people. Does anyone have details?

5) Start time needs to be around 11:00 AM. Anything earlier is too tough on west coast students. Any later is impossible for Asia students.

6) We need a common “channel” which everyone can tune into. This might be broadcast into the main student Zoom, but it would need to exist publicly as well. Indeed, it might be cool to have several different channels — Twitch streams? — which feature a different sets of speakers.


10:00: Main channel starts broadcasting fun content. Student produced videos. A Capella groups. Sports highlights. Student photos over the last four years.

10:30: Main student Zoom opens. (It is tough to run a 100+ person Zoom, but not impossible.) Might make sense to do this even earlier, in the same way that, in physical commencement, students are lining up for the march well before the start. Every five minutes in this main room, students are sent to their breakout rooms to chat with their friends, and then brought back together. (Big advantage of this is that it causes students who are alone in their rooms because their roommates have not showed up yet to text those sleepy roommates and tell them to Log On Now!)

11:00: Event begins with some digital equivalent of a student procession. Still pondering what that would be!

11:15: College Marshall Jay Thoman ’82, speaking on the main channel, welcomes everyone and provides an overview of the day’s events. (Of course, a written description with every detail has been distributed to students and families ahead of time.)

11:20: President Mandel speaks briefly.

11:30: Students are sent to their Home Rooms. Visitors — at least one or two of the faculty/staff who they requested — come by to visit and chat. This is the heart of graduation in the era of CV-19. At the same time, families have a choice: hear a speech from someone on the main channel or go to the Gatherings where they can chat amongst themselves.

11:45: Students are brought back from their Home Rooms into the main session. (The great advantage of Zoom is that this is easy to do.) The traditional three student speeches are given on the main channel, but each is restricted to five minutes or less.

12:00: Students sent back to Home Rooms. Again, this period, this private time with your closest friends and visits from those faculty/staff who know you best, is what makes the whole event work. More visitors come by.

12:15: Back to the main room for the big speech. Again, everything on Zoom is much more boring than it is in real life, so this speech must be short, no more than 15 minutes.

12:30: Back to Home Rooms, but with the option to leave the Home Room and visit one of the Gatherings. This would be the time for all the seniors who work on the Record, for example, to get together, even though they have different Home Rooms.

12:45: Back from the awarding of degrees. Not sure how to do this yet.

1:00: Commencement ends. Of course, students/families/faculty/staff need a way to hang out afterwards — similar to the milling around on Chapin Lawn which occurs after the normal commencement — but I have not worked out the best mechanism for that yet.

What advice do you have for Professor Jay Thoman?


One Thousand Days of EphBlog Remaining

I am writing this post in the hours before the Reunion Parade on June 8, 2019. It appears today. My current plan is to retire from EphBlog 1,000 days from now, January 3, 2023, twenty years exactly after starting this adventure, and about 35 years after this photo was taken.

” . . . knows everything else about the campus . . .”

As true then as it is now?


1) Would EphBlog go on without me? Probably not. Any volunteers to take over?

2) I reserve the right to revisit this decision.

3) If you would like EphBlog to continue, then let me know below.

Why retire?

1) I have said most of what I wanted to say, solved the puzzles I wanted to solve. Why keep repeating myself?

2) I am tired. Blogging every day is a young Eph’s game!

3) I have other avenues for getting my academic fix. Now that I am college faculty, I want to spend more time on my students, my classes, and my university. That leaves less time for Williams.

4) Williams College, as an institution — and most of the people who run it — dislike EphBlog. Hate is a strong word, but lots of people hate us. Life is too short to be hated.


Reopening in September?, 5

Many readers thought we were crazy to give 50/50 odds, back on March 17, that Williams would still be closed for the fall semester. How do you like those odds now? President Mandel’s decision to re-open (or not) in September is the most important made by a Williams leader in at least 50 years. So, let’s spend a week discussing it!

What will America/Massachusetts/Williamstown do?

The third reason — after likely student and peer college behavior —- for bringing students back to campus in September is that the government is unlikely to forbid it, or even to be against it. Trump, obviously, wants the economy to restart as soon as possible. Williamstown will do whatever the College wants. Governor Baker is a bit of a wild-card. Certain state restrictions about large gatherings might be in force even in September. But, even there, I am sure that Baker wants to allow colleges to re-open.

Contrary opinions?

Again, what do you think Maud will do? Place your bets!

What do you think she should do?

Could some of our active commentators please provide answers to these questions?

I think Williams should open. I predict Williams will open.


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